From "Add Oil" to "Collect Skin" - the Farce of ADC Critic's Prize

The first ADC Critic's Prize was intended to be an "add oil" ["ga yau  加油" - encouragement/ go for it] initiative for the long neglected arts criticism in this city. But almost two weeks since the announcement of the winner, the farce just carries on, and the award has become a lethal "collect skin" ["sau pei 收皮" - withdraw foreskin (lit) - stop it/ fuck off/ end in disgrace] weapon that puts the award-winner, the judging panel and even the Arts Development Council to shame.

As I have written in the SCMP's City Beat, the row over this is divided into different levels: there's a new war of words evolving around Hong Kong-mainland conflicts; the quality of the award-winning article by 24-year-old Jia Xuanning from Beijing; the dubious relations between Jia and some of the members of the judging panel.

However, the unprofessionalism of ADC has been largely ignored in the discussion. Yes the whole ordeal is a joke, and many have derived pleasure by poking fun of the characters involved in this drama. But instead of blaming the winner and the judging panel, we should be asking: WHY and HOW could ADC, the official arts funding body in Hong Kong, allow such a farce to happen?

Before moving on to discuss the questions above, let's rewind.

Many have pointed their fingers at Jia, whose hostility against Hong Kong films and the biased view against local culture expressed in her Gold Prize winner Glazing at the Anxiety of Hong Kong Film through Vulgaria has angered netizens, critics and even the film's director Pang Ho-cheung and crew.

She slams the vulgarity in Vulgaria, criticising the film for appealing only to a local audience and accusing the filmmakers of deceiving the audience by trading “indigeneity” with “vulgarity”. She also demeaned Pang’s film as an “irresponsible cultural product”. Hong Kong-mainland tensions derived from her interpretation of the film form the backbone of her piece: “The mainland can be the saviour for Hong Kong, but it can’t win the hearts of Hongkongers. Hongkongers kowtow to the economic power of the mainland, but in their heads they wouldn’t let go of their superiority [to mainlanders]...on the surface they oblige, but deep down they feel as if they were ‘being raped’.”

Despite Jia's piece was deemed by many as a critique of political ideology and not an arts critique [Besides criticising briefly on Pang’s failure to deliver a cohesive narrative and a well-structured storyline, it carries no detailed analysis of the art form or film language, unlike the works by the silver (Chiu Hiu-tung) and bronze (Leung Wai-sze) winners, who give detailed accounts of the artistic and literary aspects of Nine Songs by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre and Chow Yiu Fai’s The Phobia Book respectively], many have suspected that she beat the other 59 entries walking home with the publicly-funded HK$50,000 cash prize with her "social perspective" and "creativity and strong opinions" because of her alleged relations with some of the adjudicators.

It was revealed that Jia was believed to be familiar with key members of the judging panel: ADC Arts Criticism Group chairman and government-appointed council member Perry Lam, and Yau Lop-poon, chief editor of Yazhou Zhoukan. Both Jia and Lam contribute to Yau's publication. But Lam repeatedly rejected allegations of the potential conflicts of interest as the adjudicators adopted the "blind assessment" method to conceal the identities of the authors of all the entries. There are some even more dirtier allegations which I'm not going to repeat here.

There's nothing wrong to organise an award to encourage arts criticism. But the main problem is, how could ADC approve such a poorly organised award?

First, who approved such a judging panel? Besides Lam and Yau, the other adjudicators are: Prof Leung Ping-kwan (Ye Si), Chair Professor of Comparative Literature at Lingnan University and acclaimed writer; Mak Shing-fai, Managing Director of Crown Publishing (HK) Ltd, Wong Chi-ching, columnist and former Assistant Professor of the Department of Chinese and Bilingual Studies at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University; and Carmen Poon, Editor-in-Chief of Joyful Books Co. Ltd. 

Anyone who has any common sense should know that arts criticism is a specialist form of writing that requires not only critical thinking and sound writing skills, but also knowledge about the arts and their theoretical frameworks. The judging panel might have been veteran figures in the media and publishing industry, but how many of them can demonstrate a vast knowledge about ALL art forms - performing arts, visual arts, literary arts and film/ moving image? And yet, they combine arts criticisms of varies art forms when judging for this award. 

ADC funds three critics association in Hong Kong - International Association of Art Critics Hong KongInternational Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong), and Hong Kong Film Critics Society. All of them are Hong Kong branches of various international critics associations. Just how come NO ONE in the 27-member ADC council ever questioned why the Critic's Prize involved none of the members of these critics associations?

And yet, many of the professional critics under these three organisations are also responsible. Few have stood up for their professionalism and questioned this problematic award when it was first announced in July last year. What does this say about the arts critics community in Hong Kong?  

The approval of such an appalling organisation of the Critic's Prize not only reflects the irresponsibility of the council members and their lack of common sense and artistic sense - by endorsing this problematic Critic's Prize that disconnects with the arts community, the ADC simply disregards the profession of arts criticism. In that case, how can we continue to entrust ADC the responsibility to handle public funding for the arts?  

Arts criticism, as well as cultural journalism, are the missing pieces that complete a healthy cultural ecology in Hong Kong. A critic's award is well-intended, but without a platform for aspiring writers and critics to publish their works, there's no way for them to improve and to educate the general public in the long run. The West Kowloon Cultural District is on its way. And only by promoting arts criticism and cultural journalism in a holistic way to cultivate a culture audience and a critical mass will allow this mega arts hub to shine for decades to come. 

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