South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Laurence Scofield says delayed cultural district will prove to be a good return on investment
Impatience over long delays is giving way to doubts that the West Kowloon Cultural District is even needed.
“What for? For people to shop in?” a leading book publisher recently asked.
One of Hong Kong’s most respected business news columnists, Jake van der Kamp, just the other day branded it a “wastrel project” and urged Hong Kong to “chop it all”.
Is this right? Is it really the wasteful, good-for-nothing effort this name implies?
If you believe that the arts will add only limited value to Hong Kong’s future, then it certainly is. But if you believe in the power of the arts to attract overseas firms to Hong Kong and improve the quality of life for those already living here, it is not.
The attack on West Kowloon from a business angle is particularly strange.
I am a US-born businessman who’s lived in Hong Kong for almost 40 years. Based on my experience, I believe an overwhelming majority of newly arriving business people find Hong Kong a far more agreeable and attractive place to live and work today compared to the time when – not so many decades ago – it was designated a hardship posting by overseas investors and widely considered to be a “cultural desert”.
A study by the business consultant McKinsey found that enterprises consider the cultural and social environment a key factor in locating executives. Hong Kong’s existing lead in the cultural sphere over other cities confirms McKinsey’s point. Ask yourself how many Hong Kong expats you know would prefer to live in Shenzhen, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur or Taipei instead?
Despite the many attractions of these other cities, Hong Kong and its far more sophisticated lifestyle (of which the arts is a key part) would be the first choice of most people I know.
Even if we look at these things from a purely business point of view, money spent on the arts makes sense. It has a good return on investment. Former BBC World Service managing director John Tusa estimates that the arts in Britain generate £6 of economic activity for every £1 invested in the sector.
But judging the value of the arts just from a business point of view would be much too limiting. Even far greater in importance is the ability of the arts to transform the whole of society and make it a better place to live as we pursue our hopes and dreams.
Hong Kong’s economic success is undisputed and psychologists have long recognised that economic progress changes people’s goals and needs. In poverty, their quest is for food, shelter and freedom from physical harm, but with rising affluence human beings’ needs include affection, friendship and a sense of achievement.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow famously described it this way: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualisation.”
What’s true, good, and meaningful in life – these are questions the arts explore and they are a fundamental part of humankind’s quest for a better understanding of itself.
Admittedly, not everyone understands this right away. Besides denouncing West Kowloon as a “wastrel project” van der Kamp sees little to recommend our existing arts infrastructure. He found things “mostly pretty dull” when he visited the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, currently our leading performing arts venue.
He may have gone on the wrong nights. Some of the world’s top musicians, singers, directors, actors, dancers, choreographers and orchestras have trooped across its stages.
Or, quite possibly, the venue itself could be the reason he was bored. Many people would agree with his description of the Cultural Centre as a “sterile, barren place”. And this is why the new facilities in the West Kowloon Cultural District are so urgently needed.
The Foundation for the Arts and Music in Asia has found Hong Kong audiences enjoy its cultural programmes much more in the better of two theatres – even if those two theatres are showing exactly the same programme.
A special venue lends excitement to a performance and brings in new members of the audience. Many people have been to see their first opera because it was performed in the acclaimed Sydney Opera House.
Will the West Kowloon Cultural District achieve that level of renown? Let’s hope so. In the end, I suspect all the squabbling over delays and money will be forgotten and the aims of this ambitious project will have a chance to be realised – just as the innumerable criticisms in the 1960s of that iconic Australian landmark have been forgotten.
It will be money and time well spent if it helps new generations of Hong Kong people to explore the path on which the arts takes us to the well lived life.
Laurence Scofield is chairman of the Foundation for the Arts and Music in Asia, a Hong Kong-based not-for-profit group providing scholarships for Hong Kong music students and music education programmes for grassroots communities