Hong Kong’s East-meets-West environment and vibrant creative scene have helped it become a hub for the arts in Asia in recent years. Four leading lights of the city’s arts and culture sector shared their insights at a webinar on 27 August, hosted by WEC Chairman Nikki Ng, where they discussed Hong Kong’s unique culture, their careers in the industry, and how they were coping with the pandemic.
Alison Friedman, Assistant Director, Performing Arts, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, grew up in the United States. She had a passion for different languages and cultures, which led her to China to study the history of performing art. At the time, people said that it was a narrow, limiting choice.
“Actually, it was a window to understand the economy, the politics and the education system of China,” she said.
Friedman also learned how the arts can bring people and cultures together, which led her to set up her own company in 2010, and then move to Hong Kong and her current role. The West Kowloon Cultural District will, when completed, be one of the world’s largest cultural quarters, and could provide employment for as many as 20,000 people. So far, it has opened two major venues, the Xiqu Centre for traditional Chinese performances, and Freespace, a blackbox theatre for contemporary work.
Part of Friedman’s job is to find “the best of the best in Hong Kong and the world.” Although this encompasses a huge range of genres, she said that what they all have in in common is a burning drive and commitment.
Tisa Ho, Executive Director of the Hong Kong Arts Festival, said that more than 1,800 international and local artists performed at the event last year. Cultural events not only have a positive economic impact on the city, she said, but also bring personal benefits to participants, as the more they experience, the deeper their enjoyment.
“It is possible to just walk into a performance and enjoy it,” she said. “But I’ve come to realise that the more you understand the references and the social history, the more you will get out of it.”
This is applicable to many aspects of life, including the business world, Ho added. “If you are well informed, all your meetings and encounters will be richer.”
Commerce and creativity are often seen as polar opposites, but they can also work together. Ho pointed out that Hong Kong’s status as a global business centre is a huge plus when it comes to hosting major events.
“I am so grateful for the fact that we are a logistics hub,” she said. “Everything from the airport to transportation to immigration procedures works so well. It is so fundamental to the success of the festival.”
Celebrating Hong Kong’s unique culture – both traditional and modern – is part of the remit at Hong Kong Arts Centre, as Connie Lam, Executive Director, explained. Its Intangible Cultural Heritage programme promotes Chinese arts and crafts through community participation, particularly engaging the younger generation. For example, one activity taught participants how to make the traditional cheung sam, as well as the history of the garment.
“Once you make a piece of art, and remember the details, you will become a more likely active participant in cultural events in the future,” Lam explained.
Lam also introduced Hong Kong’s anime, which has evolved its own distinct style.
“Hong Kong is a hybrid place – not just where East meets West, but also in having a mix of cultures,” she explained. “So the comic artists are not just skilled at using markers or watercolours, but also Chinese ink.”
She added that overseas audiences are often surprised at the diversity as well as the sophisticated skills of Hong Kong’s comic artists.
Sheryl Lee, Executive Director of the Haw Par Music Foundation, started her cultural career as a pianist. She has lived in Hong Kong, Europe and North America, which has given her an insight into the different approaches around the world.
“In the East, students are expected to do exams and competitions, it’s more results driven,” she said. “In the West they encourage more creativity, and you learn more about the cultural and historical context.”
Lee founded a marketing consultancy in 2009 on returning to Hong Kong, after noticing that commercial companies were interested in sponsoring local artists, but didn’t know where to start. “At the same time, people in the art world didn’t know how to approach the corporates, or how to get the best out of projects. So I started the company as a way to bridge the gap between the two.”
Lee explained that the Haw Par Music Foundation, which opened last year, manages the Haw Par Mansion, built in 1936 by the owners of the Tiger Balm empire. This historic building is now home to music and arts performances as well as social initiatives.
The Covid-19 outbreak has had a huge impact on the arts scene in Hong Kong, with physical events cancelled throughout much of 2020.
“It is not just the artists who are suffering, it is the entire economy,” Friedman said, including ushers, janitors and ticket takers. “There is no sugar-coating just how devastated the arts sector has been globally and in Hong Kong.”
The enthusiasm for participation in digital events shows the value of the arts, she added, but free online activities are not sustainable in the longer term.
Ho said that cancelling this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival had been heartbreaking, but added that the outpouring of support from the community had been greatly appreciated.
For now, Hong Kong’s arts leaders said they are tentatively planning a return to live performances – as well as a range of contingency plans for online alternatives. Either way, the local arts scene continues to develop despite the Covid pandemic, and welcomes the ongoing support of the Hong Kong community.