The Past and Present of West Kowloon Cultural District

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Past and Present of West Kowloon Cultural District
*Originally published in Cultural Vision, May 2013

By Vivienne Chow

If there’s ever a version of the classic children’s book Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events written from a Hong Kong perspective, the author would do well to take inspiration from the debates and development of the West Kowloon Cultural District, from the emergence of the idea in 1996 to the present, when the 40 hectares of prime reclaimed land by the waterfront remains a construction site.

The endless debates, from the idea of putting the site in the hands of a single developer in the early days to the recent criticism of the acquisition of Swiss collector Uli Sigg's collection of contemporary Chinese art, the West Kowloon authority's lack of transparency and the ballooning budget have frustrated not only those who care about Hong Kong's cultural development, but also those who work inside the authority. One can easily say that the arts hub authority has brought the controversies upon itself, but by putting the development of this mega arts hub into Hong Kong's cultural context and the political landscape of Hong Kong, these controversies, aided by miscommunication and poor articulation of cultural policy in the public domain, fuel the public's distrust in the project. That in turn has led to more controversies, creating an unfortunate vicious cycle.

A Tragic Beginning – The WKCD project went wrong since day one, as it was considered as a project to boost tourism and generate economic benefits, not a project for culture.

To analyse the issues around the West Kowloon Cultural District today, one must to go back to its beginning. Looking back to the birth of this mega arts hub idea, it is no exaggeration to say that the arts hub was destined to be unfortunate, no matter who was helming this project.

The idea of establishing an arts district was first tabled not long after the handover in 1997. And why did we need an arts district back then? Apparently it had nothing to do with the need to cultivate cultural development in this city. A 1996 survey conducted by the then Hong Kong Tourism Association interviewed 1.3 million tourists, who expressed their interest in seeing more cultural and entertainment events. Armed with these ”findings”, the then Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa proposed building “a new, state-of-the-art performance venue on the West Kowloon reclamation land” as a new tourism destination in his 1998 Policy Address1. Tung’s proposal was dressed up with statistical findings and recommendations made by “experts” that there was a need to strengthen Hong Kong's tourism industry through the creation of a cultural district, creating a convincing argument that Hong Kong should seriously consider the development of arts and culture. And then, in 2000, the idea to build a single venue exploded into a far wider cultural district.

Here, the “cultural district” that we are dealing with now originally had nothing to do with culture, which, according to Raymond Williams who wrote in essay Culture is Ordinary (1958), is “a whole way of life – the common meanings; to mean the arts and learning – the special processes of discovery and creative effort.”2. Later in the Recommendation Report by the Consultative Committee on the Core Arts and Cultural Facilities examining the arts hub, it recapped the objective of the project as: “To enhance Hong Kong's position as Asia's premier centre of arts, culture and entertainment and create a new look for Victoria Harbour”. And why do we need to “enhance” Hong Kong's position through a cultural district: to boost tourism, to generate economic benefits. The Tung government adopted the excuse of bringing economic benefits to convince the public that Hong Kong needed to develop a cultural district by constructing a “common sense” - a “sense held in common”, a typical tactic for a neoliberal government3. Perhaps one might argue that making money is a way of life for Hong Kong people. But does that mean nothing else is left in life besides making money?

Dressing up a cultural initiative with an economic excuse can only lead to more controversies. Foster + Partners' “canopy” design won the first prize at the Open Concept Competition to design the arts hub, launched in 20014. In 2002, a steering committee chaired by the then Chief Secretary for Administration Donald Tsang adopted the canopy design and subsequently launched the Invitation for Proposals the following year, advocating the single-developer mode for this project. Although whoever won the bid would have a responsibility to “operate, maintain and manage the core arts and cultural facilities for a period of over 30 years”, the successful developer would also win big – with the right to build properties on the site at a plot ratio of 1.81, and a land grant for the site for 50 years5. The government's proposal involved no taxpayers' money for the development, but by creating such a fat piece of pork for mega property developers, it simply allowed these developers to exploit previously untapped cultural resources through privatisation6.

Whether cultural development should be left entirely in the hands of the private sector is not the focus of this discussion, but the problem of such an arrangement7 for the development of this mega arts hub of course was severely criticised. The set-up for the WKCD's first phase was merely a realisation of contemporary feudalism; that only these economic feudal lords were eligible to fight over precious resources that supposedly belonged to the public, and eventually the arts hub was seen merely as another government policy favouring large developers, offering these economic feudal lords a chance to capitalise on untapped cultural resources8.

Because of the mega scale of this project, smaller property developers who couldn't afford to enter the game were against the government due to its rigid insistence on giving the project to one single developer. The arts community, which is among the most critical sector of society, also objected to the development, citing the fact that they had not been consulted9. As a matter of fact, although property developers bidding for the project became “suddenly artistic” by bringing art to their shopping malls (remember Picasso's Parade, which was in the collection of the Centre Pompidou, was shown at the IFC Mall in 2004), the artistic direction and the content to be showcased in this arts hub, as well as the positioning of this mega arts hub in the context of Hong Kong’s cultural development were rarely part of the public discourse at the time.

