Hong Kong's Culture of Concrete

When the WKCD project was finally shot down in February 2006 in the face of public outrage at the SAR government’s blatant intention to cut a colossal land deal with one single developer conglomerate out of three, under the guise of promoting cultural development, Hong Kong people rejoiced they had won a battle. Little did they know that it was nothing more than a temporary victory.

Since that time, bureaucrats have had a busy time revising and fine-tuning the details and presentation techniques of the “project in limbo”, or, to use a more accurate term, repackaging the whole idea, and going through the trite process of cursorily “consulting the people of Hong Kong”.

Last month, as expected, the establishment of another one of those opaque, autonomous and unwieldy “mini-governments” or statutory bodies called the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (“WKCDA”) was approved by LegCo. Not surprisingly, one of the major powers of the WKCDA is to “enter into any contract for the purpose of providing, operating, managing or maintaining arts and cultural facilities, related facilities or ancillary facilities” (see Clause 11 (a) (iii) on Page 6 of the LegCo Brief dated January 31, 2008). To put it succinctly, the WKCDA is set up to take over the 40 hectares of land and do as it pleases. Naturally, nothing would prevent the WKCDA from joining hands with any developer through tendering out works and management contracts (see Q & A No. 5 in the Home Affairs Bureau’s Response to the LegCo Subcommittee’s Questions on June 5, 2008), in much the same fashion as any project tendering process within other statutory bodies like the Urban Renewal Authority (URA), MTRC, KCRC or Airport Authority (AA).

In the same month, officials pushed through LegCo the funding of the project to the tune of HK$21.6 billion. The 40-hectare project is now called an “arts and cultural project” and will comprise arts and cultural facilities (15 performing arts venues, a huge modern “visual art” museum and an exhibition center) as well as commercial and residential elements, all of which will be at the disposition of the WKCDA. Whatever it is called, it will be nothing but new blocks of concrete that require to be constructed, or some 726,000 square meters of floor space, of which the arts and cultural facilities take up 36 percent.

In other words, the WKCD project has been resurrected, but with changes that in all probability may not be as beneficial to the community as government made them sound. Under the new scheme, Hong Kong taxpayers will be the stakeholders (or risk-takers) while the WKCDA will be the sole decision-maker, the master developer and manager of a mega arts and cultural project on a 40-hectare site.

That brings me to another thought. According to a Standard news report, last week Donald Tsang visited a newly developed arts hub in Guangzhou situated on the Pearl River opposite the White Swan Hotel, which is the result of conversion from obsolete industrial workshops. The Standard reporter was told by an official from one of the management companies involved with the conversion: “The government never thought of constructing new buildings. It decided to preserve the old ones, clear up the area, and renovate the interiors of the abandoned factories.” The industrial zone comprises an area of 1 million square meters and the conversion program which began several years ago, has been about 10 percent completed.

To sidetrack for a moment, the report reminds me of a previous post that I wrote entitled “Restoration A Better Option”, in which I commented on the imprudence of the URA’s redevelopment strategies, as well as of Jockey Club’s proposed HK$1.8 billion redevelopment plan for the Central Police Station compound, which will consist of significant construction works.

Now, our neighbor Guangzhou has shown us that there is a viable way of creating an arts hub by making use of dilapidated factories and obviating the need to construct new buildings. Why did it not occur to the Hong Kong bureaucrats to adopt a similar plan with vacant factories in Kwun Tong and Kwai Chung, when they adamantly pushed to squander away valuable land resources and taxpayers’ money for the sake of vainglory, especially at a time when many Hong Kong people are struggling with steeply rising living costs and the global economy is at best wobbly? Is it not naive to expect that cultivation of the so-called cultural software, which is only in the infant stage, can possibly be accomplished in the next few years to coincide with the completion of the grandiose hardware? Is it even rational to assume that building the glossy hardware will naturally induce in the community the tendency to appreciate arts and culture? At best, the project sounds like a big gamble with taxpayers’ money and at worst, it is bureaucratic megalomania in full display.

Wouldn’t it be much simpler, more practical and more frugal to convert empty factories and warehouses into art galleries, museums and exhibition halls for innovative products, while at the same time using a good portion of the 40-hectare site for a much-needed spacious open park which everybody would be able to enjoy and auctioning off the rest? For one thing, the rents of the arts and cultural facilities converted from industrial buildings would certainly be much more affordable than those of the proposed sleek new complex and thus would serve better the arts community’s needs. The conversion costs could well be met by land revenue from the auctioned sites. This way, at least taxpayers wouldn’t have to shoulder the overheads of yet another expensive “mini-government” called the WKCDA.

But the SAR government apparently prefers concrete and complication. The downside is that Hong Kong taxpayers will have to foot the bill for its bizarre addiction. After all, HK$21.6 billion is a lot of money.