Though it is now rather fashionable for locals to affect boredom with the whole subject, those outside Hong Kong still know relatively little about plans to create a vast West Kowloon Cultural District (the acronym of which, WKCD, sounds like a particularly lethal Alco pop). Certainly many will have missed the stormy months of government hard sell, vocal public opposition, competing exhibitions, polemical newspaper opinion and scholarly publications provoked by this latest attempt to re-design Hong Kong culture.
On the face of it, though, the whole plan should have gone smoothly. It is, after all, a quintessentially Hong Kong plan: government reclaims land; developers make staggering amounts of money; employment and tourism are given a boost; and people get to be entertained by spectacular shows.
Even the current City Hall exhibition of developers' bids is pretty spectacular. Each of the three 'approved' bids feature exquisite scale models, jazzy computer animations, smooth-talking interpreters and lavish information packs. Visitors are wowed by Dynamic Star's (Cheung Kong / Foster) ritzy sales pitch and gleaming models. In another room we find the World City (Henderson Land) proposal has a kind of ocean liner feel to it: more stream-form canopy, more grass-topped condos, more museums and performance venues. Now we are getting used to the sales pitch, and by the time we reach the Sunny (Sino Land/Wharf) bid, a high-rise park under a 100-foot looping canopy, we are beginning to ask petulant questions. Why do we need another park? How tall will those little sponge shrubs grow if bedded in less than 4M of soil? Why no consultant horticulturalist? How come your roof will cool by 8 degree when the Foster man said it was only 4 degree? Well, I'm resistant to designer hard sell by now, and my irritation is nothing compared to the frustration expressed in dozens of public forums.
So what went wrong? How could the administration tried and trusted formula of 'rice and circuses' (the official TV promotion and website plays to a strident big top theme) have provoked such opposition?
A little scene-setting on the territory's unique blend of infrastructural development and cultural spectacle may be in order. We need to go back to 1996 as the one-time Colony prepared to celebrate transfer of sovereignty to China, and the completion of a massive new airport. Both would change the orientation of Hong Kong.
Of course, at street level Hong Kong is still mostly experienced as smooth highways of sluggish traffic that carves its way through canyons of shopping malls. But from the sea or, on a rare clear day from the air, this glassy cityscape recedes into a choppy horizon of several hundred granite peaks and islands. Understandably, the construction of a new airport for a new Hong Kong required land reclamation on an unprecedented scale. Running from the Outlying Islands to the very heart of the city's famous harbour, a patchwork of these urban wildernesses remain undeveloped, covered by little more that a light frosting of lost golf balls.
Perhaps the British were minded to leave as they had entered. From the colonists who had famously dismissed Hong Kong as a barren' land and, later, as a 'cultural desert', reclamation was an apt parting gift. Quite why the same imagery of an empty field for the cultivation of culture should have been adopted by the post-colonial administration in its WKCD television promo has perplexed and amused in equal measure. Just what are those flag waving Beijing opera characters and those dance troupes in spangled top hats doing in this wilderness of Astroturf?
But we are getting ahead of our story. To return to 1996: it was in this year that the Hong Kong Tourist Authority first proposed using part of the Kowloon reclamation as a cultural amenity to sustain long-term visitor numbers. It may seem odd (if not to Asian readers) that a tourist agency should pilot local culture, but then the present Hong Kong Arts Festival, even the Arts Centre itself (where I am now writing this piece) were creatures of the HKTA's fertile imagination. To trace their influence on local culture, including the re-design of Chinese festivals from Dragon Boat to Mid-Autumn, would be another story. Here, it will suffice to say that their scheme was even taken to a master plan, designed by the Hong Kong's Arts Centre architect Dr Tao Ho.
Our own story here takes several unexpected twists. For after 1997 the long boom of the past half-century was quickly overtaken by the long gloom of the Asian economic depression. Schemes to ginger up the economy were often futile or worse, as with Cyberport. Fading hopes for autonomy and democracy in Hong Kong also sparked a succession of showdowns between a politicised public and an increasingly unpopular, paternalistic administration. Any plans for culture should have been sunk without trace.
