At Clockenflap 2014

Why Hong Kong Isn’t A Cultural Desert

March 14, 2014 / by / 0 Comment

We’ve all heard the claim being made before. Culture is an all-encompassing term, and where there is civilisation, there is culture, but when we say that Hong Kong is a cultural desert, we know we’re not talking about the range of things from dimsum to Plastic Thing, Chinglish to HKU Dry Club, that falls under the umbrella of culture. Rather, most of us are referring to the expression of ‘arts and culture’. We ask why Hong Kong isn’t like New York or London or all the other big cities, where culture is in the air, emanating from every corner; we ask why there aren’t quaint little street markets or theatre performances every evening. We ask why the government doesn’t put more effort into preserving our collective memory and is instead choosing to tear historical landmarks down and streets apart. We ask why we don’t have a coffee shop culture, no place we can sit down quietly to write and people-watch as Hemingway has done in Paris – no place aside from Pacific Coffee and Starbucks. We ask why we hear more about how the West Kowloon’s exceeding its budget than what they’re actually doing with the area. We ask why buskers are being forced to clear out of the streets in Mong Kok that has been, for a while, bustling with life and soul of the struggling artists in the city.

All this may be true, but it’s still a far cry from claiming that Hong Kong has no culture. I think it’s more justified to say that Hong Kong doesn’t have the scream-in-your-face culture; rather, they’re more like little treasures scattered across the city, waiting for the determined to discover on a scavenger hunt, and the ordinary to accidentally stumble upon.

My own encounter with the arts began at a young age. I had many books and not many friends, so I read a lot. I played the piano, though this is almost not worth mentioning at all, since most kids in Hong Kong, having forced by their parents to have something to add to their academic CV, can recite Sonatinas in their sleep. I did, though, have an overwhelming passion for the stage, and since the age of 10 I’ve spent a fair amount of time on it, from being in drama productions to singing in choirs to contemporary dancing (aka I was an attention whore), and later behind it – writing scripts for plays. In my first year of university, I joined the Shax Theatre Group and starred in a three-actor production of Hamlet. It was really this year, though, when I started interning for HKELD, a webzine that reviews and keeps you on to date on English Language dramas in Hong Kong, and The Underground Hong Kong, an organisation which promotes and support the development of local music, that I realized this:

There’s actually A LOT going on in Hong Kong with regards to arts and culture.

Where do I begin?

The festivals. Arts and music festivals have been gradually gaining momentum in Hong Kong; Clockenflap, launched in 2008, was of its biggest scale yet last year, with 3 days of performances, 7 music stages, and a predicted crowd of 30,000 people. While it’s still not quite up there in the major leagues of music festivals elsewhere like Soundwave in Australia or Glastonbury in the UK in terms of its scale or freedom – for example, one couldn’t camp out overnight – others in Hong Kong have similarly sought out ways to make use of public space to create room for bonding between arts and the community. Examples are Grasscamp, which was originally part of Freespace Fest but got rained out and had to postpone and relocate; in order to raise funds for the campsites and to make this event free for all who wish to enjoy local music, the organisers even embarked on a crowdfunding project. Back in December, Very Hong Kong organized a series of outdoor art activities, from outdoor picnics and movie screenings to concerts; the West Kowloon District and the Freespace Fest series also frequently host events throughout the year, such as West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre, a project embarked to revive the fading art of Cantonese Opera in the city, and Take A Leap, which features street dance performances, workshops, and competitions. Later this month, the acres of land next to the IFC construction area will be housing Fan Zone, in which The Underground celebrates its 10th anniversary with The Underground Festival, featuring an assortment of great local and overseas bands such as noughts and exes. Next month, the first outdoor Shakespeare festival, Shakespeare in the Port, will be held in Cyberport (here’s an article of me doing a preview for them a couple months back).

At Take A Leap @ West Kowloon

At Take A Leap @ West Kowloon

Performing Arts. We may not have our own West End or Broadway, but we do have the Hong Kong Arts Festival, which is currently taking place and presenting us with 138 opera, music and theatre, and dance performances. If you’re a uni student frequently too strapped for cash to afford pricey tickets like me, the Young Friends Programme, which, for just $100HKD, gets you two Art Festival tickets, access to special activities, and a variety of different discounts, is a fantastic deal. So far I’ve seen Giselle, Highland Fling, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and am about to see Filth this weekend. Timeable, Time Out Magazine, Hong Kong Magazine, and HKELD are also great resources if you wish to find out what’s on every evening. You’d be surprised at how many local independent performing art entities there are in Hong Kong – many of which putting on English-speaking performances, for that matter.