The arts hub project sparked tremendous controversies that dominated the news headlines for another year or so. Debates over the single-developer model, financial arrangements, land usage, and the feasibility of the canopy design were going on on what was virtually a day-to-day basis, with a number of lobby groups, arts and public organisations submitting views and arguments going against the development model for the arts hub10. In view of the tremendous amount of discontent and serious opposition towards the original development model, the government added new parameters to the tender in 2005, including setting up a HK$30 billion trust to fund the management and the operation of the facilities. In order to keep the project going, the then Secretary for Home Affairs Patrick Ho explained to district council members the importance of building the WKCD in a 2005 meeting, saying: “Hong Kong is a cultural desert, and WKCD will turn this desert into a land of rich soil”11. This “cultural desert” argument invented during the colonial era, has long been deep-rooted in Hong Kong (even though we all know that Hong Kong is far from being a cultural desert). It was applied at that particular moment to create a “fear” of falling behind other developed cities, allowing the government to justify the pursuit of this mega arts hub12.

Nevertheless, in the end none of the shortlisted developers responded to the new requirement and finally, in February 2006, the government decided to halt the Invitation for Proposal process.

Such an unhappy ending concluded the first book of this series of unfortunate events. It not only wasted a huge amount of time (exactly 10 years). Stakeholders' discontent at the entire development model also drove public distrust in the SAR government, as well as the arts hub project, to new heights. And it is exactly because of this background that the development of the West Kowloon arts hub has become even more difficult, and is subjected to constant public scrutiny.

Attempt to Reboot – The mega arts hub project was to start all over again as a cultural projects, but serious red tape was suspected to be the new hurdle for the project.

A Series of Unfortunate Events contains 13 novels. The West Kowloon version should contain at least two books. And the second book will look at the attempts to reboot the arts hub project.

Against such a historical background, the government gave in and directed the arts hub development back to the fundamental issue – culture. The government in April 2006 appointed the Consultative Committee on the Core Arts and Cultural Facilities of the West Kowloon Cultural District, under which three Advisory Groups – the Performing Arts and Tourism Advisory Group, Museums Advisory Group and Financial Matters Advisory Group – were formed to look at the overall issues including culture and finance concerning the arts hub project13. Perhaps as a way to mend the broken relationship with the culture sector, a number of prominent figures from the city's arts community were appointed to the Consultative Committee and the Advisory Groups.

The committee released a recommendation report in June 2007, attempting to put the arts hub project back on the right course.  “WKCD is an arts and cultural project not a property development project,” it said. The government has committed not to ask property developers to develop and operate arts and cultural facilities ... WKCD should be developed as a major initiative to implement our existing policy on culture and the arts”14. After rounds of consultation, the committee laid out a vision of 15 performing arts venues primarily dedicated to Western “high arts” (except for Xiqu Centre, which is dedicated to Chinese theatrical arts), and a “cultural institution” called M+ focusing on 20th - 21st Century visual culture. The plot then flowed into the establishment of the statutory WKCD Authority in 2008, together with an upfront endowment of HK$21.6 billion. The then Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen became the authority’s first chairman in the same year, and the authority began its operations under the supervision of the Home Affairs Bureau. The first key appointment was made in 2009, when ex-Disney manager Angus Cheng was made Executive Director (Project Delivery).

Just when things appeared to be on the right track, Cheng resigned from his position after just seven days in the job, reportedly after realising that he was just one of the executive directors instead of the chief. Two years later, the first CEO Graham Sheffield, former artistic director of London's Barbican Centre, walked out of the job after five months citing “health reasons”. It was reported at the time that 15 staff quit within one to one and a half years. But worst of all was that while some members of the authority's top management and the board began spreading rumours about Sheffield's low threshold for handling pressure, Sheffield re-emerged in the cultural scene as the new Director Arts for the British Council four months after the farce15. Was it because of the bad fung shui of WKCD's old office in Caroline Hill Road? It was unfortunate enough that top executives left in almost no time after their appointments. Although Tate Modern's founding director Lars Nittve was brought to the picture to head M+ as Executive Director, and homegrown arts veteran Louis Yu took helm of the performing arts side sharing the same title, the serial resignations gave the arts hub another serious image problem.

The well-intended public engagement exercises took place at the same time. They were an attempt to avoid the mistake of the previous development mode, when public consultation was lacking. But they did not help rescue the authority's poor image, especially when the media was so busy focusing on the juicy scandals, dramatising the serial resignations.

Beyond the image issue, the effectiveness of the public engagement exercises, handled by the authority's communications team and public relations firm Golin Harris, have come under fire. While public sessions “consulting” those who failed to produce intelligent and relevant opinions were deemed a complete waste of time, focus groups with culture sector professionals were seen as nothing more than a gesture to appease these angry beasts. Members who have attended these groups have revealed that important issues discussed during the focus group meetings, such as the construction of an arts school in the arts hub, the sustainability of and accessibility to cultural district, could not reach the higher level. It is not known if the board, or the Home Affairs Bureau, which was involved in the early stage of the development of the arts hub, were responsible for such an outcome. And worst of all, consultations were already done when the Recommendation Report was drafted, and many complained that they were forced to repeat the same old story to the government over and over again because the Home Affairs Bureau kept transferring its officials – who had familiarised themselves with the subject matter and the culture sector – away to elsewhere under the civil servant system. The board, on the other hand, was accused of not listening to the sector's voices. But regardless of who held the responsibility, it created an impression among cultural sector professionals that the arts hub is like a “Special Administrative Region within a Special Administrative Region”. And these unfortunate events continued to deepen public distrust in the organisation.