Why, then, was the re-branded idea of a West Kowloon Cultural District launched as quite such a titanic (the term is appropriate) reclamation project supporting one of the world's most lucrative development opportunities? There are several reasons: the interventionist impulses of a laissez-faire administration facing crisis; the alluring international rhetoric of the 'cultural industries' and 'creative cities'; and, finally, a new use for the topos of Hong Kong as a society dependent on the ingenuity of its people. How did we get to this point?
First of all, it will come as no surprise that while trumpeting Hong Kong's laissez-faire credentials, successive administrations have been given to interventionism on a heroic scale, housing half the population in low-rent public flats, manipulating land prices and, from time to time, given to deft new deal projects to maintain tolerable employment for the working population. Each time Hong Kong faced an economic or political crisis the administration responded with infrastructural/cultural projects on a grand scale. When the entrepot's lifeblood was cut off in 1952, following the American-led trade embargo against China, the administration launched a spectacular series of public works that changed the territory's very landscape. Following the political crisis of legitimacy during the demonstrations and bombings of 1966 and 1967, a series of cultural festivals were rapidly mobilised to strengthen the population's interest in Western pop music and fashion, emphasising separation from the Mainland. Again, after Tiananmen, the Governor's 'Rose Garden' speech ushered in a frenetic period of infrastructure development for new cultural centres, universities and civic spectacle. And of course to smooth the passage of the Handover there was the awesome infrastructure and transport arms of the new airport.
No wonder that in confronting the present economic downturn and their own crisis of legitimacy, policy makers should have dusted off plans for a new 'infrastrucultural' project: one that promised 29,000 man years of labour, and up to 10,000 permanent jobs.
Yet alongside the pull of the past, the lure of the future also impelled Hong Kong's administration to reconsider plans for cultural infrastructure. In this case, the future was translated as the new 'cultural industries' of 'creative cities'. This kind of rhetoric may be traced from Keating's Creative Australia 1994 ('culture creates wealth') to the Creative Industries Mapping Document (DCMS) of Blair's Britain, and soon adopted by other European capitals. The proponents of these policies not only offered a better answer to the future of post-industrial economy than merely higher and higher technology, they painted a rosy vision of a new kind of prosperity built on 'value extraction' from culture and creativity.
'Be creative!' became the official line in Hong Kong from 2002. After five years of recession, stung by repeated policy debacles, mired in recession, facing structural employment as manufacturing vanished and financial services automated, and threatened by the roaring success of Shanghai in securing the very wealth, technology and cosmopolitan networks that had once defined Hong Kong, it was time for the SAR government to seize the moment and restore its place in history: it would to transform Hong Kong into China's creative city. For as every schoolchild knows from their textbooks, other than the harbour, we have no natural resources other than the ingenuity and hard work of the people. With manual work somehow out of place in a futuristic society, ingenuity subtly re-branded as creativity conformed perfectly a core part of Hong Kong's self-image of smart self-reliance.
And so a new master plan for a cultural and creative industries reclamation project was completed by Foster Associates in 2002, and bids were welcomed from, er Foster. The first exhibition was held last year in the local Science Museum. The Swire consortia simply rejected the Foster plan as built on inane, if not insane assumptions. It was just not feasible, they argued, to separate culture from the city and replant it on some artificial promontory; neither was it realistic to expect creativity 'on tap', nor to 'extract' the economic value of culture like bauxite. Instead they proposed a sustainable development that would link the separate cultural areas that fringe the harbour. But then Swire had never endeared itself to Beijing, and having failed to abide by 'mandatory requirements' were swiftly eliminated from the contest.
By autumn last year it had become clear to many that the whole project was doomed. Still, everything was in place: vast public works to boost employment, a mouth watering commercial and residential development to please the business community, cultural facilities to attract tourists and amuse the population, and a creative industries strategy to rebuild Hong Kong's position at the cutting edge of China's future prosperity.
