Culture and the City: Hong Kong, 1997–20071
Paper for special issue of China Review
Draft under review: please do not reproduce or quote without permission of the author.
Carolyn Cartier Associate Professor of Geography Department of Geography University of Southern California Los Angeles, CA 90089
After 1997 public debate emerged in Hong Kong over a suite of cultural and political issues and popular debate regularly concerned cultural subjects. Nevertheless, the subject of cultural dynamics in Hong Kong rarely receives sustained attention, and analyses of the city regularly focus on political economic conditions. This analysis examines the myth of the absence of culture in Hong Kong as a ‘placism’, and as a basis for opening up discussion on culture and the city. This place-based treatment continues by examining contemporary cultural dynamics through several issues: the West Kowloon Cultural District proposal, the role of the municipal state in cultural policy and ‘creative industries’, the rise of studio and avant-garde arts in the city, and the heritage conservation movement.
The empirical and theoretical analysis suggests how Hong Kong's contemporary culture movement reflects the tensions of what it means for a place to be postcolonial but not independent in the unprecedented time-space of the Hong Kong SAR.
Introduction Among 11 new initiatives identified in the Hong Kong Government 2006-2007 Policy Agenda, the final one on the list is a creative arts center in Shek Kip Mei. The text reads: “establish a creative arts centre at the former Shek Kip Mei factory building to help nurture budding artists and create a clustering effect for the development of creative industries in Hong Kong” (HKSAR 2006, 46). Yet in 2004-05 the arts center project was identified for support by Jockey Club Charities Trust from a list of projects that government had passed over for public support (JCCAC 2006). Jockey Club Charities Trust is the charitable wing of the Hong Kong Jockey Club and the largest philanthropic organization in Hong Kong.
Government’s renewed support of the arts centre project owes something to Jockey Club’s foresight, while at broader scales it substantially reflects the coalescence of several issues at stake in the first decade of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government: widespread debate over the West Kowloon Cultural District, the rise of government enthusiasm for ‘creative industries’, increasing numbers and public recognition of studio artists, and sustained public outcry against development for development’s sake for the first time in Hong Kong history.The Shek Kip Mei building is a government-owned, decommissioned nine-storey flatted factory in the middle of Hong Kong’s oldest public housing district.
This introduction to cultural dynamics in Hong Kong is one that reflects the city itself: concerned with the realities of daily life and the production of space in the world’s highest density industrialized environment.
The analysis begins by noting conditions for arts and culture development under the former colonial regime as the basis for developing a postcolonial critique. Next, the assessment turns to a long-repeated ‘placism’ or place stereotype about Hong Kong—the city as ‘cultural desert’— in order to dis-place it from our thinking and move toward presenting culture and the city on its own terms. The local subjects of analysis are interlocking pieces of a dynamic cultural geography in political economic perspective: the West Kowloon Cultural District proposal, the role of the municipal state in cultural policy and creative industries, the rise of studio and avant-garde arts in the city, and local identity and the heritage conservation movement.
1This paper is based on research carried out under a US-Fulbright CIES grant held at Hong Kong Baptist University during 2005-06. I am grateful to the Department of Geography there and to numerous colleagues, students and friends for supporting my visit and continuing research. While I could not have carried out the research alone, I am solely responsible for the content of this paper and any errors of fact or assessment that it may contain.
Transition to 1997
Observing vibrant, politically simmering Hong Kong toward the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, it remains important to be periodically reminded that the city was not uniformly well served by the British colonial project, and that arenas of its society and economy were demonstrably short-changed up to 1997:
these include local culture, politics and the arts. Arts were not included in local school curricula and, as anyone who grew up in Hong Kong can tell you, the school system encouraged pursuit of relatively practical subjects and economically remunerative professions. Rey Chow (1993, 136-7) recalls “the reduction of Chinese literature to one subject among many that secondary school children can choose for their public examinations…in conjunction with an environment that is…already predisposed toward vocational and technical training.”In response to a question about the colonial legacy, Oscar Ho (2005, 11), a senior figure in the Hong Kong arts scene and a former director of the Hong Kong Arts Centre, explained: “during the 1960s there was a lot of local discussion about promoting arts education, but the colonial government decided that they would promote design instead, because design is about the practical use of creativity.
From its earliest stages then…art was secondary, and it’s an idea that was accepted by educators.” Such perspectives continue to be at hand in contemporary Hong Kong; and while it is a relatively predictable exercise to shunt aside questions about arts and cultural practice in an immigrant society, bent on doing well and making better, it is also one that plays in harmony with the tune of colonial histories. Similarly, the Hong Kong educational system reliably adopted international standards and taught the world of nation-states and not local society and economy of the Pearl River delta. Research on local history from the perspective of contemporary cultural studies approaches and postcolonial theory, for example, emerged in Hong Kong only in the SAR era. As if to commemorate the territory’s time to begin to study itself, the Lingnan University gained the opportunity to develop the first cultural studies program in Hong Kong in 1997.