The organisation's instability and the public distrust led the public to speculate about the intensity of the bureaucracy and red tape holding up the arts hub's operations – especially since the authority is structured in a highly complicated fashion. Currently there's a 20-member board, under which there are six committees – Audit, Development, Investment, Remuneration, Performing Arts and Museum. Under the Development Committee there's the Information and Communication Technologies Subcommittee, and under the Museum Committee, there are Interim Acquisition Committee and Exhibition Centre Subcommittee. These committees and subcommittees look after their responsible areas and advise the board. There's also a 20-member Consultation Panel. Although these committees are mainly advisory in nature, monitoring the arts hub's operation and the spending of taxpayers' money, and might have been a gesture to maintain the arts hub's connection with those in the culture sector, an excessively heavy structure is not the most efficient way to get things done.

The structure of the authority also requires some time to decode – under the CEO, there are six departments: M+ and Exhibition, Performing Arts, Project Delivery, Communication and Marketing, Finance, Human Resources and Legal. Each department is headed by an executive director (general counsel for the Legal department). Then there's a CEO's Office, which has a “director” position. This CEO's Office supports the CEO through administration and internal co-ordination. It also serves as the head of the Board secretariat. The six departments listed above supposedly do not report to this CEO's Office, according to the WKCD's website, but it is understood that the CEO’s Office has a great deal of involvement in the arts hub's operations. The WKCD website does not detail the nature of the office’s job, but it does raise a few questions as to exactly what the CEO's Office does and to what extent it is involved in the day-to-day decision making process, especially when a CEO office is uncommon among other statutory bodies.

It is difficult to find a foreign equivalent since the West Kowloon arts hub is probably the largest project its kind at the moment. But if we have to compare, we can perhaps look at London’s Southbank Centre17. Though at a smaller scale (with five main venues), the Southbank Centre has an executive team made up of 12 staff at director grade or above, including the CEO and the deputy CEO. These directors perform functions similar to those in WKCD, except there is a Creative Director of Learning and Participation, an Artistic Director, a Director of Arts Administration and Director of Partnerships and Policy. Under the executive team, there's a senor artistic team consisting six “heads” of various art forms (contemporary music, literature and spoken word, music, performance and dance and classical music, along with a director for the Hayward Gallery). Then there's a 14-member board. And that's it. No other committees meddling with the operation in between. Thus the question of whether the West Kowloon authority should streamline its organisational structure should be tabled for public debate.

Distrust in Imported Elites – The appointments of foreign arts administrators taking the helm of the arts hub project have upset some members of the local arts community.

Hong Kong people are an odd breed. Let's be honest. They like to imagine themselves as a member of the international community preferring imports over homegrown products, but not many wholeheartedly embrace foreign talents, especially those who have taken up the top jobs that are sought by many. Whether such an “anti-gweilo” sentiment was the outcome of the end of the long-term suppression of local Chinese during the colonial era it is hard to say, but it has indeed been going on in Hong Kong for a long time, particularly after the 1997 handover, as Hongkongers believe they should be the ones to take charge. Together with the growth of anti-mainland sentiment amid the skyrocketing rent and property prices owing to the influx of mainland tourists and capital, and the row over parallel traders smuggling baby formula milk powder across the border, Hong Kong is in an unfortunate situation, and many are getting more conscious of guarding what is still left.

Thus it is unfortunate that such anti-foreign and anti-mainland sentiments are projected on to the West Kowloon project. One key factor that has brought so much distrust to the West Kowloon arts hub is the issue of bringing overseas talents to Hong Kong, which is highly unfortunate. Criticism of the appointment of senior executives from overseas never ends. The foreign management team is led by Michael Lynch, the former chief of the Southbank Centre, who took over the CEO job. The opposing voices targeting M+ have been particularly loud. Besides Nittve, the key curators such as Tobias Berger, Pi Li and Aric Chen are viewed as “imported elites”. They have unfortunately become popular targets as many critics believed that West Kowloon's primary goal is to showcase Hong Kong culture, and they criticised these foreign talents for their lack of understanding of the city's indigenous cultural roots. And their appointments have led to questions of whether the board of the arts hub authority has favoured foreign talents blindly, just like the preference for a Prada handbag over Giordano.

As a result, projects and decisions that are intended to boost the arts hub project's international standing often come under fire. Some radical criticisms took things even further, linking them with ungrounded conspiracy theories.

Last year's acquisition of Swiss collector Uli Sigg's collection of Chinese contemporary art (a donation of 1,463 works with an estimated value of HK$1.3 billion; the purchase of 47 works at HK$177 million) is still drawing complaints even today, with critics accusing M+ of acquiring mainland Chinese art but not Hong Kong works. Some are also getting suspicious over the deal with Sigg – they question if making M+ co-organise the Chinese Contemporary Art Award and the CCAA Art Critic Award, and requiring M+ to dedicate at least 5,000 sq m to stage two presentations of this collection during the first three years of its operations, were “unequal treaties” signed between M+ and Sigg. The first official participation by M+ in the Venice Biennale this year and the selection of local artist Lee Kit also came under fire, despite the fact the responsibility to explain the change of system from an open recruitment of proposals to the appointment of the M+ curatorial team rests on the shoulders of the Arts Development Council, the organisers of the Hong Kong Pavilion in the Italian art Olympics. Lawmaker Christopher Chung even threw a jaw-dropping question at the Legislative Council asking if there was any potential inside trading to boost the price of certain art works in the market.

