Harbour Views 21 Sep 2007

Hong Kong should diversify its cultural centres rather than focus on West Kowloon

Too tied to one idea

There is no doubt that Hong Kong has an acute shortfall in the supply of venue space. This was identified in the nineties, culminating in a venue study report in 1997. Ten years on, and the shortfall against demand has increased further with the rise in GDP and the doubling of leisure time with Saturdays off. The high land price policy, a focus on land revenue, and a lack of appropriate zoning has resulted in an absolute lack of private venues in response to this demand.

Does the agglomeration of 80% of all centrally located venue space (excluding the coliseum) under one authority in one area encourage a diversified and balanced development? To build the long list of venues the Government devised a financing scheme based on selling linked property development rights in West Kowloon. It was seen as an efficient way to instantly resolve a community need. Without a rethink, the consultation continued in this 'All in West Kowloon'straight jacket even after the single developer solution was dropped.

Where is the talent to perform and experience to manage these facilities going to come from in 2015? The quality of the LCSD management of venues and museums has been questioned for at least a decade. Urgent privatisation would improve the operations and groom new people. If we start today and invest a little effort (HK$500 million) and make the Central Police Station available as an extension of the Fringe Club type activities with galleries and black box theatres, then new skills can be developed prior to the commercial cabal in West Kowloon.

Moreover, this would add to the mix of land uses in Central, where hotels, bars, offices, residential, and service apartments would benefit from the synergy. Retaining the Sunbeam Theatre and facilitating the development of Cantonese Opera in North Point would revitalize a tradition and add activities for the local residents and the growing list of tourist hotels in this neighbourhood. Refurbishing City Hall and expanding its neighbouring facilities such as the Infrastructure Exhibition, and adding education facilities in front of APA, will add to the mix of land uses along the Central and Wanchai Waterfront.

The only real arguments for creating a monopolistic cluster in West Kowloon other than political convenience were complaints about the lack of alternative activities accessible on foot around existing venues. To ensure that venues like the APA and Arts Centre are not cut off from food and beverage facilities we need solutions which benefit everyone and everywhere in Hong Kong such as better land planning and greater control over the highways and transport department.

Privatization is the solution for the venues and museums on the tip of Kowloon. The new owners would immediately remove the 'Don't Do This' signs from the LCSD and add harbour facing bars, restaurants and retail to the properties, and allow busking and street performances íV all at little to no cost to the community. And how does Kai Tak fit in? With the plans for a large sports and multi-functional venue next to a Shatin-Central rail link station, and with questions about its viability, surely there is benefit in combining the various mega performance venues there? The proposed 30,000 square meters of piazza areas for 'mega outdoor events and concerts' could add thousand more residents who have paid dearly to buy a neighbouring flat in Kowloon to the DAB study on noise complaints. Would the same apply in Central or Kai Tak away from residential neighbourhoods?

Is the design of a large integrated podium structure seeking to maximize tourism impact representative of a 'common wealth' accessible and affordable to the local district? When we apply good urban and harbour planning principles will another large intensive property development answer the local community needs in Kowloon? Smaller scale developments and ground level public open spaces are required to compensate for the planning errors in West Kowloon and to build a vibrant community linking the adjoining areas. Research by the Harbour Business Forum and HK Alternatives, as well the various consultations by the Harbourfront Enhancement Committee have shown that the community aspires to more active open spaces which are truly public along an accessible harbourfront.

Does the newly proposed financing model, whereby hot dog sales (retail, entertainment and dining) pays for programming expenses fulfill the Government's policy objective of creating an environment which is conducive to the freedom of artistic expression? With no other alternative on the table, the arts and culture community has become a highly interested party, asking few questions and afraid to cause any further delay in this long awaited injection of new resources into their industry. A telling sign is how easily the arts and culture community has accepted that the original investment of HK$60 billion in new venues, supported with an arts and culture fund to be placed under their control, has been reduced to HK$19 billion, and the programming budget linked to the volume of pop corn sold. Has cultural and artistic integrity been traded for expediency?

The confusion over this issue can be seen in the push for letting the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority have a greater say in cultural policy matters, above and beyond the demand for greater control by the public and the cultural community over the authority itself. What Hong Kong needs is a Cultural Commission íV a much enhanced version of the former Cultural and Heritage Commission - with a statutory role giving it oversight over all cultural development and arts education related matters. And separately, we need to expand the diversity of venue management organisations each controlling their own venues or clusters of venues.

Hong Kong as a whole and specifically the core areas around the harbour are the integrated arts and cultural hub and the gateway to the Pearl River Delta we aspire to. This 'Hong Kong Cultural District' has grown organically over many years. Now it needs to be nurtured and cared for by enhancing the infrastructure and software needs for culture and creative industries. Likewise with the need to decentralize the core commercial and financial industries along both sides of the harbour, Hong Kong will benefit greatly from a more diversified and comprehensive plan for our cultural and arts development.

Paul Zimmerman

Convenor, Designing Hong Kong

(An edited version of the above appeared in the South China Morning Post, 21 September 2007)