Fear the commies 左派想攪死西九?

As the travelling circus of the art world journeys from Hong Kong to Venice and then to Basel this week, and the city has officially claimed a spot in the world's art map with the debut of Art Basel Hong Kong and the Hong Kong pavilion at the Venice Biennale, I have finally returned to my home city and come to realise that local culture scene has not moved forward a single bit - in fact it has gotten worse.

The impression came from after watching the four-hour webcast of Monday's Joint Subcommittee to Monitor the Implementation of the West Kowloon Cultural District Project while battling with this monster called jet-lag. During this four-hour drag, the senior management of the West Kowloon Cultural District not only had to deal with questions from some culturally ignorant lawmakers who didn't even do their homework by reading the papers and documents properly. They also had to sit through some of the most horrid attacks from some of the most biased members of the city's culture community and address the insatiable demands from some of the city's richest major performing arts groups.

SCMP A5 FOCUS May 4, 2013
At that meeting, a total of 47 people, each representing different arts groups, cultural organisations and political parties, took turn to voice their opinions about the West Kowloon arts hub. Few made good sense, at least by demonstrating their fair perspectives of the issue and their efforts in doing the homework. But the rest of them were nothing but greedy beasts hammering the arts hub for almost everything they have (or haven't) done - the hiring of overseas talents for senior management roles, the surging construction costs (the HK$21.6 billion budget has reportedly gone up to HK$47 billion, the estimated cost for the first venue Xiqu Centre has gone up from the original HK$1.3 billion to HK$2.7 billion, etc), the lack of communication with the "culture sector", the arts hub's lack of transparency and its "operation within a black box", M+'s acquisition of the Uli Sigg collection of Chinese contemporary art but not Hong Kong art (which in fact is wrong. M+ has already publicised its collection on its website), etc, etc.

If these so-called members of Hong Kong's culture community had done their homework by going through the documents and papers published in the arts hub's website and the media's reports in both English and Chinese language media outlets, a lot of the criticisms were ungrounded. But instead of arguing point by point with them and trying to convince those who don't want to be convinced, I want to talk about something has really scared the shit out of me.

SCMP C1 Exclusive
 May 23, 2013
Over the past few months, the most fierce attacks against the West Kowloon arts hub have been rolled out step by step in fact not by the real culture community but the city's pro-Beijing camp. While one-third of those sitting in the Legco chamber on June 10 making senseless attacks on the West Kowloon project -- including the pro-Beijing legislators -- were possibly connected with the pro-Beijing camp (agenda and list of attendees at the meeting), the pro-Beijing camp has been quietly choreographing this anti-West Kowloon and anti-gweilo momentum in the public domain.

On March 22, 2013, pro-Beijing veteran, lawmaker Chan Yuen-han of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, wrote in her column in free Chinese language paper AM730 lamenting the surging construction costs of West Kowloon after the authority revealed that the estimates for Xiqu Centre went up from HK$1.3 billion to HK$2.7 billion:

"Tsang Tak-sing, the Secretary for Home Affairs responsible for the West Kowloon project has explained that it was natural for the construction costs to go up six years after the approval of the HK$21.6 billion in 2008. The rise in costs is certainly one of the factors, but just how many workers have had their salaries doubled in six years? Over-budget really has nothing to do with over-spending? Is it reasonable to employ foreign consultancies and foreign executives with high salaries? Is it necessary? Is it worthwhile? [...] Spending multi-million dollars buying an art collection from one collector is a 'bargain'? Officials fail to explain it, causing public discontent."

SCMP A3 Exclusive
June 3, 2013 
In the entire column, Chan made the point about money problems without putting the arts hub issue in the context of the city's cultural development, culture trends in the region and the world. Culture? Obviously it wasn't what she cared the most. She did what she had to do by bringing up an issue that weighs enough to get on every Hongkonger's nerves, and create public discontent against the project without reasons. And of course her remarks also attempted to stir up the anti-gweilo spirit -- using localism as a tool to drive away the "foreign devils" without any grounded explanation or asking the basic question of whether the city has produced such calibre of homegrown talents to begin with.