The recent debate over the English name of the Xiqu Centre, which adopts a Mandarin pinyin instead of Cantonese, was also a reflection of the anti-mainland sentiment. And that’s not to mention the estimated HK$16 billion shortfall in the budget due to rising construction costs, as reported in the South China Morning Post last year. Some criticisms even associated the rising construction cost with the choice of appointing foreign “starchitects” to build these landmark buildings (even though so far only the design by joint venture partnership of Bing Thom in Vancouver and Ronald Lu of Hong Kong has been selected for the Xiqu Centre, and the shortlisted design teams for M+ come from Hong Kong, Asia and the rest of the world). 

Hong Kong's media, which often prefers controversial hard news in the main section and a lifestyle take on arts and culture, only gives limited column inches to serious discussion of cultural policy. Under such a setting, these important messages never got across to the wider public and even the stakeholders, who rely largely on the media to provide information. As a result, the focus of debate about the arts hub was always on the HK$21.6 billion endowment, which the Legislative Council approved in 2008. The media's general lack of understanding of and patience to explain cultural policy also contributed to the often one-sided reporting – “war of words” stories that can generate controversies always sell, but also worsen the misunderstandings.

Nevertheless, whether these “imported elites” have done a fantastic or a foul job is yet to be seen – after all, Xiqu Centre, the first cultural venue to be built in the arts hub, won't open till 2016, and M+ is slated to open in 2017/18. Ungrounded criticisms based on impression and one-sided media reports are not only unfair to the arts hub's early development, but could also limit the city's possibility in the cultural front.

Operation Within A Black Box? - While this has caused a huge extent of distrust, it also leads to the question of to what extent is the arts hub's “taste” is dictated by the social elites behind this project.

Another factor contributing to such an astonishing level of distrust is the choice of board members. “Operation within a black box” is also constantly associated with the arts hub. Despite repeated rounds of consultation, the membership of the committee and the Advisory Groups was comprised of what was known as society's “elites”, giving the public an impression that the arts hub was an “elitist” project dedicated to the “high arts”. And those who believe that they do not belong to this elitist circle, or will not benefit from the project, will naturally scream out loud in the public domain – in particular in the media – about their discontent.

The appointment of the board members closely resembles the early colonial days when the colonial government, which had trouble with dealing with the local Chinese population at the time, gave the rich Chinese the power to sort things out with the local Chinese among themselves, resulting in the establishment of “collaborative colonialism” and the making of the Hong Kong Chinese elite class18.

This class issue is reflected in the decision to feature “high arts” in WKCD. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that understanding of the arts has a direct correlation with one's social class and prestige in the society, that if one possesses enough “cultural capital”, one will have enough knowledge and intellect to grasp cultural meanings and symbols19. Tastes “function as markers of 'class'”20, and social elites dictate the flavour of the West Kowloon arts hub. In this sense, what is the difference between the nature of building a mega arts hub as compared to that of City Hall more than 50 years ago during the colonial times?

It is important to look at how some of the board members are connected with each other besides their political affiliations. Museum Committee chairman Victor Lo is the chairman and chief executive of Gold Peak Industries and was a member of the Executive Council when he was appointed to the WKCD. He is also the chairman of the board of the Hong Kong Design Centre, the chairman of the council of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and the chairman of the vetting committee of the CreateSmart Initiative, reviewing funding applications for creative industries- related projects. The Design Centre and PolyU are partners with the Musketeers Education and Culture Charitable Foundation in a bid to revitalise the Former Police Married Quarters into a new creative cluster called PMQ. And as the arts hub's Museum Committee chairman, Lo should have a say on the direction and the development of M+. One should not doubt people's sincere intention to make a difference in society, and such close connections with other cultural institutions might facilitate communications and connections with the other outlets, but will such an overlapping of roles impact the distribution of resources for culture?

Another example is Ronald Arculli. A respected figure in the city, Arculli is chairman of the arts hub's Development Committee, which drafts recommendations for the “overall policies and strategies relating to the project planning and development” of the arts hub to the board. He is a non-executive director of Asia Art Archive (AAA), which was founded by his step-daughter Claire Hsu. Hsu, on the other hand, is now a member of the M+ Interim Acquisition Committee, which oversees the acquisition of collections for M+.

There is no doubt that AAA has contributed a great deal to promoting Asian contemporary art, and has presented a number of well-regarded exhibitions, such as the recent 36 Calendars by mainland Chinese artist Song Dong at ArtisTree. But one can't help questioning to what extent the AAA circle has contributed to (or influenced) the decision-making process of M+.

Some board members of Asia Art Archive are key players in the contemporary art scene. For example, Johnson Chang is a famous Hong Kong curator and gallerist who is a heavyweight in the development of Chinese contemporary art, one of the most sought-after categories in the global art market; Sir David Tang, an avid art collector, is the chairman of the Asia-Pacific Acquisition Committee of the Tate Modern in London.