This examination of culture and the city adopts an analytical position that recognizes both the cultural-political shifts of the postcolonial period and a postcolonial theoretical stance that displaces expected historical narratives in favor of recovering local outlooks and contested positions of cultural meaning. The culture that is sought here is not a set of traits, of course, but rather a landscape of cultural dynamics and an intellectual project to map its uneven contours. The approach is a cultural political economy that foregrounds the creative process and meanings of art and culture, rather than a knowledge-based economy and intellectual property rights-based concept of cultural political economy (Jessop 2004). While the SAR government in Hong Kong, like many world cities, now promotes creative and knowledge-based industries as a basis of economic growth,
such positions emphasize the arts for remunerative possibilities and commodify culture as cultural capital rather than understand art as critical cultural process and culture as dynamic ways of life. This brief synthesis seeks to develop a cultural political economy for culture by incorporating priorities for arts practice and culture in daily life. This is also a set of postcolonial concerns formed in the context of material geographies—the production of space in the city and geographies of the local—and not, as Jane Jacobs (1996) has cautioned about postcolonial analysis, delineated at some level of theoretical abstraction, finding culture in signs, symbols and texts and divorced from political economy. The next sections introduce debates and struggles over culture and the city in their spatial contexts of formation, recognizing how “intersections between postcolonialism and geography have largely been historical in focus” (McEwan 2003, 3) and since colonial histories are recent and at hand in Hong Kong.
The colonial ‘placism’
The term ‘cultural desert’ is a common ‘placism’—defined here as a geographical remark of derision, a term of place ‘othering’—applied to Hong Kong. It has been in circulation for many years in Hong Kong and the Asian region, repeatedly used uncritically by regional media (e.g. Chin 1995, Cheng 2003, Estulin 2005), and debated by local cultural critics (e.g. Wong 1996, Lau 2004a, Wong 2005). As a toponymic epithet, this one is undeserved empirically and so must be critically assessed as a representation of particular points of view and values, and for the ways that it works instead as a relational marker of expectations regularly mixed with ethnocentrism—and unexamined colonial histories of language that can appear to make inferior the realities of local places and people. So whose culture is absent in Hong Kong?
Some regional contexts can be observed if the cultural desert notion is placed on a spectrum of East Asian world cities. By comparison to Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei, Hong Kong lacks historic sites of World Heritage distinction (Beijing’s Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven), a built environment of art deco glamour (early twentieth century Shanghai) and historic arts and material culture (the National Palace Museum in Taipei);and so cannot compare to Beijing’s role as the modern capital of Chinese culture, to Shanghai as the international capital of cosmopolitan style—‘Paris of the East’, and to Taipei as the guardian of traditional Chinese culture.Yet by this logic, Hong Kong was never a center of Chinese urbanism: when the British gained the colony in 1842, it was an outpost at best, a fishing community and station in the coasting trade.
Its development owes to mercantile, manufacturing and financial economies and colonial governing systems, while its popular culture, based originally in village and migrant life from the Pearl River delta, and later in an internationalized urban life style base of Cantopop and fashion, martial arts cinema, and an increasingly global gastronomy, is simultaneously locally rooted and globally trendy, now as integrated with Korean New Wave and Japanese Pop, at least among youth culture, as it is with anything identifiably ‘Western’ (with the obvious exception of symbolic consumer culture in the city’s numerous upscale shopping malls).
From worldviews of its neighbors to the north, Hong Kong has always been different: a colonial territory and foreign-governed society from inception, and so it must be othered as not quite Chinese.
But the critique of the cultural desert must also be located within Hong Kong. From the perspective of colonial elites, Hong Kong lacked high culture of the international fine arts, which the government began to establish only in the mid- to late 1970s, first with support for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in 1974. In an evaluation of government policy in the run-up to 1997, a group of arts professionals observed, “the kind of culture which the government ‘nurtured’, if not planned, favoured a Western cultural and language orientation and aimed at an international but not local or experimental, perspective” (Ooi 1997, 29). The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, housing the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the orchestra and theatrical events, was planned during this time and opened in 1989. For elites who infrequently left Hong Kong Island, attending an evening performance at the Cultural Centre on Kowloon side was novelty itself.
The current incarnation of the Hong Kong History Museum, in East Tsimshatsui, houses a fine, interesting collection, substantially devoted to Hong Kong and Pearl River delta culture and society. It opened in 1998, followed in 2000 by the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, located in Shatin, which lies further out in the New Territories. While a more comprehensive analysis is warranted, the dates for these openings alone suggest that Hong Kong local culture was not on the government’s agenda until the run-up to 1997; and likely for reasons of property development values and elite business and planning interests, it was not to be featured in Central District or other prominent locations of Hong Kong.