Films. Hong Kongers are big film buffs, and all of them have somehow found their way to one another to form the HK Cine Fan. Film festivals take place as frequently as every 1-2 months, such as the Hong Kong International Film Festival, Summer Film Festival, French Film Festival, European Union Film Festival, Lesbian and Gay Film Festival…a lot of these special screenings take place at the Broadway Cinematheque, a complex situated in a quiet neighbourhood in Yau Ma Tei, away from all the hustle and bustle. If you’d like to grab a bite before the movie, the Kubrick Café (named, of course, after Stanley Kubrick) is right next door; inside the Café itself is a bookstore that distributes work of local artist and writers.

Music. Many go on about the desolate state Hong Kong Cantopop has fallen to from its golden era in the 80s and 90s, but the local independent music scene has quietly stirred up a storm underground. There is live music almost every evening at venues such as Hidden Agenda, Fringe, Backstage Live, Les Boules Café Pentanque, The Wanch, and Java Java, to name a few. Timeable, The Underground Hong Kong bi-weekly newsletters, and the Hong Kong Gig Guide provides the most comprehensive information on live music happenings; the last is run by David Harris, who deserves a special shoutout for doing this, own his own account, purely out of interest, while he is residing outside of Hong Kong; every few years or so he comes over to catch shows. The local busking scene is also heartwarming to behold; although Mong Kok’s Pedestrian Zone street performers have been the centre of controversy late last year, and since then new restrictions have applied to only allow for it to operate on weekends, a good deal of buskers could still be found in LKF and around Central and TST piers, and they’re only growing in numbers.

An Underground HK show featuring Fairchild at Saffron at the Peak

An Underground HK show featuring Fairchild at Saffron at the Peak

Art Galleries. Just a couple of days ago the Artwalk was held; the stretch of art galleries in the Soho area, met with increasing rent, are gradually moving to Wong Chuk Hang, which is becoming the next ‘it’ area for visual arts. Old industrial areas such as Fo Tan have been sanctuaries for lower-budget art shows for years, and of course, there’s also the annual Affordable Art Fair and Art Basel.

For the literary souls out there, Poetry Out Loud (first week of every month) and Peel Fresco Music Lounge (every other week) host English poetry readings every Wednesday, of which I’m a regular. The poets are a quirky bunch with ages ranging from 18- ∞; most have so much experience up their sleeve that I always imagine them to be quietly weeping at the immaturity of my work while politely clapping and smiling (yes, I’m the queen of self-deprecation); here’s an article featuring the wonderful man who is our host, Akin Jeje, on Hong Wong. The Kubrick Café also host regular poetry readings for Cantonese poets. If you’d like to see your work come to live – literally, there’s also the Liars’ League Hong Kong, where writers’ stories are brought to live by professional actors in front of an audience every last Monday of the month at the Fringe or XXX.

A regular night at Peel; Photo Courtesy of Nashua Gallagher

A regular night at Peel; Photo Courtesy of Nashua Gallagher

And even on campus there are loads of students trying to initiate projects on their own. I’ve been proud to see that the Shakespeare group I belonged to two years ago have grown from a mere 6 members in my year to a huge cast and team that has recently put on Othello at the Sheung Wan Civic Centre this year. Last year, a group of local and international students have also sought to bring the diversified community in HKU together through the arts, thus giving birth to the multi-dimensional arts project of Culture Shock. Last but not least, the GE is a huge advocate of the arts; just last Friday I was MC-ing at the Peacemakers Concert held at Haking Wong Podium, in commemoration of the 45th anniversary of Woodstock.

At the Peacemakers Concert; Photo Courtesy of General Education Unit

At the Peacemakers Concert; Photo Courtesy of General Education Unit

But all this being said, many will still scoff at the idea of Hong Kong’s art and culture scene being elevated to the likes of Paris or London’s and it’s not without a reason. There is a huge discrepancy between art sectors in Hong Kong – between the Cantonese-speaking crowd and English speaking crowd, institutionalized events and independent projects, and high culture and street art. The creative minds the city possesses are many, but rarely have we seen them collaborate together; as a result, we don’t lack art and cultural activities with regards to quantity, but the quality is sometimes questionable. Sometimes dates even clash with one another between events of very similar nature and audiences are divided as to where to head for the evening; this, coupled with the fact that there’s a lot of  information that is not getting out there to the right crowd and no one knows the real supply and demand of events, results in artists dedicating a huge amount of effort into producing plays and shows that no one ends up seeing, and an audience that doesn’t know where to look. So often have I seen the look of surprise on friends’ faces when I tell them about the things I’m going to – their surprise that these events exist at all. At many occasions I hear please come to this or please pay this or please do that ‘to support the local arts’, but I so very much hope that in the future this is not something people do out of pity or charity, but because they appreciate the talent involved and see the value in these activities, and they are actually interested themselves. In order to do so, parents and the government really have to start at the level of education, so that kids will stop viewing arts as a viable option only when they think they fail in all other traditional areas of money-making.

This won’t be the last time I’ll be writing about arts and culture in Hong Kong or HKU; in a couple of weeks, when the midterm pressure isn’t breathing down my neck, I’ll very probably do something on coffee shop culture and street markets. Stay tuned!

 




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