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Building Cultural Bridges

Celebrating its 30th anniversary in Hong Kong this year, the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre (ASHK) aims to encourage a deeper understanding between the people of Asia and America and the world.

“The mission here is very similar to that of the Asia Society New York Centre,” explained S. Alice Mong, Executive Director of the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre. “That is, to organize programmes in areas including business policy, promoting art and culture, and education.” 

The Asia Society was founded in New York in 1956 by John D Rockefeller III. A member of the hugely wealthy family of businesspeople and philanthropists, Rockefeller had travelled widely as a young man, and gathered a considerable collection of Asian art and developed a passion for Asia.

At the time, many Americans had limited understanding of Asia, so he launched the society and donated his own art collection to help in the promotion of Asia. Besides sharing information about art and culture, the Asia Society also operates as a think tank, providing advice on policy matters, and is active in the educational sphere.

In Hong Kong, it was also the business community, including Sir Q.W. Lee, founding Chairman of Hang Seng Bank, that led to the launch of the local centre. The Hong Kong centre was the organization’s first in Asia and is today one of its three major centres – the others are in New York and Houston. The society also has a number of other offices around the world. 

ASHK has been in its current location in Admiralty since 2012. The site was built by the British army in the 19th century to store munitions, and now provides a home that includes a theatre, multipurpose hall and a gallery.

Besides sharing the goals of the Asia Society headquarters, the Hong Kong centre also takes into consideration the tastes and interests of the local population in its activities. Mong explained that when the ASHK first opened, a higher proportion of its members and visitors were Westerners, and tended to be from the city’s business community. In recent years, however, the ASHK has re-worked its remit to attract a broader demographic.

“Our programmes have expanded to include more art and cultural events, similar to New York’s programming,” she said. “This is slightly different from before, when we focused more on business policy.”

 

Events for everyone

To widen the membership base and to increase awareness among the general public, the society has introduced more site tours and exhibits, and has also arranged for shuttle buses to enable more school groups to visit.  

“Our audience has evolved and changed,” Mong said. “We now have more families attending our activities at the weekend, such as family days, exhibitions and workshops.”  

Each Asia Society centre operates independently and is responsible for its own programming and funding, but also has the opportunity to collaborate with the other centres around the world, including the half-dozen in the Asia Pacific and Europe. 

“On the other hand, Houston, Texas, has a whole different audience visiting their centre,” Mong explained, that provides a different perspective. “We learn from each other.” 

The society collaborates with schools, universities and other educational institutions, and also with other cultural organizations. For example, in the past two years the ASHK held a major showcase of global contemporary art during Art Basel period. Although this year’s Art Basel event has been cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Asia Society’s exhibition on contemporary artists is still scheduled to open at the end of March and will run until September. 

“This year will be with local artists, called Next Act: Contemporary Art from Hong Kong,” Mong said.

The Covid-19 outbreak has meant that the ASHK has postponed many of its events. However, it has been continuing to provide information online, such as live webinars on Facebook

 

City of culture

In recent years, Mong has seen the growth in interest in the arts in the city, including contemporary art. “Ten years ago, Hong Kong might not have been seen as a cultural hub,” she said. 

Hong Kong continues to develop in this respect, and Mong expects this growth to continue.

“There are now more cultural spaces here, such as Tai Kwun and the Xiqu theatre,” she said. “By the time the development in West Kowloon is finished, we will be a major cultural hub, just like New York and London.”

Mong noted that Hong Kong and many other cities in Asia had been behind the West, in terms of having centres for the arts and culture. However, this is now changing with new developments in Hong Kong, the Mainland and across Asia.

“With the growth in the number of collectors, the number of museums has also gradually increased around Asia,” she said.

Mong herself was born in Taiwan and grew up in the United States. She has a background in working for local U.S. government and international relations, including organizing trade delegations and missions to China and Asia. This is Mong’s second stint in Hong Kong: she worked here for over a decade until 2002, and then returned to helm the ASHK in 2012. 

Hong Kong’s dynamic East-meets-West environment was one of the key draws for Mong, and she also enjoys the fast pace of life here – and the better weather compared with New York. Mong’s considerable cross-cultural background and career experience have been a great help in her role at the ASHK.

“Cultural interpretation is something that I am comfortable with as I have both backgrounds – I’m both Chinese and American. I believe in the word ‘and,’ not ‘either-or,’” she said.


Company: Asia Society Hong Kong Center

HKGCC Membership No.:HKA0820

Established:1965

Website:http‭://‬www.asiasociety.org.hk

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