Project and Place: West Kowloon
The West Kowloon Cultural District project dominated Hong Kong media, government planning and public debate for most of the first decade of the SAR era.
Initially conceived in 1996-97 in association with tourism industry goals to build a ‘world class’ arts, cultural and entertainment district for Hong Kong (Turner 2006), the West Kowloon Cultural District would be an iconic mixed-use development site under a swooping translucent canopy, designed by Foster and Associates, hovering up to 40 stories over the 40-ha site. It would create the largest urban arts and cultural district in Asia and underscore the government’s brand Hong Kong program, originally put forward in the 1999 Policy Address: ‘Asia’s World City’. With plans for four museums and three performance centers, Hong Kong would build its monumental culture.
Analytically, the West Kowloon project is emblematic of the economy under British rule and the first decade under SAR government.
The colonial economy was significantly based on land reclamation-based property development, and West Kowloon is the latest in a series of such mega-development projects, including the Hong Kong International Airport and the International Financial Centre complex at Hong Kong Station. It also continues a tradition of site-specific urban planning in Hong Kong, i.e. the development of a exclusive, single and new cultural district rather than rather than understanding culture in context and supporting vernacular cultures of daily life around the city. This is what Lung Ying-tai (2004), the celebrated public intellectual and cultural critic, has called “Central District values” or the operational logic of capitalism in Hong Kong focused on high-profile property development and so-called world-class venues.
Yet as the leading government-promoted development project of the first decade of the SAR era, the West Kowloon Cultural District also represents a new era of public debate and citizen participation. One journalist described the climate of public reaction and dissent over West Kowloon in the following terms: Hong Kong has suddenly become a highly contentious place. Twice in the past two years, 500,000 residents poured into the streets to demand greater political freedoms, such as the right to directly elect its next leader and all its legislators, an issue Tung [Tung Chee Hwa, the first Chief Executive of Hong Kong] didn't broach in his address. Now, activist groups have found other causes to rally around. … Public ire is currently being directed at a visionary scheme that could be Tung's greatest contribution to a city often derided as a cultural desert: an arts center to be built on 40 weedy hectares of reclaimed harborfront land (Estulin 2005).
In this observation, the desert placism is recalled as a common term of derision—leaving aside the issue of what is culture in the West Kowloon project. Indeed, the public did not accept the “build it and they will come” mantra for West Kowloon, objecting to the overall scheme, in which a single developer would construct and operate the facilities, including the museums and performance halls. While the project adopted museum themes that would represent local interests—design, ink painting, modern art and moving image —the public, in many forums, including focus groups, public demonstrations and through the media, questioned the rationale of property firms and the state-property development alliance: “What makes Government believe that developers can operate the cultural facilities? What experience do the developers have that can convince Hong Kong people?” (HKADC 2003). Continuing problems with the project led to its cancellation in 2006 followed by a period of revision.
No matter the outcome, public scrutiny of the West Kowloon Cultural District opened up an unprecedented debate on what is culture and how it should be developed in Hong Kong.
The municipal state, cultural policy and creative industry
Contention over culture and the city led to questions about cultural policy in Hong Kong. Indeed, in the context of debates over West Kowloon, Lung Ying-tai widely noted that Hong Kong lacked a cultural policy. Lung was the first Cultural Minister of Taipei (1999-2003) when that city’s government developed cultural policy and embraced its urban heritage.In 2004-05 she was visiting at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong and published a series of essays on culture and politics, including commentaries on urban development and the loss of Hong Kong’s vernacular landscapes (Lung 2006a, 2006b).
She explained her vision of cultural policy: it is not a prescription for cultural development or the development of cultural facilities, but rather a coordinated approach that would interlink the various offices of government with the arts, education and industry to secure, manage and support cultural resources (Lung 2006c). With a coordinated cultural policy in Hong Kong, such a cultural policy office would, for example, argue against taxes on the Hong Kong film industry (which has struggled in recent years); support street artists rather than, as current policy, regulate against them; and make accountable the different branches of government with cultural services responsibilities, including the large Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) and the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC), for programming quality.Indeed, the LCSD oversees Hong Kong’s libraries, museums and film archive; then why did the West Kowloon Cultural District plan call for privately developed facilities?
Answers to this question lie beyond the scope of this paper, yet reasons for the absence of government participation are suggested by Ho (2005), who opines, “One of the most suffocating parts of the development of the arts in Hong Kong is precisely that the government is involved too much” (11). “Civil servant culture is all about smooth, non-controversial decision-making, which is the complete opposite to art” (13). While concerns about the quality of creative direction in government offices are well known among artists, government does not readily demonstrate understanding tensions between government leadership and what is culture and cultural development in Hong Kong.
