If you have picked up a newspaper in Hong Kong over the last couple of weeks, you may be thinking that the current state of the city’s cultural output is fairly strong.
Last week, the third installment of the international Art Basel fair closed at Wan Chai’s cavernous convention centre with 233 galleries from 37 countries and territories exhibiting work. And while it wasn’t the highest attended of Hong Kong’s art fairs over the years, this show presented a strong and diverse collection of works for both experienced and novice collectors to shop from.
On Monday, Hong Kong’s 39th International Film Festival opened. Mounting screenings of both old and new as well as Asian and international titles at venues across the city, it’s certainly one of the most important festivals on the local cinephile’s calendar. But can something like this or the art fair really help to develop Hong Kong’s homegrown creative class?
The debate is one that crops up around certain dinner tables across the city even more often than those concerning Hong Kong’s political future with Beijing. A place formed and developed for its trading and market capabilities, Hong Kong doesn’t have a creative or maker culture woven into its historical fabric. Many crafts that the city was once known for have been moved across the border where production is cheaper and yield quicker. The scarce amount of buildable land available has been given over to profitable commerce and essential housing with little dedicated to the intangible benefits that museums, galleries, theatres and the like can give.
At these dinner-table discussions, the light at the end of the tunnel is often positioned as the West Kowloon Cultural District: the huge, government-funded plot of land on the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbour that is being developed into green space, theatres, cultural centres and a museum. For the art crowd, the saviour is more specifically heralded as M+: Hong Kong’s first visual-culture museum that is set to open in 2018. The museum’s talented curatorial team is headed by Lars Nittve and has been growing in Hong Kong over the past couple of years. Ranging from important contemporary Chinese work to Hong Kong’s ageing neon street signs and a Shiro Kuramata sushi bar that has caused some controversy, the growing collection being acquired by M+ will offer work from across the mediums of visual art, film, architecture and design.
But the responsibility for Hong Kong’s cultural development can’t simply be placed at the feet of West Kowloon, despite its high budget. Aside from the fact that it will be another five years or so until the bulk of the district opens, Hong Kong’s problems with fostering a sustainable and authentic creative society go far deeper than the absence of a good museum. Sky-high rent stops young artists, musicians and designers from finding good studio spaces. And with the local education system emphasising competitive academic achievement, many Hong Kong students face hours of tutoring during their free time rather than being allowed space to pursue creative endeavours.
It may be Asian cities such as Hong Kong that commercial galleries, film production companies and fashion houses are looking to for both investors and consumers. But they’re certainly not flocking here to find homegrown creative talent. If the city truly wants to become the cultural capital is claims to be, it’s going to take a lot more than a smattering of art fairs, film festivals and government-run cultural districts.
Aisha Speirs is Monocle’s Hong Kong bureau chief.