As conflict of interest is a particularly hot topic in Hong Kong under the current political climate, any scandals – or even potential scandals – can cost WKCD an expensive political price. Among the West Kowloon board members and committees, how many of them are actual art collectors? It is not uncommon for reputable art collectors to get involved in museum institutions around the world, for example, as members of the board of trustees or sitting on acquisition committees. But how can WKCD ensure that any decision it makes will not bring direct benefits to the board or committee members? For example, the Interim Acquisition Committee's chairman Lo, as well as member David Pong, are key figures of the Ink Society. How can WKCD ensure that museum acquisition decisions can be made is fair without any preferential treatment? It is true that all the members have declared their interests in their profiles, and the information is publicly available. But is listing out the companies and organisations that they involve enough to ease public's worries? Their other interests, such as their art collections, are not specified. The West Kowloon arts hub will need to be extra cautious in this area.

Conflict of interest aside, the majority of these figures represent the society's upper class. They obviously speak the same “language” to the M+ team's “imported elites”, which enjoys a great reputation in the international contemporary art world. Thus one can't help but wonder if M+ only represents the tastes of a small circle of elites, imposing their elite ideas onto a general public of Hong Kong that lacks “cultural capital” to understand arts and culture. How can West Kowloon overcome this barrier and reach out to the actual local culture community and take their views into account? They owe the public an answer.

Arts Hub Not A Solution To All – WKCD indeed has an important role to play in Hong Kong's cultural landscape, but responsibility of driving Hong Kong's cultural development also rests on the shoulders of the government as well as other players in the field.

It is pointless and unfair to look only at WKCD without putting it into the context of Hong Kong's cultural landscape. When the project was launched in the early 2000s, the then Tung government did engage in a number of measures and initiatives to study how to realign and map Hong Kong's cultural resources.

The Sars outbreak and the deaths of Hong Kong cultural icons Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui might have dominated Hong Kong people's memories of 2003, but it was an important year for Hong Kong's cultural policy development as it saw the publication of two important reports.

The first was the Policy Recommendation Report published by the now defunct Cultural and Heritage Commission. After
the abolition of the two Municipal Councils, responsibility for cultural policy was transferred to the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), created under the Home Affairs Bureau in 2000. In order to realign cultural resources and identify a cultural development road map parallel to the West Kowloon development, the Cultural and Heritage Commission was founded the same year.

The report is the first and only “official” study of Hong Kong's cultural policy from a holistic point of view. This report gave a detailed account of Hong Kong's cultural policy, drawing on Hong Kong’s cultural identity and core values as the foundations for various areas covered by cultural policy, ranging from arts and culture education, cultural facilities, resources deployment, a review of the administrative framework, heritage conservation, etc. This report redefined Hong Kong's view of cultural policy – it is not just about public funding for arts and cultural events or building museums and concert halls; it covers a whole spectrum of the city. And because of the lack of communication and co-ordination between individual government departments and bureaus, in order to become progressive in cultural development, bridges are needed to connect various policy making bureaus – Home Affairs Bureau, Education, Commerce and Economic Development Bureau (formerly Commerce, Industry and Technology Bureau), Development Bureau – with various statutory bodies like the Arts Development Council and other players in this cultural ecology. The Commission's recommendations then led to other initiatives, such as the subsequent establishment of the Committee on Performing Arts and Committee on Museums, which submitted policy recommendation reports proposing changes in these two artistic areas under the government's supervision (museums run by the LCSD and funding for performing arts) in 2006 and 2007 respectively.

The other important publication was the Baseline Study of Hong Kong's Creative Industries by the University of Hong Kong's Centre for Cultural Policy Research. The study, conducted for the Central Policy Unit, identified Hong Kong's creative industry sectors and their potential, laying out a blueprint for the future discussion of building cultural and creative industries21.

Bearing such a background in mind, we need to address one important fact: WKCD is a statutory body responsible for the arts hub, but never a policy making body. The arts hub indeed plays a major role in steering Hong Kong's cultural scene in a new direction, but it's not the only driving force. Let's not forget that besides the building of West Kowloon, the government spends a substantial amount of money on arts and culture: In the current financial year 2012/ 13, a total of HK$3.09 billion of tax-payers' money has been allocated to arts and culture, and this amount does not include the Arts and Sports Development Fund (Arts Portion) and the Cantonese Opera Development Fund. This is equivalent to one per cent of the annual government expenditure22. Compared to the HK$21.6 billion one-off endowment for the arts hub, annual spending of HK$3.09 billion isn't a small amount at all – spending such a sum would drain the arts hub’s endowment within seven years, assuming the arts hub has no income.

The cultural policy reviews mentioned above covered areas that went beyond the development of that 40-hectare reclaimed site by the waterfront. How to change the cultural development of Hong Kong in the long run will not depend only on West Kowloon alone, but a holistic vision and a wholehearted collaboration among various sectors and players. Besides criticising West Kowloon, why don't we demand an answer from the government for its incompetence in implementing recommendations from those reviews took years to complete? Just like its CEO Lynch has said: “West Kowloon is not a God...I don't think West Kowloon can solve every problem that exists in Hong Kong, for either the arts community or the arts organisations”23.

A Better-Defined Role – A line has to be drawn between WKCD and the existing government cultural facilities as well as other publicly-funded cultural initiatives, giving the public a clearer picture of who does what as well as managing public's expectation.

If the arts hub is not a solution to all, then what does it do? Or what should we expect from the arts hub?