In several capacities, the role of the state has expanded in the cultural sector during the first decade of the SAR era,
while public expenditure, as a percent of GDP, has decreased and is projected to decline further, from 20.2% in 2005-06 to 16% in 2009-2010 (HKSAR 2005). The first trend would appear to contradict the more general retreat of the state associated with globalizing neoliberalism. Yet the US and UK variants of neoliberalism and their promotion through international multilateral institutions are regularly mediated in East Asia where governments continue to pursue a range of social goals through political economic policy (Beeson 2004). The role of the state remains comparatively strong in the region, and in Hong Kong, even as the SAR adopted neoliberal financial measures at the end of the colonial era with the 1997-99 regional financial downturn, and the SARS crisis in 2003.In an atmosphere of relative economic austerity, previously unknown for many people in Hong Kong, the state has been able to implement conservative financial measures relatively uncritically — even though now the economy is in recovery and growing.
In addition to the West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong government has expanded its scope of explicit interest in cultural matters through identification and promotion of creative industries. As a matter of official state interest, the creative industries focus first appeared in Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa’s 1999 policy address: “Hong Kong's future development is not just a matter of pushing forward with physical construction. What we also need is a favourable and flourishing cultural environment that is conducive to encouraging innovation and creativity in our citizens” (HKSAR 1999). That introduction, to a short section on “Hong Kong’s Culture and Creativity” is followed immediately by “Protecting Intellectual Property Rights,” and so invokes the concept of cultural political economy identified by Jessop (2004), in which the knowledge-based economy and its focus on certain goods, services, industries and forms of competitiveness is the basis for an accumulation strategy based on intellectual property rights.
This knowledge-based economy finds value or capital in culture and so seeks cultural production as resources to be harnessed for economic interests rather than for their own sake. This is where we find problems for art.
Six years later, in the 2005 Policy Address, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa listed what he observed as Hong Kong’s 11 categories of creative industry: design, architecture, advertising, publishing, music, film, computer software, digital entertainment, performing arts, broadcasting, and antiques and art dealing. But, as artists and cultural critics quickly noted, “he forgot one important category: plain old art, meaning basic visual art such as painting, drawing, calligraphy, photography and sculpture…[which] reflects a problem typical in government: a short-sighted emphasis on money-making results, with no through as to what long-term steps we have to take to get there” (Lau 2005).
This critique points to the disconnect between the commodification of culture and cultural symbols for the purposes accumulation, as noted above, which necessarily influences the cultural content of cultural production, and art as creative and critical process and culture as daily life practice. Indeed, the balance of the cultural industry section in the 2005 Policy Address demonstrates the government’s scope of economic interest:
Some [of these creative industries] fall under our core industries, such as tourism. Creative industries can be extended to cover areas such as community building and the creation of an urban image.In this new competitive era of globalisation, adding value to products and services through design, packaging, image building and advertising serves to consolidate and realise the intangible values of culture. For this reason, I consider that the term ‘cultural and creative industries’ should replace ‘creative industries’. This new term is a clearer expression of our direction.
Thus the municipal state embeds ‘Asia’s World City’ in a global cultural political economy—an economy of signs (cf. Lash and Urry 1994)—that emphasizes branding over content and image over meaning. It is not clear whether Hong Kong government fully comprehends this problem for the realities of creativity in the cultural sphere, or whether its policy advisers are simply caught up in the trend of world city marketing.
During 1997-2007, several important institutions devoted to arts and culture became established in Hong Kong. Hong Kong Baptist University started a new Visual Arts Academy and gained a Grade I early twentieth century colonial building in which to house it.The Asia Art Archive, which has become a leading research collection for the arts across Asia, opened in 2000 on Hollywood Road.
In government, the important new institution is the HKADC, mentioned above, which was set up in 1995 to fund and develop arts programs with arts professionals and the public. It provides grants to individual artists and arts organizations, while its institutional message now also emphasizes the development of creative industries: “As a statutory body responsible for the development of the arts in Hong Kong, the ADC is obliged to make recommendations to the Government on matters of arts policy and development. We must also facilitate the development of cultural and creative industries” (HKADC 2007) It also echoes neoliberal trends of diminished government funding: “With the ongoing pruning of public finances in Hong Kong, resource allocation for arts development stands to be curtailed in the foreseeable future.This means that tasks like assisting the arts and cultural community in opening up community resources, weaning the community away from its reliance on public funding” (HKADC 2007).
The Art Development Council’s outlook thus relies on the government’s policy standpoint on culture and creative industries, about which the Centre for Cultural Policy Research, a quasi-independent think tank, established in 1998, issues definitive information. In 2003 it published the Baseline Study on Hong Kong’s Creative Industries (CCPR 2003), followed by studies to develop a Hong Kong “creativity index,” which was commissioned by the Home Affairs Bureau (HAB 2004, 2005). In each case, the reports cite international scholarship and policy perspectives from the UK and the US on creative industries, which reflect the neoliberal shift toward increased competition and market activity, in addition to its emphasis on a relatively elite professional class of creative individuals (e.g. Peck 2005). In its own policy arena, the municipal state in Hong Kong continues to shape economic development in an era of neoliberalism, now for the cultural sector, which it effectively discovered as a resource in the first decade of the SAR era.
