Arts and culture in Hong Kong

By Henry Tang, GBM, GBS, JP

Henry Tang, Chairman of the Board of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, gave a speech at the CEO Forum of the College of Business in October 2018, sharing his excitement in the new arts hub, and highlighting the importance of grass, basements and vineyards as well as future employment opportunities.

Courtesy of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority

Xiqu Centre is now open, and I can’t hide my excitement, and I believe it will bring a positive effect on Hong Kong for generations to come. Do you know how many different kinds of Xiqu (Chinese opera) there are? After doing a bit of research, I came up with 367. I asked would it be possible to perform one of every Xiqu in China? I was told, probably not, because most of them are lost, no one practises them any more although you can still find scripts and music. So, I did some more research and found out that about 80 are still being practised. Let’s aim for this, I thought. But then I learned that the Ministry of Culture is going to revive all 367 of them. So, we will become the first venue in the world to be able to perform a complete Chinese opera.

Vibrant lifestyle

My ambition for the West Kowloon project is that it can become a portal for Chinese culture, and at the same time a gateway to China. We have the advantage of One Country Two Systems, and we are not under the Ministry of Culture. We can be brave in what we do – and with it culturally exciting.

I want to create a West Kowloon that belongs to Hong Kong, a vibrant multicultural society, that is accessible to all. Here in Hong Kong, we have a lot of liberties that most cultures in Asia do not enjoy. I believe that many of you here tonight were not born in Hong Kong, but the reason you are here is of course to get an education but also to enjoy the vibrant lifestyle of this city, and hopefully some of you will stay after you graduate and contribute and become part of us.

City evolution

I look at the West Kowloon project in terms of the evolution of the city. Look at London and New York. They started out as trading hubs. Then concentrated on shipping, then logistics, then services, financial services, and finally became vibrant in the arts and culture. We are also going through this whole process. We are now at the cusp, the turning point where the people of Hong Kong are hungry and looking for that extra element of cerebral excitement, a sophistication that societies at our socio-economic levels can enjoy. That’s why we are seeing all the interest in Art Central, Art Basel, Asia Contemporary Art Show, Affordable Art Fair, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and many others. I see a lot of young people walking through these arts fairs, and teachers explaining to them things that are sometimes unfathomable.

I know a lot of people think “Why Hong Kong? Why does Hong Kong have that opportunity? What can we do to further that goal? What do we need?”

Welcome to the grass

First of all, the hardware. West Kowloon is 40 hectares, but 23 acres will be open space. We will have a lot of grass. And you are welcome to walk on it, you are welcome to sit on it, you are welcome to lie on it, but you cannot sleep on it! Grass is for people to enjoy. How many of you have walked barefoot on grass? Probably very few of you, because in Hong Kong most of the parks won’t let you walk on it, let alone sit on it.

When the Central Government offices were built, there was a large lawn placed in the very middle of it, and I insisted that people should be allowed to sit on it and enjoy it. Now people are getting used to sitting on grass, and eating snacks there. West Kowloon belongs to the people of Hong Kong. How will people enjoy it most? Grass is one of the first things that you rarely have a chance to walk on.

"I want to produce an environment with room for the spontaneous"

On basements

How can we offer this open space? There’s no traffic, and all the services are underground. We are building the world’s biggest basement! You won’t be in danger of being run over by a car. Enjoy a drink, enjoy a coffee, just enjoy the harbour view. It will be a more relaxing way, a more creative way to spend your leisure time.

What are we building? A black box theatre seating 450 people, or 800 standing, which will be open in the middle of next year. Then in 2020 the M+ contemporary museum, comparable in size to the Pompidou Centre in Paris. And after that the Palace Museum in 2022, drawing on a collection of 1.8 million exhibits from which we will be able to curate, and in 2023 the Lyric centre for the performing arts, with three theatres. It can also serve as a convention centre like Wan Chai but will be more arts-centric.

Xiqu Centre
Courtesy of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority

Instagram moment

And guess what? Not only have I built a basement. I am going to build a vineyard. We will become the only vineyard in the world to have a harbour view in the background. I am not young, but before I get wings on my back I try to understand what young people are like today. And it dawned on me that most have never seen a vineyard in their lives. This will be a very good Instagram moment! So West Kowloon will be a place where you can become our ambassadors because when you post on Instagram, it is free advertising for us. Lifestyle and business go together.

I always feel that the saddest moment for good hardware is when you have bad software. So, education is one of the most important elements for West Kowloon. We need audience! Education builds audience, enhances the software, and the level of the community that we live in.

Curating the arts

But there is one element missing. Many of you learned how to play a musical instrument when you were young. Your parents wanted you to practise – but perhaps not too much! Even though you may have been passionate about music, they felt that it would be a very hard way to earn a living. It is much easier being an accountant, an investment banker, a doctor, or a lawyer. But that has to be wrong because you are passionate about it. I am sure many of you are still enjoying music, or dancing or film or arts. But now it’s more of a hobby rather than a profession.

If you look at the profession of the arts, there are composers, writers, then often technicians, and then on top of that a whole layer of management to organise arts fairs, concerts, etc. Recently I was reviewing the opening exhibitions for M+ ready for 2020. I noticed that most of the curators were not Chinese. Two curators spoke Putonghua, and everybody else spoke English, and there were almost no Hong Kong people.

Here is a gap. With artists, the ambition is clear. A musician wants to become a concert pianist. But very few people think about the management of the arts, and that is the area that curators work in. We need to think about what we can do to train more local curators. These are young people’s jobs in the future. I feel very strongly about this. This is a project that will offer opportunities for you, for your children and grandchildren.

Advantage Hong Kong

If you look at New York, it dominates America in the same way London dominates Europe. These cities are the drivers of contemporary and classical arts. Yet there is no equivalent in Asia. Yes, Shanghai is trying and building a lot of hardware, they have a lot of artists, but they are not in two systems.

We have a certain advantage with our One Country Two Systems. We will capitalise on it because we have a simple taxation system, a legal system that protects intellectual property rights, and that can settle disputes in an open and transparent manner. We have no taxation issues regarding the trading of artworks and especially no capital gains tax, or goods and services tax.

Hong Kong people push the envelope, agree with it or not we test the limits. But for artistic endeavour if you do not push the envelope you will never make a breakthrough. So, I very much think that Hong Kong can become that place in Asia. We don’t want to dominate, but we want to have that influence, to become that hub for arts performance, arts exhibition and arts trading in the whole of Asia. And West Kowloon will become the vehicle that will enable us to do all that.

Courtesy of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority

Welcome to West Kowloon!

Our advantage is our vibrant multiculture. We are building the hardware and the software and the latter will take some time because education is something that will not show a result for a while. And not just for young people. People of all ages. I walk into a contemporary arts exhibition and a lot of time I don’t have any idea what I am looking at. I need to be educated to know what an artist is drawing. For example, Picasso was very prolific, he went through multiple phases. I had to educate myself to know the different phases of his life. I can do the research but I learn faster when there is an expert who can talk to me about it. So, adults – the older generation even – can be educated as well if they have an open mind and that urge to learn. That’s the strength of our people and the strength of all of you here tonight.

So, remember that West Kowloon is a place where you can go. Just walk around, buy a coffee, enjoy the harbour view, take a photo. It is a creative way to spend your leisure time. I am excited by it and I hope you will be too!

Henry Tang
Board of the West Kowloon
Cultural District Authority