So why did Government provoke such a backlash, to the point where the administration has now openly admitted the scheme may be scrapped? Understandably, for a population that has just faced down its leader in mass demonstrations, there is widespread scepticism about any policy associated with the SAR's 'Chief Executive'. We no longer want 'our' culture manipulated by 'their'policies, we no longer fall for the old 'rice and circuses' routine. Naturally there is also grave popular resentment at the cosy relationship between government and developers particularly in view of fears about a future administration being run not just for, but by tycoons. Post SARS, there is, too, a growing ecological sensitivity. Having successfully stopped yet more reclamation of the harbour across Wanchai, further plunder of this natural resource has met with stiff resistance. And there are, in addition, assorted suspicions about the whole concept of a cultural park, the roof canopy, the strange notion of 'private museums,' the duplication (or displacement) of existing facilities and institutions, and every other criticism archived by the Peoples' Forum on WKCD.
For those who stand to gain most from the project, such opposition may appear no more than the politics of pique. Even overseas readers may express surprise that Hong Kong people should oppose a cultural policy set to raise the status of their city to that of a 21st century cultural capital?
However the trouble for Hong Kong, as elsewhere, is not just principled opposition to 'cultural industries' and 'creative cities', but a crumpling of the idea itself.
Consider evidence from the UK, Hong Kong's direct model. First, the Government's two 'Creative Industries Mapping Documents' incorporated a good part of the computing industry into the aggregate statistics to bulk exports and turnover. Happily, the figures were published just before the collapse of the dot coms, telecoms and high-tech, NASDAQ stocks. An identical survey after the millenium might have show 'creative' sectors in recession. Consider, too, that while these documents claimed some 400 independent fashion businesses engaged in some form of domestic export, a 2002 study by Angela McRobbie failed to find even 40. Does this suggest an 'evidence gap' may run through the whole concept of creative industries? Consider, finally, the spectacular financial, popular and critical failure of London's Millennium Dome, centrepiece of the nation's creative regeneration.
It is tempting to remonstrate that, surely, Hong Kong can learn from others' mistakes? Surely not all ideas of prosperity through creativity have failed? Surely other European capitals have prospered?
Again, however, the evidence is not reassuring. Late last year the first two volumes of an EU study of Capitals of Culture were published. Its authors, Palmer and Rae, were downbeat in their conclusions: after an initial rush of enthusiasm cultural capitals simply failed to live up to their claims of 'sustainable regeneration, delivering both social and economic development'.
A battery of studies now offer evidence for the suspicion that 'while cultural and creative industries may generate social activity and a feeling of improved prosperity,' they do not actually generate jobs or create proven economic growth. Creative clusters are characterised by independents and lifestyle entrepreneurs operating on narrow margins who do not themselves create ancillary employment. Even the 'regenerative' potential of cultural activities, from artists' studios to flagship galleries fail to revolutionise land values, job prospects, or engage local communities. Artists, by and large, depend on mundane jobs and when these are cleared away to make way for latte-fuelled cultural and creative activities, the artists simply move away.
So what will be the likely outcome of Hong Kong's brave experiment with creativity, and what signal will its eventual outcome send to Asia? Officially, public consultation on the WKCD plans closes at the end of March, but nobody pretends that this will stop the debate. It is widely expected that further public consultations will be sought, the original scheme will be scaled back and contracts divided between a range of developers. But as public criticism, no less than empirical studies continue to question the principle of creative and cultural industries , it may be that this titanic cultural project will quietly slip beneath the waters of the China Ferry Terminal.
After all, in the Year of the Rooster, Hong Kong's commercial and residential land prices have bounced back, the Hang Seng Index has hit the 15,000 mark, and Disney is just about to open on the other side of the airport. As ever with Hong Kong,: Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, the more things change the more they stay the same.
Matthew Turner has published widely on Hong Kong Chinese art and design, as well as curating a number of popular exhibitions on the subject. From 1981-1995 he taught at the Hong Kong Polytechnic, later becoming Professor of Material Culture at Napier University, Edinburgh. Currently, he is Director of the Art School at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, and is researching the story of China's creative industries' policy.
West Kowloon Cultural District (Government's official webite)
Academic Financial Study for the West Kowloon Cultural District (Hong Kong Arts Development Council)
People's Panel on West Kowloon
The West Kowloon Forum (The Hong Kong Institute of Architects)
The Asia Art Archive has kept a file for all material relating to WKCD.
- Tue, 1 Mar 2005