Rise of the alternative arts
The year 1997 as an event marked a significant moment for the rise of experimental and avant-garde arts in Hong Kong. As Oscar Ho (2005, 10-11) evaluated the context, “…places where art really flourishes are those where there are urgent issues that art needs to deal with. And pre-’97 there were definitely some very clear and strong issues that needed dealing with, ones having to do with the concept of identity: Hong Kong’s relationship with China, the colonial legacy, and how to position oneself with China and the British.” Beijing and London determined the terms and timing of the handover in a formal agreement in 1984. Treated as the colony, Hong Kong and its people were left out of the negotiations with years in advance to consider their fate and the meaning of 1997.
This unprecedented territorial reality — a place decolonized without gaining independence — rendered Hong Kong’s political geography without a known model and its people without the opportunity to develop localized nationalism as a basis for collective identity formation. In the process, meanings of local identity became subject to political debate and cultural expression and entered the realm of artistic experimentation.
The decade 1997-2007 does not allow for a neat periodization of arts and culture in Hong Kong because the year 1997 itself was less important as a starting point of cultural concerns than the run up to 1997 and the intensification of interests and changes that the event wrought in advance of the actual date.Similarly, where culture meets politics, the year 2003 was a significant turning point in the middle of the decade under examination because of widespread outcry over Article 23 or the proposed anti-subversion law that would have eroded freedoms of speech and increased state surveillance over political organizations in Hong Kong.
In effect, the potential crisis of confidence in the “one country-two systems” policy that might have been associated with 1997 was postponed until 2003. The July 1st protest march against Article 23 was the largest public demonstration since 1989 and effectively stopped further government promotion of the legislation. Participation in such political demonstration in Hong Kong has been diverse, drawing a large proportion of the middle class and families in general as well as special interest groups. In other words, public protest in Hong Kong is not the confrontational political activity that it is known for in other places but is rather more of a large-scale community event. Tied to that reality is the integration of the arts in political action, including different types of media and performance art, so that the culture of politics, political culture and political art have become intertwined and important arenas of creativity in the city. The arts and culture critic for the leading English-language daily, the South China Morning Post, observed these connections at the June 4th memorial action in 2004:
This year’s Tiananmen Square memorial on June 4 in Victoria Park was reportedly the biggest and most important since the handover. What wasn't widely reported was that it was also the most creative. … Rather unexpectedly, “6 4” has become something of a showcase for original local filmmaking, dance, stage direction, illustration and musical composition. … There were also short dramas, humorous skits, a cappella performances, even contemporary dance, as three white-clad women abstractly acted out the feelings of the victims' mothers. A song by a local composer drew applause from the crowd, who sang along while reading off lyrics sheets. The crowd laughed and cried. It was better than Cats. … “Of course, this is art, too,” says veteran curator and art critic Oscar Ho Hing-kay. “It fulfils the function of political art: to create collective symbols that arouse the people’s passions” (Lau 2004b).
A cultural political economy for art is located in the activities, events and sites of the places of the production of art: in Victoria Park as well as in studios, classrooms and workshops, on stages, on screen, on walls and canvases of all kinds, and, in Hong Kong, in alternative arts spaces and studio arts districts, which emerged in the time of the transition and the first decade of the SAR era. Before the rise of an experimental arts movement, the city’s museums hosted a good number of international exhibits including both Chinese and Western art, but only the Hong Kong Arts Centre, a quasi-independent, self-financed institution, contributed to the institutional development of an alternative arts scene. Oscar Ho was its exhibitions director for more than a decade running up to 1997, for which he curated “Hong Kong Incarnated: Museum 97: History, Community and Individual.”
It was an important exhibit of many at the Arts Centre on local Hong Kong society and popular culture, “most of [which] were classified as ‘unwanted’ by the official exhibition spaces, such as those on photography, pop art and Hong Kong art research” (Man 2004, 9). “Museum 97” invited artists’ interpretations of the handover, organized around a myth-history of Hong Kong in the body of Lo-ting, a proto-historical man-fish—a population generated from the sea—a Hong Kong that could not be descendent from the landed empire of the yellow earth. Leo Lee (2004, 161) described the exhibition’s “myth-making [as] the only way to push all the grand histories to the background so as to foreground a cultural identity” that lacks a “master-narrative.” In colonial histories, Hong Kong is a crown colony and Britain’s last major overseas territory, while Chinese accounts place Hong Kong in the long twentieth century struggle against foreign imperialism in which the handover is its symbolic culmination.
