With its humidity, low-lying cloud, close packed high-rises and roaring traffic, Hong Kong moves to a singularly claustrophobic beat. Through a single-minded dedication to wealth and all its trappings, the city has become a shrine to mammon. Shiny glass sky scrapers pack the waterfront; endless shopping malls flog designer clothes and jewelry. Expats and Hong Kongers alike dress sharply, moving with purpose through packed streets. Yet Hong Kong isn’t a faux-city like Dubai. Its unique geography and culture has been formed from nearly 200 years of international politics. Its most recent commercial incarnation may dominate the skyline, but history can’t entirely be covered by gloss. Hong Kong’s colonial past and Chinese heritage constantly emerges through the bling: to take the Star Ferry across the water or a tram on central is to experience the British administration, while back streets throng with Chinese medicine shops and food canteens.
In the press and in the flesh, Hong Kongers are a little disparaging about culture in their city. Lightweight is a word bandied around and indeed, leafing through Time Out, there are barely a hundredth of the events offered in London. Uber-commercial cities often patronise elite culture in order to boast sophistication and privilege, and Hong Kong is no different. This is not a city for cutting edge gigs in dingy clubs, street art and alternative theatre. Culture tends to operate within the boundaries of established institutions. That’s not to say that these institutions do not serve their community well. The Hong Kong Philharmonic, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra and other performing arts groups have a strong presence throughout the city, while festivals, from outdoor events during traditional carnivals to the international status of the Hong Kong Arts and Film festivals are a draw to foreign visitors. Indeed, film is probably the city’s strongest cultural export with a distinct output and a mass following.
Significant venues sit on both sides of the harbour. On the island side, the HK Arts Centre is a small, modern multi-arts venue with a cool vibe, while over the road, the Academy of the Performing Arts offers orchestral and opera performances. The key city complex however is over in Kowloon, right on the waterfront, with the best views of Hong Kong island. Well, it would have if the Hong Kong Cultural Centre had windows (pictured right). Shaped like a skate ramp, this tiled building looks like an architectural shell rather than a thriving arts venue, but it hosts the best live music in the city. Unfortunately, nothing was on when Culture Capital was in town, but there was enjoyment to be had next door in the Hong Kong Museum of Art.
Considering its treasures – astounding calligraphy and porcelain from throughout the ages – it was hugely disappointing to be virtually the only visitor to the museum on a Monday morning. Galleries across four floors mainly concentrate on traditional Chinese art, but two sections are dedicated to contemporary work by local artists. The economic boom on the mainland has fuelled a boom in the Chinese art market, making it a good time to be an artist in Hong Kong. Including sculpture, painting, photography and new media, the contemporary art on display ranged from the intriguing to the derivative. Highlights came in the form of Almond Chu’s photographs of environmental waste, taken with such vivid colours as to make them beautiful and Tim Li’s installation, which included some striking, swirling images of the city.
It is only anecdotal evidence of course, but the tumbleweed situation in the Museum of Art and the relatively few events happening in the city at any one time raises a question about Hong Kong’s next great cultural adventure. The West Kowloon Cultural District is a huge, billion-dollar project currently in development and once completed will offer audiences a new modern art museum, numerous concert halls, theatres and other performance spaces. Currently due to open in 2014, the finished complex will be the world’s largest multi-arts centre. One of the UK’s leading arts managers Graham Sheffield will be Chief Executive in West Kowloon. The question is, will this government-funded initiative bring in Hong Kongers in droves or will it become an empty behemoth, of which there are already a few in the Far East.