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Will opening night ever come for HK arts district?

Publication Date : 16-02-2014


For too long, Hong Kong has suffered the ignominious - and perhaps rather unfair - reputation of being a cultural desert.

People are busy making money (or learning how to do it), shopping or eating. Read, watch a play or listen to some music? Not so much.

The West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) was supposed to change all that.

In 1998, then Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa painted an ambitious vision of a "state-of-the-art performance venue" to make Hong Kong Asia's arts hub.

Sixteen years on, the mega project has met with more scepticism than acclaim. Today, the 40ha of waterfront reclaimed land next to Tsim Sha Tsui remains a giant blank dirt canvas, instead of boasting the promised 17 theatres, performance venues, museums, exhibition centres and parks that will incubate Hong Kong's arts.

Mired in a merry-go-round of changes, the project just could not take off, it seemed. The original business model of a consortium of developers was scrapped following charges of government-tycoon collusion. The government took over and promptly went through two chief executives; one quit after a week, the other four months.

Architects returned repeatedly to the drawing board.

Meanwhile, the budget, originally at an already eye-watering HK$21.6 billion (US$2.7 billion), continued to escalate from inflation and spiralling construction costs.
Last September though, there was a breakthrough.

Amid capering lion dance performers, shovels bit into the ground, marking the start of construction for the first facility, the Xiqu Centre, to be dedicated to Chinese opera. Meanwhile, a temporary Bamboo Theatre was erected last month on the site, in conjunction with the Chinese New Year, to showcase the art form.

"It's now starting to feel real," says Michael Lynch, chief executive of the WKCD authority since May 2011. He previously ran London's Southbank Centre and the Sydney Opera House.

In an interview earlier this month with The Sunday Times, he acknowledges the "cynicism" many Hong Kongers feel towards the project.

"Sixteen years - it's too long. It was left just sitting there. So I understand the cynicism."

But now things are moving, he points out. The Xiqu Centre is scheduled to open by 2016. The M+ museum, with 600,000 sq m of floor space for contemporary art, is set to be ready in late 2017. He hopes the museum will rival the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, which was also initially criticised and eventually vindicated.

By 2020, there will also be a Lyric Theatre, an Arts Pavilion, public spaces and a basement for vehicular traffic, leaving the space above for pedestrians.

All this will be constructed for HK$24 billion (US$3.09 billion), he says, dismissing both rumours of a HK$47 billion (US$6.06 billion) budget and media reports that the project will be downsized.

Beyond 2020 though, he admits, more funds will have to be found for other facilities such as a concert hall, a music theatre and a 15,000-seat entertainment arena, with the end date hopefully 2025 or 2030, he adds.

As and when all is completed, the district will be "the first of its kind in Asia", he says, although, he reckons, China "will start to do something like that" in the next 10 years.

Till then, the site will be primed to tap into a swell of interest from the vast growing regional market. Each day, some 100,000 Chinese visitors will be getting off the high-speed rail train at the station being built alongside the hub, linking Hong Kong to the mainland, and Lynch anticipates M+, for instance, becoming as popular as the National Palace Museum in Taipei - or at the very least, to be able to attract some of the visitors from the Louis Vuitton stores in Tsim Sha Tsui.

"Eating or shopping, we know where to go. But Hong Kong is still a bit of a blank in terms of where to go for culture," he says.

International arts players are paying attention.

"The West Kowloon Cultural District is reshaping global perceptions of Hong Kong, as much as M+ promises to reshape global art history seen from the vantage of Hong Kong and greater China," Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation in New York, tells The Sunday Times.

"As China has opened up, the entire region is experiencing tremendous artistic activity and each destination benefits and complements the other, and builds upon the cultural achievements of the region."

Lynch hastens to note that the district will be for Hong Kongers too, nourishing local arts groups and pulling together disparate venues.

"It's important that it's not just about 'high art' or 'low art' but also as a public space."

The controversies notwithstanding, key members of the local arts community say they are strongly in support of the project.

Tisa Ho, executive director of the Hong Kong Arts Festival, and who used to work in Singapore for the Esplanade and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, says: "It is much needed since there is greater demand on existing venues than can be met.

"I love the audacity of the scale on which it was conceived, and the opportunity to create something that offered multiple alternatives to the current performing art spaces," which, she says, are too few and mostly managed in a way that does not accommodate diverse performances.

The district will change the regional landscape for other cities angling to be a premier destination for the arts. Singapore's Esplanade for instance, spans just 6ha, less than a sixth of WKCD's space.

But Lynch eschews any talk of competition, preferring to dwell on the potential for collaboration. "There will be real opportunities for Singapore arts organisations to come here, and strong incentives for exchanges between the spaces."
For now, the challenge is in getting there.
To raise revenue, the authority wants to increase the amount of floor area within the site to accommodate more apartments, offices and hotels.

This means that 35 per cent of the floor space is for culture; 20 per cent each for offices and residences and the rest, public spaces and infrastructure, says Lynch, defending this as creating a "living, working space".

Another way, he muses, is via philanthropic ventures including selling naming rights. Take the Xiqu Centre. "It could change. I like the name, it's distinctive. But if I get a call from Li Ka Shing and he wants to give a huge bag of money to us for our programming (in return for naming rights), I'm not averse to it."

If that happens, he acknowledges with a grin, it is likely to generate "some kind of reaction" from the public.

Lynch, who walks with a limp and the help of a cane after a childhood bout of polio, appears up for the fight.

The 62-year-old Australian survived a round of criticism after he was chosen. Detractors asked: Why a foreigner to lead Hong Kong's arts district?

The same complaints surfaced when Singaporean Low Kee Hong, the Singapore Arts Festival's former general manager, was recently hired as WKCD's head of artistic development (theatre).

Without mincing any words, Lynch says: "Hong Kong is weird on that front. It is so international but it seems a little closed off to the idea of getting people in on the inside."

Yet foreigners abound in its financial sector. What makes the cultural industry different?

He indulges in a bit of speculating: "Perhaps it is reacting to hundreds of years of colonial domination? There seems to be some sense of insecurity within the arts community that we should have the people who should take the job."

Another controversy hit last year when Hong Kongers took umbrage at the name for the Xiqu Centre, questioning the use of the Mandarin name for traditional Chinese performing arts, rather than an English or Cantonese one. It came amid rising anti-mainland sentiment in the city.

Might a local head have been more attuned to local sensitivities? Lynch points out that the decision was made six years ago by a consultative committee and he stands by their decision, saying: "Art must be relevant to the local community, but the centre is also a home for all Chinese operas, not just Cantonese opera."

At one point, the brickbats came so hard and fast that Fredric Mao, a member of the district's performing arts committee, appealed to the public to cease their complaining, saying: "West Kowloon team needs more support."

Asked about this, Lynch chuckles, saying: "I agree. I want the support of the community, and the rich people who have done very little for this project."

For now, Hong Kongers, while suffering from some fatigue over a long-delayed project, say they are still keen to see how it materialises. Says website designer Isaac Lam, 30: "Hong Kong does not have much of an arts culture, so if they create an actual space for it, especially in preserving traditional arts like Chinese opera, that might help. I just wish it didn't take so long and waste so much money!"

The underlying sentiment validates Lynch's faith in Hong Kongers' abiding, albeit hidden, passion for the arts.

As he scoffs: "Hong Kong is a cultural desert? I don't buy that."


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