As a pivot in world history, Hong Kong local histories are submerged in these meta-narratives, whereas “Museum 97” worked to retrieve Hong Kong from that subsidiary role, centralize its significance and construct its historical identity, demonstrating in the process a postcolonial critique of how myths work in any national history.
A postcolonial cultural geography in Hong Kong necessarily finds its sites off-center, in districts of the city where daily life has not been wholly overwritten by urban renewal schemes and state planning imperatives. On Hong Kong Island, vernacular cultures of daily life continue beyond the central business district or Central, to the east in Wan Chai and to the west in Sheung Wan, where financial industry office towers and efficient roadways yield to smaller scale residential blocks, local shops and interesting pedestrian streets.
Hong Kong’s famous Hollywood Road, winding like a near-perfect contour along the island’s lower slope, remains one of the surest routes across the city’s history from entrepôt to settlement. Handcrafts and antique shops and art galleries line the street front from Central most of the way to Sheng Wan, where Hong Kong’s first alternative arts organization devoted to installation art, Para/Site Art Space, occupies a 1500 ft2 street-level shop among nondescript buildings on a side street that is easy to miss. Para/Site’s significance — a place where small is big and apparently common is world class — inverts imagistic expectations of the world city. Para/Site features nothing for the urban consumer of global brands, unless, for example, the visitor discovers that Laurence Weiner is one of the world’s most renowned conceptual artists.
His textual installation “Put Aside or Put Away” lined the walls of Para/Site’s gallery in 2007 and effectively commemorated its ten-year role in consistently delivering distinctive, avant-garde installation art for Hong Kong. From its inception in 1996 at a prior location in Kennedy Town, further west from Sheung Wan, Para/Site’s founders have worked from localized perspectives, indeed “to make up for the insufficiency of local organized art” (Tsang 2002, 23). Several of the early exhibits used vernacular materials to express ideas about Hong Kong identity, including Para/Site’s first exhibit, “Relic/Image,” which included Kith Tak-ping Tsang’s “Hello! Hong Kong-Part 3.” Tsang’s installation projected slides of harbor construction onto the side of a paper maché boat, which was placed inside a bamboo structure that resembled temporary stages used for Cantonese opera. One of its effects was to reflect on how to retrieve local history from development and modernization that have otherwise overwritten local ways of life.
Installation and conceptual art are common forms in Hong Kong where many contemporary artists practice mixed media and in a city that has little space for large, permanent works and where a reliable market for local and contemporary art has yet to develop. (Hong Kong art is not the Chinese art that has captured attention of the world art market and the majority of Hong Kong galleries selling Chinese art feature ‘Chinese-looking’ works from the mainland for international buyers.) Installation art in Hong Kong is indeed contrary to the market: experimental, site-specific, place-based, short-lived, and relatively non-commodifiable. In these qualities, it builds a response to the condition of Hong Kong under the SAR condition: unprecedented, localized, circumscribed, and non-transferable. Analytically, such installation work in Hong Kong is a kind of mimetic response to the time-space of the SAR and a cultural critique of the political economy that has given rise to it.
This is the critical, self-reflective quality of art that Adorno (1997) theorizes: art’s capacity to reveal truth in the “system of illusions,” or how art reflects on the economy of signs and reveals the bulk of consumer culture’s spectacular political insignficance. Adorno’s is a cultural political economy for art.
The emergence of alternative art spaces in post-1997 Hong Kong has taken place in the context of economic restructuring of the city, propelled by the shift of manufacturing industries from Hong Kong to China and the consequent opening up of industrial space. Combined with the1997-99 Asian financial crisis, rents became low enough for artists to consider studios. The first major group space emerged in 1998 in a vacated government warehouse on Oil Street in North Point to the east of Wan Chai.
More than 20 artists and arts groups shared the site, where they gained unprecedented visibility for critical work, including activism against constant threat of closure: the building was on a month-to-month lease and under property management supervision, as well as on the government’s list of sites for impending sale and redevelopment (Tsui 1999). Despite its short-lived status, Oil Street was an important place where some of the city’s major experimental art groups and organizations, especially1a space, Artists Commune and Videotage, consolidated activity and became directly involved in debates about culture and the city. Government forced Oil Street to close in 1999, but agreed to find another site to house experimental arts, which simultaneously intensified interest among artists to gain studio space.
The would-be replacement site for Oil Street is the Cattle Depot Artists Village in the Ma Tau Kok area of east Kowloon, where these same arts groups and some of the studio artists from Oil Street have continued to produce significant work.
