Submission on Consultation Paper of Culture and Heritage Commission
28 May 2001
Culture and Heritage Commission Secretariat
41/F Revenue Tower
5 Gloucester Road
SUBMISSION ON CONSULTATION PAPER
We are writing with our comments on your Consultation Paper dated March 2001.
In general we are supportive of the paper. We are sympathetic to most of its goals, and to many of the specific initiatives, such as making the most of the West Kowloon reclamation, the promotion of cultural education in schools, and the proposal to turn the management of cultural venues from the Government over to the private sector. However, we see a danger that the Commission, which does not have executive or administrative powers and appears mainly aimed at advising on policy – in which capacity it may somewhat overlap with various other boards and committees – may lack effectiveness.
We divide our comments into four sections:
The rationale given on page 1 for promoting Hong Kong's cultural development is that in the knowledge-based economy culture and creative thinking are essential to Hong Kong's competitive edge. We would tend to agree with this; although it should be noted that the knowledge-based economy can distribute rewards very unevenly, favouring elites at the relative expense of the mass. However, the primary rationale for promoting culture is surely not economic. We suggest that culture is important because it enhances the lives of the people, enriches them in manifold ways, and enables them to lead more fulfilled lives, with greater well-being. The linkage between culture and economic reward is rather indirect.
The question of what Hong Kong's culture is, or should be, is a difficult one that the paper addresses only superficially. The paper emphasises Hong Kong's Chinese culture, asserting that, "Hong Kong's culture is a component of Chinese culture;" that Hong Kong's strength lies in its foundation of Chinese culture. Clearly, Chinese culture is a very large element. But it is important to be more precise than this.
Firstly, Hong Kong's Chinese culture should not be equated with that of present day Mainland China, albeit that the two obviously have much in common. In some ways Hong Kong reflects a more ancient Chinese culture, for example, polygamy was outlawed in Hong Kong only in the 1970s, and some traditional practices, such as male inheritance and voting practices in New Territories villages, still persist in Hong Kong.
Secondly, Hong Kong was not a significant location in the history of the Chinese Empire, and - other than as a scene of Western interaction with the Chinese - has almost no historical sites. Hong Kong cannot therefore compete with Mainland cities in terms of its Chinese cultural heritage.
Thirdly, Hong Kong represented to many of its immigrants a place that was not China, a place of refuge from the upheavals that have troubled the Mainland during the last century or so.
Fourthly, although in terms of high Chinese culture - such as the fine arts, the performing arts, and architecture - Hong Kong does quite poorly, it scores very well in popular culture. In the celebration of Chinese food in Hong Kong's restaurants, the observance of traditional Chinese festivals, and performance of traditional Chinese rites such as sweeping ancestors' graves, Hong Kong's performance exceeds that of the Mainland. In more modern terms, Hong Kong is the home of Cantopop, which has a worldwide following. And the success of the movie industry, which has recently produced some worldwide blockbusters is in the same vein. The strength of Hong Kong's popular Chinese culture should be recognised.
Fifthly, Hong Kong's Chinese culture is predominantly, although not exclusively, that of the Cantonese. As such it differs in important respects from the Northern-dominated culture of Mainland China. We suggest that there may be scope for Hong Kong to become the centre of Cantonese culture. One initiative to be considered is developing a standard ping-yum script for Cantonese. Effort should be put into developing a proper writing system for Cantonese. At present, children are taught to write what is in effect a bastardised form of Mandarin, quite different from the language they speak in their daily lives.
In view of these facts, it would appear appropriate to consider some special or distinctive form of Chinese culture that is peculiar to Hong Kong. Reference points for the development of such concept might include the Perakanan culture celebrated in Singapore (which is also a predominantly Chinese city) and the culture of the global Chinese diaspora. Since Hong Kong has in fact been the stepping off point for much of the Chinese emigration to the rest of the world, to Vancouver, Toronto, the US West Coast, the UK, could Hong Kong position itself as the global centre of the wah-kiew?
Hong Kong can, however, serve and benefit from Mainland Chinese culture in the following ways. Hong Kong is already the major auction centre for Mainland Chinese art. Hong Kong could perhaps also become the major international showcase of Mainland Chinese fine and performing arts. Hong Kong is much more accessible than Mainland Chinese cities, and has a large flow of tourists. There would appear scope to bring Mainland Chinese artistic performers to Hong Kong to play to visitors and Hong Kong residents alike. Mainland museums could also loan their collections for exhibition in Hong Kong. To position itself for such showcase role, Hong Kong would have to build world-class venues, such as theatres and museums. Its present facilities are inadequate for the purpose.