Hong Kong has more than 30 museums, where the LCSD runs 14 museums (including the Film Archive) and four cultural venues24. The oldest one (the Hong Kong Museum of Art) was founded more than 50 years ago at the City Hall in Central. But guess what? Few in the global art world know about their existence. Important art collectors jet-setting around the globe and visiting Hong Kong for ART HK have told me: “Oh sorry, I didn't realise there were art museums in Hong Kong.” But surprisingly, they all know about M+, the West Kowloon contemporary visual culture museum that won’t even exist until at least 2017/18.

This is exactly the problem with Hong Kong's arts and culture – the low visibility on the international stage. The Consultative Committee's Recommendation Report gave a detailed account of the status of the city's cultural development, mapping the arts hub’s place within the development of the city's cultural policy, cultural infrastructure as well as cultural and creative industries. It concluded that the project was “supply-led and vision-driven”, “to meet the long-term infrastructure needs of Hong Kong's arts and cultural development”, “to foster organic growth and development of culture and creative industries” and will serve as a “cultural gateway to the Pearl River Delta”25.

But how can the arts hub distinguish itself from the LCSD facilities?

Major LCSD museums – the Museum of Art, the Heritage Museum and the Museum of History – own a large collection related to art, culture and history. According to figures provided by the LCSD, the Museum of Art alone owns 15,900 items from the early 20th century to the present, of which 4,400 items are Hong Kong art, including works by key artists such as Antonio Mak, Leung Kui-ting and Lu Shoukun as well as young artists. The Heritage Museum has more than 100,000 items from the latter half of the 19th century, including 14,000 pieces of Hong Kong art and 73,000 items related to Hong Kong heritage. Among the major art collections in the Heritage Museum are the Lingnan School of Chinese paintings by Chao Shao-an, as well as Hong Kong photography works by the likes of Tchan Fou-li, Kan Hing-fook and Leo Wong Kwai-kuen. It also has works by leading designers such as Kan Tai-keung, Freeman Lau Siu-hong and Stanley Wong. The Museum of History holds a collection of 118,000 items, where 95 per cent of them are related to Hong Kong culture and heritage. In light of this, what should the new visual culture museum do in order to complement what is already around?

The Recommendation Report states that M+ has a mission “to focus on 20th - 21st Century visual culture, broadly defined, from a Hong Kong perspective, the perspective of now, and with a global vision. Design, moving image, popular culture and visual art (including ink art) have been proposed as the initial broad groupings ... M+ seeks to create an innovative platform for interpreting and presenting visual culture through ways and means that goes beyond normal presentations in traditional museums ... M+ would complement existing public museums both in terms of contents and curatorial approaches ... in line with the suggestion from the Committee on Museums that a flagship museum on contemporary visual arts should be established”26.

The Recommendation Report highlighted the shortage of space at the Museum of Art and the Heritage Museum partly leading to the blurred direction and roles that these two museums played. Since the government decided to scrap the plan for corporatisation proposed by the Committee on Museums, LCSD has introduced a number of measures to revamp its museums. It has recently clarified its position amid the arts hub development, stating that the future role of its museums is to focus on Hong Kong arts and culture, from exhibition and research to further exposure of Hong Kong art in the region, as well as having greater involvement from the local community27.

If that's the case, complaints against M+ acquiring the Sigg collection as the museum's founding collection do not stand – give the public a reason why the arts hub had to spend money on works that are similar to what LCSD already owns, or stage the same exhibitions as LCSD museums do. As a matter of fact, M+ has acquired another 364 works since the Sigg collection, of which 328 were either created by local artists or directly related to Hong Kong28. The thing is, how much and what a museum collects doesn't necessarily mean these works will automatically make it to the exhibition gallery. If M+ spends all its HK$1.7 billion acquisition budget on Hong Kong art but shows few of them while hosting a massive exhibition of the Sigg collection, does it make things better? If the answer is yes, perhaps that's because taxpayers money becomes another form of social security for poor artists whose art fails to impress even one single buyer. But that's not what we want to see.

As LCSD and M+ have already worked out a way to share and loan collections, it will be fairer to judge if M+ has done a decent job by counting how many Hong Kong artists and Hong Kong art works it presents, and how this new mega museum can introduce a different and unique narrative to Hong Kong art and take art from the region to a local and international audience through its curatorial practices. So far, artists and works featured in exhibitions presented by M+, such as last year's Mobile M+ : Yau Ma Tei, were from Hong Kong or made in Hong Kong. If one day M+ buries Hong Kong art in a tiny gallery above a main exhibition of foreign works, like what the Museum of Art did with Hong Kong art at the Fondation pour la Louis Vuitton exhibition in 2009, we should then hammer those running this flagship museum.

Despite the fact that LCSD has strived to boost its museums’ international appearances and connections in recent years, by showing British Museum and the Andy Warhol Museum collections in Hong Kong and bringing the Hong Kong collections to world renowned museums like New York's Metropolitan Museum (The Art of Dissent in 17th Century China: Masterpieces of Ming Loyalist Art from the Chih Lo Lou Collection), as well as bringing Hong Kong art to international events like the Liverpool Biennial last year, one greatest weakness about government museums is their lack of international exposure in the contemporary art world. That explains why even international collectors frequently travelling to Hong Kong don’t realise there are these precious gems hidden in this jungle of skyscrapers.