However, the site, a former abbatoir, is smaller and in a less central location, again under supervision of a property management firm and with short-term leases, which is, overall, not entirely conducive to the heights of creative potential. And so Cattle Depot too has not been able to metaphorphise into the fully dynamic arts scene that Hong Kong artists deserve. Nevertheless, expectations about studio space spurred interests in factory flats in the city’s peripheral industrial districts, Chai Wan, Fotan and Kwun Tong, where artists have started to hold successful open studio events. Branches of Hong Kong Central District major galleries, Osage and 10 Chancery Lane, opened in Kwun Tong in 2006 and Chai Wan in 2007 respectively. These emergent arts districts cannot be assumed to be the basis of arts and creative industries districts as they are known in the literature or in Europe and North America, nor have they yet developed in size to match the assemblage of studios and galleries at Suzhou Creek in Shanghai or the 798 area of Beijing.
Indeed restrictions against using industrial buildings for residential space in Hong Kong fundamentally constrain the type of development that has characterized lofting in downtown Manhattan, for example, or gentrification in neighborhoods around the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London’s East End. Nevertheless, these groups of artists’ studios are unprecedented in Hong Kong, establishing the basis for important dialogue on culture and the city, and catching attention from commercial arts professionals as well as government policy interests. Indeed, such notice is what led to the development of the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre in Shek Kip Mei and government’s support for it. Among these districts, Fotan currently has the largest number of studios, and in 2007 Osage Kwun Tong mounted “Inside Looking Out” to address for the first time whether a “Fotan School” of contemporary art might be in formation.
Among artists whose work was featured at the Osage exhibit is Tozer Pak Sheung-cheun, who is a founder of the “5 Sons” studio in Fotan. His conceptual, installation and performance art exemplifies a certain Hong Kong style, based in subtlety and allusion, humor and irony. He often doesn’t appear directly in his works and seeks to draw connections between otherwise disconnected realms, “to connect something that seems unrelated to you, to make you join together…with other people” (Pak 2006). One of his projects dealing directly with disconnected spaces and the cultural politics of Hong Kong identity is “See Walk What on 1 July” (Pak 2005a), which delivered Hong Kong people’s concerns to the heart of the Chinese capital. With a team of friends, the project installed a 0.2 x 10 m strip of yellow cloth across the route of the third July 1st political march; and after tens of thousands of feet put their foot-stamps of participation on it, they pulled up the cloth and transported it to Beijing.
Carrying slips of cloth as yellow ribbon, Pak circled Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, tying this now internationally recognized sign of hope to a pedestrian guardrail here, a signpost there. His crew videotaped the action, “A Present to the Central Government” (Pak 2005b), and, suggesting the limits of such representative politics, removed the yellow ribbons along the way.
Cultural identity and the heritage conservation movement
In the cultural political economy of Hong Kong, people have keen understandings of living space and the limitations of housing and land resources in what is the highest density urban environment in the developed world. Among artists, such understandings give rise to forms of creative expression that bring space directly into artwork. For example, critics regularly recognize Wong Kar-wai’s film space, or his cinematic style of portraying small-scale living spaces in Hong Kong and ways that it works to interiorize and challenge relations among the actors.
With some related themes at stake, a major international arts project, “Re:Wanchai” took place in 2005 that represents the trends and issues of the first decade of the SAR era. This Hong Kong International Artists’ Workshop was the first of the Triangle Arts Trust (UK) workshops to take place in an urban environment “because the site itself was an added stimulus” (Loder 2005, 4). As Jaffa Lam (2005, 6), artist and coordinator of the workshop, explained, cited “in an old building which was going to be demolished, [the workshop] demonstrated an alternative to city regeneration: cultural regeneration.” By working with the St. James Settlement, a Wan Chai-based NGO, and with support of the HKADC, the six-week workshop paired 12 international artists with long-time residents and local students to develop a community basis for pursuing art. Their working site was an old residential building whose imminent demolition is part of the larger process of urban renewal taking place in Wan Chai.
The site conveyed to all participants the imminence of community loss, and so the workshop reached to build community formation and by taking renewed interest in local identities of the district.
By the end of the first decade under SAR rule, Hong Kong experienced limits to tolerance for the property development regime that had obliterated the city’s sites of cultural heritage. A significant heritage conservation movement gained momentum in 2006-07, and it is clearly tied to concerns about the erasure of Hong Kong identity. The movement is not new per se, and has ties to the anti-reclamation activity of the mid-1990s, and actions of the Society for the Protection of the Harbour, which successfully took the government to court and generated mainstream and business support for urban environmental quality (e.g. Lai 2006a). But the intensification of popular support for heritage conservation fundamentally coalesced in the run up to the demolition of the Star Ferry piers on the Central District waterfront in December 2006.
Even as the place has been one of the city’s most iconic historic sites for decades, government planners ultimately moved the ferry service a further minimum 10 minutes away to a faux-historic pier complex seaward of the International Financial Centre. The vice-president of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects said the new complex “looked like a set from a film studio” and as if “a modern person putting on historic clothes” (Lai 2006c), while engineers publicly criticized the inconvenience of the location (Lai 2006d). The protests against demolition of the Star Ferry piers in Central are unprecedented in the short history of conservation activism in Hong Kong: they crossed the line into the arena of confrontational protest with police, which led to some arrests and raised serious concern around the city. The longer protest, however, which continued for six months, was marked by especially creative public participation and arts actions.
