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West Kowloon Cultural District development back to the drawing board?

28 Jun 2009
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Michael Keane writes that the West Kowloon Cultural District is drawing a deal of attention as Hong Kong seeks to engage with the creative industries. But not everyone is happy.

In September 2003, Hong Kong began its engagement with the creative industries thanks to a comprehensive report prepared by Hong Kong University's Cultural Policy Research Unit under the leadership of Desmond Hui. Since then, The Baseline Study on Hong Kong's Creative Industries has been extensively cited in international reports. At the time of its release the Head of the CPU, Professor Lau Siu-kai, noted, 'The findings of the report will enable the community and the Government to better assess the potential of these industrial sectors for the new economy'. Reflecting the theme of the UK's Department of Culture Media and Sport report five years previously, the Baseline Study identified a number of favourable forecasts in visual arts, architectural services, digital media, performing arts and advertising, as well as variable performances in software, recorded music, film and TV, publishing, animation and fashion.
 
However, the report's publication coincided with the outbreak of SARS and a severe economic downturn in the territory. Rather than an uptake of enthusiasm, the creative industries idea remained marginal whereas arts development policies developed in response to a perceived need for Hong Kongers to express their cultural identity. In the past, the territory has been referred to by many in Mainland China as a 'cultural desert', usually a veiled reference to its success in business services and commercial popular culture such as kung fu cinema and Cantopop.
 
At the same time as the Baseline Report was being prepared in 2002, planning for the redevelopment of a large area of land in West Kowloon had come onto the policy agenda. Some eight later the plans are moving slowly to resolution. The so-called West Kowloon Cultural District (sometimes called WKCD) has drawn a great deal of attention, some negative, within the Hong Kong arts community. Compared with the rapid pace of similar large projects in the Mainland, the development speed is sluggish. After, all Hong Kong is now a robust democracy and when it comes to arts and culture there are many stakeholders willing to voice their opinions. Consultation panels with interest groups are slowly moving the project closer to the final stages. Some stakeholders have expressed the view that the land could be put to better use and that the money could be spent more pragmatically on helping local artists. The call for an iconic WKCD design has divided opinion. Indeed, conceptual plans for the development have existed since 2002, a time when the Chief Executive of Hong Kong Tung Chee-Hwa was said to be open to fast-tracking the project.   

In 2009-10, with Hong Kong under a relatively new administration, the objective is to facilitate public engagement and to finalise the project development plan. A public engagement plan is currently underway. This 'first stage' includes engaging with stakeholders in the arts, cultural sector and members of the public. Three consultants will soon be announced to provide an overall conceptual plan for the project with a possibly start date now likely to be 2011- 2012. The objective is to create 'an integrated arts and cultural district with world-class arts and cultural facilities, distinguished talents, iconic architectures and quality programmes.'  The iconic architecture projects include "M+", the Xiqu Centre and the Concert Hall/Chamber Music Hall. "M+" will focus on 20th and 21st century visual culture with four initial broad groupings - Visual Art (including ink art), Design, Popular Culture and Moving Image. The site will also undergo significant regeneration. Large-scale infrastructure projects will include the construction of the Hong Kong terminus of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link (XRL).
 
The question of why the project has aroused such community division is interesting. In 2005, The Creativity Index (50) report, produced by the Cultural Policy Research Unit concluded that creativity in Hong Kong was positive overall, noting in particular a strong performance in the areas of social and cultural capital; in other words, in contrast to the Mainland stereotype of a cultural desert, Hong Kongers were inclined to support and consume cultural goods and services of all kinds.

There is however, a high degree of public intervention. Hong Kong's Leisure and Cultural Services Department provides considerable support for the arts community, including initiatives such as venue rental waivers and publicity support to assist artists and small and medium size performance groups to develop audiences. The Hong Kong Cultural Centre on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, and the five New Territories cultural centres, provides free concerts and performances.  The territory has made a conscious effort to assert its cultural credentials in the wake of competition from Mainland China's expanding cultural and creative industries. For instance, the upcoming "Hong Kong Art Biennial Exhibition" will be renamed the "Hong Kong Contemporary Art Biennial Awards" Exhibition.  

According to some of the governmental stakeholders I spoke with recently, a lack of robust evidence to support government intervention in large scale projects has hampered the development both of the creative industries and the West Kowloon Cultural Development project. Hong Kong's economy is currently in freefall, experiencing the biggest contraction since the Asian financial crisis 11 years ago. According to Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-Wah new economic stimulus measures ...'will directly benefit the public ...[and create favourable conditions for economic revival' (South China Morning Post Saturday May 16, 2009). Many have argued that it might be better to spread the investment across several areas. Customary government investment in the form of art grants and other cultural outreach measures are generally well supported by the broad community. However, the impetus for Hong Kong to pick up the pace in the 'creative industries' has resulted in the formation of a new concept called the Create Hong Kong office.

This is proposed to be a one stop shop which will consolidate the work currently done by various departments by pooling the resources. While the office's agenda is to provide 'tailor-made services' it seems part of the work of the new office will necessarily be advocacy. •

Michael Keane is a Centre Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation. His most recent book is Created in China: the Great New Leap Forward (Routledge 2007).

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2009
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