One month later, on April 23, at the same Legco Joint Subcommittee meeting on the West Kowloon project, Chan's comrade Chan Kam-lam, lawmaker from the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), made his unwitting remark about art and warned of the arts hub not to confuse art with politics:

"I believe that [West Kowloon is] very clear that works that are indecent, vulgar, political and insulting are not works of art [...] We do not intend any political interference. But I hope [West Kowloon] will always remember that art is art. Culture is culture."

Such remark was obviously targeting at the Uli Sigg collection that M+ acquired last year. Consisting a total of 1,510 Chinese contemporary art works produced between 1979 and 2009, with 1,463 works by 350 artists valued at HK$1.3 billion donated to the visual culture museum, and 47 works acquired at a cost of HK$177 million, a number of them could be politically controversial. Besides artist-dissident Ai Weiwei's photography works Tiananmen (1997) and White House (1995), works by artists from The Stars avant-garde group that staged its public exhibition without permission in 1979 could also be deemed politically sensitive. Let's face it, China is a political country, and a lot of Chinese contemporary art works are asking questions about the political status quo, at least that's how I read it.

So what was Chan's intention to make such a remark? Was he hoping that the ignorant public who are also supporters of the DAB would buy his theory so that they could help ridding of West Kowloon and M+ through some sort of political games in future? In a similar occasion, fellow DAB lawmaker, Christopher Chung Shu-kun, chairman of the Legco West Kowloon joint subcommittee and an Arts Development Council member, also made similar attacks on M+, again waving the flag of localism.

In light of this, I couldn't help relating this with mainland's criticisms over the acquisition of Sigg collection when the news was announced almost exactly a year ago. Criticisms against the quality and the value of the collection, and how the acquisition procedure was undertaken (although I must declare that I have strong reservations over how the entire procedure should've been handled at the time) were almost non-stop. And funny enough, the criticisms came from primarily mainland, and those who have strong ties with mainland China. Even Sigg has admitted in one of my interviews that such criticisms only came from the mainland. Was it because the narrative of Chinese contemporary art has been created in the West and people found it politically incorrect to praise for art works that were appreciated by Western collectors? Or was it because of something else? Was it staged by the authorities?

Here enters the mainland-born Lin Minggang, founder of the Hong Kong Oil Painting Research Society. Lin has been among the most vocal critics of West Kowloon, in particular M+. In various media reports, including that laughable TVB news feature, Lin has attacked the contemporary art that M+ has collected was "not art", and there hasn't been enough consultation etc etc.  

I have never met Lin personally. But what intrigues me is that he appears to have a better connection with mainland than Hong Kong. Among the links popped up in the first page of Google showed that he had been interviewed mostly by, um, Xinhua, Ta Kung Pao, China Daily and Phoenix TV - mainland government's mouthpieces, and other mainland websites. He claimed that contemporary art is not art, and his oil paintings explained why - they were like, um, paintings from the 19th Century but nowhere near the standard of those by Claude Monet or some other big name Impressionist masters. But exactly what was his background? How was he connected with the mainland and was he connected with the mainland authorities?

Am I over reacting here or are these really traces of some even bigger conspiracy plan that we are not yet aware of? What I fear the most is not how many more billions West Kowloon arts hub will cost Hong Kong, but how these commies (or suspected to be) will eventually bring down my home city.


NOTE: The headline of A3 June 3 was kind of misleading. In my raw copy, I wrote that West Kowloon might consider making adjustments to the development plan, such as by not building some buildings such as the Mega Performance Venue and not to host design competitions for every building in future, in order to keep the budget under control. The story was about the solution to the staggering increase in the construction costs, which the West Kowloon authority still has not confirmed how much more it will need. West Kowloon will explore other fund raising methods such as philanthropy and private sponsorships, but it never didn't say whether it will have to ask more from the government. However, the headline kind of implied that the arts hub will need the government to pay the bills, which I personally find very uncomfortable.

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