The theater stage is bathed in a luscious lavender hue, a color that in Chinese tradition signifies nobility and mystery — and portends things to come. A young couple, pure of heart, fall in love only to see their romance thwarted by the machinations of a corrupt bureaucrat. They declare their devotion to each other, expressing themselves in song and precisely choreographed hand movements and poses.
I am watching a snippet of the Cantonese opera “The Story of the Purple Hairpin,” written in 1957 by Tong Tik-sang. It’s part of a taster program that includes narrative singing, musical performances and excerpts from 20th-century versions of traditional dramas. The audience is served oolong tea and morsels of dim sum and as English subtitles appear on an LED panel above the action, I reflect on similar efforts in Japan to capitalize on culture.
The venue for this event is the Hong Kong Academy of the Performing Arts, the atrium of which bears a strong resemblance to the cozy 1970s vibe of London’s Royal National Theatre on the South Bank. The troupe, however, are looking forward to moving into a spanking new home, the Xiqu Centre, set to open late 2018.
In the meantime, “Forty Years of Cherished Love,” a drama based on the life of Northern Song Dynasty poet Lu You, and “Mu Guiying Routing Hongzhou,” a more martial tale of legendary female warrior Mu Guiying, can be seen at the Ko Shan Theatre, Kowloon, in July.
The spectacle of the mask-like painted faces, the bright colors and ornamentation of the costumes, the wailing of the music and the crash of percussive accompaniment can be bewildering to uninitiated tourists. The abridged format of the taster performance, however, is aimed at the younger generation of Hong Kong natives, for whom there is concern that the local identity, in the face of mainland China, the British colonial legacy, Japanese anime, Justin Beiber or what have you, needs reinforcing.
Up to 1997, that is to say until the U.K.’s lease ran out, the image of Hong Kong as a place that focused its energy on making money was a popular one, not least among the Hong Kongese themselves. But the regional tourist board, after a survey conducted in 1996, cottoned on to the fact that Hong Kong being considered a cultural desert might not be good for business. An area on the southwestern edge of the Kowloon peninsula that had previously been set aside for private development was repurposed by the Hong Kong government in 1998. The result, which is still under construction, is the establishment of several high-profile visual and performing arts venues.
The West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) is by any standards one of the world’s most ambitious art and culture projects currently in development. Besides the Xiqu Centre for Cantonese opera there will be a Lyric Theatre Complex for dance and theater, the M+ Museum of visual culture, and a Hong Kong branch of the Beijing Palace Museum. An Art Park, waterfront promenade and Freespace, a combination open-air venue for large-scale festivals and black box theater, are also part of the development. A total of 15 venues are planned, with openings staggered over the next few years.
Of course, there has been controversy. Covering an overall area of 40 hectares, and granted a budget of HK$ 21.6 billion (¥310.5 billion) in 2008, WKCD is still mostly a huge building site, and Hong Kong residents have been collectively drumming their fingers on the table as the project has gone through various growing pains, only to get stuck in an extended adolescence. Changing plans and management personnel, cost and schedule overruns, concerns about transparency — the WKCD has provided plenty of drama over the years, and it’s not even open yet.
While the prestige buildings are being constructed, interim events have been organized by the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA), the project’s administrative body, using resources as they become available. Last year saw an all-female cast from the Beijing-based Baigung Theatre Studio, directed by Hong Kong director Tang Shu-Wing, perform the Greek tragedy Antigone at dusk on the roof of a WKCD office building. For the scene alone, with the sun setting over the harbor, this must have been an extraordinary event. The other big idea was to livestream the performance so that it could reach a wider audience — “futureproofing” is a key concept in the development of the district.
The Freespace open-air venue was used to help ring in the Lunar New Year this February with performances by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, all-women Hong Kong taiko drumming group O Daiko and a variety of community and kids events. A two-day program of music, poetry, market stalls and creative workshops in March attracted over 50,000 visitors, and will run again later this year, starting in September.
The head of theatre in the Performing Arts wing of the WKCDA, Low Kee Hong, who cut his arts management teeth in his native Singapore as general manager of the Arts Festival between 2009 and 2012, is keen that the great adventure of transforming Hong Kong’s cultural landscape is not only unique to the region, but also inclusive and open. “Generally speaking, in Asian countries the audience for cultural events is (only) around 10 percent, and we’re interested in the other 90 (percent).”
Amid state-sponsored drives to define regional identity and promote wider public engagement with the arts, how do the mission of WKCD and the recent increase in support for cultural programs in Japan compare? Both mix local and traditional practices with an international reach into the honey pot of cosmopolitan contemporary art, promoting a taste of homegrown culture for foreign tourists, encouraging an appreciation of heritage for locals, and giving the impression that they are down with the cool kids.
The growth in biennales, art festivals or events in Japan in the last three years is the result of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry taking a page of out former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” playbook and mobilizing culture through the “Cool Japan” initiative.
Established in 2014, this strategy, somewhat predictably given the bureaucratic context in which it was spawned, views creativity as something that must be ranked on an international scale. In this model, success is gauged by the extent of global dissemination regardless of either the nature or quality of the culture in question. The domestic goal is not really related to culture at all, but simply, as stated in the 2012 Cool Japan Strategy report, to “increase national wealth.”
Louis Yu, WKCDA Executive Director of Performing Arts and previously Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Arts Council, says it was his dream job to be involved in the design of a new theater: “I wished for that … now I have three theaters to build. This is not an easy job. But I’m from here, I was educated here, I’ve only [ever] worked here in Hong Kong, so I feel I’m lucky that Hong Kong has started its biggest cultural project ever, when I am ready to be involved. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. … Mind you, as arts people in Hong Kong, yes, we’re excited about this project, but we’ve been ‘excited’ by this project for 20 years already.”
I asked Louis what he thought was behind the conception of the WKCD, to which he replied, “I can only give you my personal opinion, because there’s no official answer to this. For me, in the 1990’s the idea of ‘creative industries’ started in the U.K. first. This discussion spread to Hong Kong … and culture was then considered as a positive element for the economy. The other reason is that Hong Kong was known as a ‘business paradise,’ and the government wanted to change this — culture should play an important role in any big city. Also, after the colonial period, the government wanted to face the question of who we are. It’s about identity.”
In other words, the construction of the WKCD is one way of putting the “special” in Special Administrative Region. Whether this grand project really will come to be emblematic of a different political and social system in comparison to mainland China remains to be seen, though. As Japan learned, after a rash of building art museums in the 1980s and ’90s, many of which are now glorified community centers, just having the venues does not necessarily propel a society joyfully into the arms of contemporary art and culture.
That being said, on the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong back to China, an official British government website had this to say about major construction endeavors: “Iconic projects aren’t always immediately appreciated. The Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, Sydney Opera House … they’ve all had to overcome scrutiny and skepticism.” This is no less true for the fact that the website was www. royalnavy.mod.uk, and the subject was a new aircraft carrier.