On this note, M+ should and will play an important role in bridging this gap. Only showing Hong Kong works in Hong Kong will not make Hong Kong international. Let's face it, few in the world are adventurous enough to be bothered to travel all the way to Hong Kong to “explore” things they don't know - unless they already have a basic idea about what they might find here that interest them. To attract people to come to Hong Kong to see local arts and cultural productions, one must first make these productions known to outsiders. Like it or not, it's all about communication, promotion, and networking. The international art world knows about the yet-to-exist M+ because of networking. Indeed, the world of arts and culture bears strong resemblance to the business world when it comes to promotion and networking. Many Hong Kong artists, despite their overseas experience, are known for their humble personalities. Blatant self-promotion is not their forte. The M+ team, which already has an international network, can serve this function well. Showcasing the best of the best Hong Kong art on a par with the international gameplay is a breakthrough for Hong Kong art. To have M+ showing Hong Kong art alone would only make Hong Kong art parochial

Having said that, M+ must come up with a way to contextualise the Sigg collection. As stated in the Recommendation Report, M+ is to show visual culture “from a Hong Kong perspective, the perspective of now, and with a global vision”. What will a Hong Kong perspective on the Sigg collection, and even Chinese contemporary art, look like? Saying that it will show the works by Chinese contemporary artists which couldn't be displayed in mainland China is not convincing enough. What has it got to do with the culture of Hong Kong? How does the showcasing of an important Chinese contemporary art collection in Hong Kong will alter the narrative Chinese contemporary art from a Western perspective to a Chinese or Asian perspective? And what about expanding such a narrative to a diaspora Chinese contemporary art – Chinese contemporary art from not just mainland China, but art produced by Chinese artists in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and beyond? Besides contemporary art, which is only one of the cores of M+, the museum needs to address and explain its narratives of visual culture, which will distinguish itself from merely being an Asian answer to MoMA or Tate Modern. M+ was set up to be different and to challenge the existing norm of museum institution. We need an answer from the M+ team.

Assuming the current team of M+ will manage to bring contemporary visual culture to a new frontier and with a Hong Kong perspective, how can this be maintained and be sustainable in the long run? The international team leading the project will not be around forever. WKCD must address its succession plan. We want the arts hub to project a Hong Kong perspective with Hong Kong roots. What does WKCD do to groom its second-tier staff so that one day they can take over the project? We certainly do not want to see that 40 years down the road, the arts hub will still be run mainly by a transient imported team that has little cultural connection with Hong Kong and Asia, like what the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra has been accused of 29. How does West Kowloon strike a balance between international and indigenous?

The same idea should be applied on the performing arts side of the arts hub. The severe shortage of performing arts venues in Hong Kong is not news. The performing arts venues including 16 managed by LCSD do not meet the demand from over 1,000 performing arts groups30. The proposed 12 performing arts venues31 in West Kowloon will no doubt help ease pressure on various venues around town, but does it mean any event can take place there, even the kindergarten graduation ceremonies that have been taking up many slots at LCSD venues?

WKCD must address the artistic direction(s) of these performing arts venues and their governance. Will there be an artistic director responsible for each venue, or artistic directors for each individual art form? What about the programming direction and relationships with performing arts groups? Will there be resident companies? Perhaps the team is still exploring a suitable path for the future of the arts hub. Running three outdoor festivals of different natures – Renaissance Festival, Clockenflap and Freespace Fest – in four weeks last year was one of the many tests for the arts hub's direction32. And what about Xiqu Centre? The popularity of this year's Bamboo Theatre could be one indicator. But how will this Xiqu Centre be different from North Point's Sunbeam Theatre? We still don't know the answer. But one thing hoped for the arts hub is that it should not take any performances available, and will only showcase the best of the best – performances that are local and originated from abroad – to establish an authoritative voice in the performing arts sector in Asia.

Getting the Message Across – Effective and creative communication strategies must be in place for WKCD to boost the transparency of the arts hub's operation, while the city will need to cultivate cultural communications and cultural journalism in order to bridge the gap between the arts hub and the public.

Debates and discussions are inevitable in the construction of an arts hub of such a mega scale, but it is important to keep them constructive and intelligent. One of the greatest weaknesses of the arts hub project is information dissemination.

Hong Kong has little experience in mega cultural projects, and as a result, little thoughts have been given to the communication strategies. For cultural projects helmed by the government, the government only adopts the standard mode of communications provided by the Information Services Department, and unfortunately such a mode of communication has also been adopted by WKCD.

Despite the Recommendation Report stating that West Kowloon is an arts and cultural project, on the communication side, it is all the way treated as a public affairs project. In the early days of the establishment of the West Kowloon authority, a public relations agency specialising in public affairs was recruited to assist during the Public Engagement Exercise. In the end, the issue was followed mostly by political reporters in newspapers rather than reporters covering cultural affairs. And as reporters covering different beats in different publications pursue stories from different angles, political reporters of course will apply a different take. As a result, such coverage contributed to the political nature of reporting on the WKCD rather than its cultural side.

It was neither the agency's nor the communications team's fault, as their staff were applying their knowledge of communication in the realm of public affairs. It definitely wasn't the reporters' fault either, as they were simply doing what they have been assigned to do.