When I visited the site in December 2006, the entrance to the piers had been boarded-up, and cultural activists had mounted placards, information boards and banners all around. What caught everyone’s immediate attention though, in the middle of the roadway where taxis had queued, was a young woman sitting atop a high ladder, dressed in taught black, looking toward the clock tower. Scissors in hand, she intermittently and methodically cut off pieces of her hair and gave them to the cold breeze. Police stood by and watched; news camera crews filmed her and bystanders with digital cameras put them on ‘movie mode’. She was having a mesmerizing effect, her silent performance speaking to Hong Kong people: the loss of the Star Ferry piers is deeply personal, like losing a piece of yourself. Her performance action was actually one of many that artists offered in support of the movement.
Indeed, the public preservation campaign significantly originated in the arts community, exemplified by See magazine’s July 2006 cover story with photo of the Star Ferry clock tower, captioned “The last mechanical turret clock (1958-today),” and Kith Tsang Tak-ping’s organization of participatory performance art actions on many Sundays throughout the campaign. His students at Hong Kong Polytechnic University set forth their outlook:
The involvement of the twenty-something generation of Hongkongers in cultural heritage conservation is contrary to heritage work elsewhere, and points to how, according to surveys, in the context of identifying primarily with being from Hong Kong and not the mainland (e.g. Cheung 2001), the youth culture of Hong Kong is actively seeking local contexts for identity formation (Chan 2002). A full explanation of the role of artists in the heritage conservation movement in Hong Kong lies beyond the scope of this assessment, but it is clearly the case that the arts in Hong Kong are deeply tied to current cultural dynamics and social practices, and ways that they are embedded in understanding integral meanings of daily life and place-based identity that support general community well being and its basis for the realization of creativity and imagination. Theirs is not a primarily commercial enterprise but a cultural political economy for culture and creative practices through the arts.
Conditions of understanding local culture and meanings of place are complex and often subtle in Hong Kong where, only in the post-1997 era, local history, culture and politics have more reliably come to center stage. In the postcolonial period and in postcolonial perspective, Hong Kong people, from students to professionals, artists to government policymakers, have had to work to retrieve local identity and culture from other countries’ histories, even as the SAR continues to hurtle through global trajectories of world city development. The West Kowloon Cultural District plan was a Hong Kong property development interpretation of world city trends, while Hong Kong people’s concerns put the project on trial for its actual cultural content, and in the process, contributed to making government reformulate its concept and plan for the site.
In several ways, the West Kowloon project continues colonial-era planning imperatives of purpose-built infrastructure at the center of the city, while actually existing culture in the urban periphery receives considerably less state attention, especially in a neoliberal era that is working out in Hong Kong through diminished public expenditure but with expanded rhetoric about culture and development.
It is new in Hong Kong that local concerns about daily life are no longer necessarily motivated by what is new. Interest in Hong Kong’s characteristic consumer culture—the instant and the new—new construction, new buildings, new flats, new styles and new stuff, has finally given way in some part to consistent concerns about local culture and heritage; as people have discovered, in many cases too late, that they have not sufficiently valued the old.
The role of artists, intellectuals, cultural activists and many young people in this culture movement is not surprising if we recall that avant-garde thought and culture in any city’s history has typically taken shape in their collective hands. The emergence of studio arts districts in the city is predictably taking place in older districts of the urban periphery, which is neither at the center of government concern nor in the scope of its creative industries planning discourse. The studio arts center in Shek Kip Mei is thus an important project for putting together mainstream funding, university management and government property interests with practicing artists in a dedicated art space. Government has many roles to play in Hong Kong, and where the experimental arts are concerned — the very basis of creativity — it would do well to revisit the context of Oil Street to learn how the realities of creativity cannot be planned and to assess how to stabilize art space or rents for the longer term security of arts productivity.
The production of art as creative practice, the rhythms of cultural-political-economic life, and the making of cultural spaces in the city are dynamically interconnected in Hong Kong. Over the decade under review, the cultural political economy for critical arts practice has not been bound up with commercial galleries, and consequently in part, Hong Kong art is not commercialized in its forms and content. Instead, in its diverse media, especially forms of conceptual art and installation and performance art, Hong Kong art expresses a range of issues including many concerns about local identity, politics, and meanings of place and culture in the city. In these ways the arts scene parallels the postcolonial conditions of the SAR era itself, in explorations of temporal conditions and their juxtapositions, artworks that capture and reincorporate fleeting sites of the present, and projects that reach to establish connections between people from different places, times and walks of life.
These are the arts of reflection on society and economy, the experimental arts of the dynamics and unprecedented context of the Hong Kong SAR.