Important though Chinese culture is, Hong Kong is also multicultural. The paper acknowledges this, but pays little more than lip-service to the profusion of non-Chinese cultures that are to be found in Hong Kong.
Most important among these is the culture of the colonial British. A great many of Hong Kong's institutions, customs and procedures, including laws, Civil Service system, postal system, etc, are modelled on their British counterparts. English is one of the official languages, and the more important for business. The colonial culture derives not only from the UK but from India and other locations within the former British Empire, as can be observed in some of Hong Kong's distinctive colonial architecture. It would be a great pity if Hong Kong were to turn its back on this rich heritage. We would point here to the very different approach taken by Singapore in celebrating its colonial heritage (e.g. the financial district is named after Singapore's British founder) and Macao with its Portuguese colonial roots.
We would also not wish to overlook the contribution made by the largest racial minority: the migrant workers from the Philippines, who do much to enliven Hong Kong's street scene, and in formal employment contribute substantially to the entertainment sector.
West Kowloon reclamation. We support the Commission's focus on this, and urge that the opportunity be taken to build the world class institutions, such as museums, opera house, theatre, that Hong Kong currently lacks. One of the reasons Hong Kong’s cultural venues are so disappointing is that they are designed by Government architects; in other jurisdictions, including Mainland China, the design of key venues is open to international competition. We would also draw attention to the potential of Kai Tak. We would hope that the opportunity would be taken to build a world-class sports stadium that could also accommodate pop concerts.
The preservation of our physical heritage of buildings and roads is a high priority. Far too many historically valuable buildings and even whole areas have been demolished and replaced by homogenous residential blocks. Hong Kong must introduce a system of listing buildings so that these buildings can be compulsorily preserved. Many overseas jurisdictions have such a system; Hong Kong must introduce one as soon as possible. In cases where the economic potential of the original site is very high, consideration should be given to taking the building down and reconstructing it elsewhere, as was done in the case of Murray House.
One priority should be the preservation and revitalisation of Hong Kong's inner city slums. Some of Hong Kong's inner city areas have been preserved almost intact from generations ago because building ownership is divided and difficult to trace. In particular, the Tai Ping Shan area between Western and Central contains quite large areas that have changed little from a century ago. Much of this area should be retained, but restored and enhanced with better facilities and access through escalators, etc, so that it can be enjoyed by tourists and locals alike.
At present, responsibility for conservation rests with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Bureau. There is a clear conflict of interest in grouping conservation with these other functions. A separate conservation authority should be established, or such function should be grouped with the Environmental Protection Department.
One major barrier to the development of local culture in Hong Kong is high property prices. Given these prices, which translate into high rents, it is difficult for any activity that does not yield a direct economic return to be sustainable. Ideally, the Government would find ways to make low-cost premises available for cultural activities.
Education. Hong Kong's current education system is in large part hostile to culture. The education system relies to a great extent on rote learning, repetitious exercises and unquestioning acceptance of instruction. Creativity, enquiry, self-development tend not to be encouraged. Schools lack the facilities for, and give low priority to, extra-curricula activities. Major changes would be needed to foster the development of, and respect for, culture.
Life-long learning. At present, Hong Kong people devote considerable effort to continuing education. However, such effort is directed mainly at obtaining qualifications, not personal enrichment. And from observation, it appears that much of this effort has little economic value either. A review of the large adult education sector is urgently needed.
Local history. Hong Kong's history is inadequately taught in the education system. The development of historical resources, such as archives and artifacts collections, lags comparable developed countries. The only academically respected history of Hong Kong - and that a single volume work - is written by an Englishman (Frank Walsh). There is much work to do to build up a sense of local community and pride in its achievement.
Student exchange. The paper rightly notes the importance of cultural exchange. In terms of outward exchange, Hong Kong is fortunate that because of migration, many of its citizens have worked and resided abroad. However, inward visitors tend to be limited to businessmen and tourists. It would be desirable for more international students to study in Hong Kong. High property prices are again a deterrent here, and the Government would have to take some action to assist in this respect.
The paper makes no mention of the executive resources of the Commission. However, we feel that such a body cannot be effective without substantial executive support, i.e. not merely a secretariat, but sufficient qualified personnel to conduct research, develop briefing papers, and actively lobby and work for the Commission's goals.
We hope that these suggestions are helpful, and wish the Commission success in the pursuit of its mission.
Alan Lung Ka-lun
|Policy Paper - page revised 23-09-2002
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