This is only one of the examples of the communication failure happening in the arts hub. The emergence of this mega arts hub in Hong Kong, besides spearheading the revamp of the city's cultural policy, leads to the recognition of the needs for cultural journalism and cultural communication – an important missing piece to complete the puzzle of the cultural ecology.

As the arts hub continues to develop, its communication strategies must evolve in order to get the right messages across, and to save the arts hub from being accused of lacking transparency. Other than living up the promise of transparency by keeping the public informed about the open session of the board meetings33, the mode of communication will also need to steer away from the traditional “I.O. Mode” to a new form of communication catering to the unique nature of cultural affairs. The staggering growth of the art market has already created a demand for communication strategists and public relations professionals specialising in arts and culture, whether in the form of a brand new PR agency or the setting up of new cultural affairs teams within global public relations agencies. West Kowloon needs to catch up with the trend.

Cultural journalism, on the other hand, has yet to become a proper stream of journalism in Hong Kong. This will need to change amid the development of the arts hub. Traditional categorisations of “hard news” and “soft news” and the approach to news gathering will need a revamp so as to give cultural affairs the column inches they deserve. The structure of traditional news organisations will need a thorough shake-up in order to foster the city's cultural development as a whole. Reporting on cultural affairs isn't simple promotion of arts and cultural events. Cultural journalism – from basic reporting to arts criticisms – is an essential way to engage the public in the discussion of cultural development as well as the appreciation of culture. If news on cultural affairs without a hint of scandal and sensationalism is deemed as promotion, then news organisations can stop altogether reporting anything that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has said, because it is a promotion for and endorsement of him and his government. Only by enhancing communication can the authorities prevent the arts hub from falling into disgrace.

Turning the Wheel of Fortune

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events ends in the 13th novel, but no one wants to see the West Kowloon version will span that number of books. After all, it's a huge investment in monetary terms to cultivate the cultural resources that will one day become an important asset for many generations to come. The arts hub should be freed from being constantly haunted by these unfortunate events, and yet, a close monitoring of the development of the arts hub and intelligent discussion will be needed in order for this arts hub to shine in future decades.


1.      Policy Address, 1998
2.      “Culture is Ordinary” (1958) by Raymond Williams in The Everyday Life Reader, Chapter 9, page 91-100, 2002 edition
3.      A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey, 2005, page 39
4.      LC Paper No. CB (1)161/03-04
5.      LC Paper No. CB (1)318/04-05(02)
6.      A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey, 2005, pages 40 and 65
7.      Invitation for Proposals received five proposals: World City Culture Park [Henderson Land], Sunny Development [a consortium formed by Sino Land, Wharf (Holdings), Chinese Estates Holdings and K. Wah Internatonal], Dynamic Star International [a joint venture between Cheung Kong Holdings and Sun Hung Kai Properties], Lam Sze-tat, and Swire Properties Limited. But Swire's proposal, helmed by “starchitect” Frank Gehry, to propose a canopy created by trees and arts and cultural facilities to be sprinkled across both sides of the Victoria Harbour was ousted in the first phase, as it did not meet the government's criteria. Lam's proposal was also rejected in the first phase for the same reason. While the rest of the contenders attempted to raise the plot ratio in order to maximise their future economic return from the project.
8.      Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong by Alice Poon, 2005, page 10 and 15. 
9.      “Fresh calls for rethink of cultural project contract” by Ng Kang-chung and Peggy Sito, South China Morning Post, October 20, 2004
10.  LC Paper No. CB (1)161/03-04
11.  香港有文化香港的文化政策(上卷), 陳雲, 2008, page 67
12.  A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey, 2005, page 39
13.  Consultative Committee on the Core Arts and Cultural Facilities of the West Kowloon Cultural District Recommendation Report, June 2007, page 2
14.  Consultative Committee on the Core Arts and Cultural Facilities of the West Kowloon Cultural District Recommendation Report, June 2007, page 17
15.  “Next arts hub chief may get a deputy to share workload”, South China Morning Post, January 15, 2011
16.  WKCD website:
17. Southbank Centre Annual Review 2011-12, page 15
18. Collaborative Colonial Power: The Making of Hong Kong Chinese by Law Wing-sang, 2009
19. Cultural Districts: Arts Management and Urban Redevelopment by Hillary Anne Frost-Kumpf, 2001
20. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste by Pierre Bourdieu, 1984
21. Policy Address, 2005
22. Culture, Policy Responsibilities, Home Affairs Bureau, web
23. “Arts hub not a cure-all, boss warns”, South China Morning Post, October 11, 2011.
24. Hong Kong Public Museums (
25. Consultative Committee on the Core Arts and Cultural Facilities of the West Kowloon Cultural District Recommendation Report, June 2007, page 8
26. Consultative Committee on the Core Arts and Cultural Facilities of the West Kowloon Cultural District Recommendation Report, June 2007, page 81
27. South China Morning Post, February 14, 2013
28. South China Morning Post, February 5, 2013
29. 『「港樂」有港名無港根』, 周凡夫, <信報>, February28,2013
30. Consultative Committee on the Core Arts and Cultural Facilities of the West Kowloon Cultural District Recommendation Report, June 2007, page 18, 20
31. West Kowloon Cultural District, Performing Arts, web
32. “Feast of Culture”, South China Morning Post, November 24, 2012
33.  “West Kowloon arts hub keeping board meeting new quiet”, South China Morning Post, January 15, 2013

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