Hong Kong’s branding campaign to be “Asia’s World City” sings the praises of Hong Kong’s livability, connectivity, security, entrepreneurialism and more, but does Hong Kong make the grade as a creative city? As I sit down to consider the question, The Economist’s Most Liveable City rankings have just been published, placing Hong Kong at #38. A report in the South China Morning Post the same morning got to the heart of the matter; if Hong Kong beat its rival, Singapore, by two rungs, the city can hardly gloat: “Both did well in terms of stability, health care, education and infrastructure,” the journalist noted, “but suffered in the culture and environment category, which dragged down their overall rankings” (Sim, 2019).
Why does culture matter in the global city game? Simply put, you can’t have one without the other. Richard Florida of the Martin Prosperity Institute dissected the ways the “creative class” (2004)—professionals in science, engineering, design, education, entertainment and the arts— drives the economic growth of cities in the 21st century. But for cities to attract this highly desirable workforce, they must offer what Florida calls “quality of place”: “what’s there”, “who’s there” and “what’s going on” (p. 284). Money makes money, and so also does culture make culture, its “value [increasing] in proportion to its abundance, not its scarcity” (Hewison, 2014, p. 7). Hong Kong has proven itself as an international financial center, and the city is one of the richest metropolises in Asia today; the HKSAR government is carrying a budget surplus of HK$58.7B for 2018-19 and current fiscal reserves of HK$1,161.6B (2019-20 Budget Speech). Yet public spending on arts and culture represents just 1.1% of total city spending.
Much of that spending has been focused in recent years on the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), conceived by the HKSAR government as a “strategic plan to promote long-term development of arts and culture, supporting Hong Kong as a creative economy and Asia’s world city” (2007-08 Policy Address). A long time in the making, WKCD is now gearing up to capture local and international attention and market share as its performance houses finish construction and open (the Freespace venue launched its programming in June 2019). In the performing arts, the sector of most concern to the International Association of Theater Critics (Hong Kong) (IATC[HK]), the major cultural attraction has traditionally been the Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF), but in this changing landscape, it cannot afford to rest on its laurels, especially as more novel and media-savvy arts festivals are successfully reaching younger generations of audiences with 21st century marketing and innovative programmes.
From Colony to Creative City?: Hong Kong’s World City campaign
Hong Kong’s world city aspirations began in the 1970s, a decade when the local arts scene professionalized rapidly (Ho, 2017). The near simultaneous creation of the Hong Kong Arts Centre and all of the city’s major arts groups was no coincidence; these new entities were instrumental to the British government’s attempts to attract top-level expatriates to Hong Kong (Karvelyte, 2018) at a time when the colonial authorities were working to restructure the economy from manufacturing to finance. Culture and economy have gone hand in hand in Hong Kong for nearly half a century. The trend continued after the Handover under the triple influence of a burst of public spending on infrastructure in the 1990s, the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 and the SARS crisis in 2003: worried by the economic outlook for the city, the HKSAR Government announced its intention to “inject a new dimension and vigour into our economy by actively promoting creative industries” (Chief Executive’s Policy Address 2003), while initiating the “Asia’s World City” branding campaign, under the aegis of the Commission on Strategic Development.
“The ways in which particular cities articulate with the global order” (Timberlake, 2018) is a helpful way of understanding the race for a global city label and the world city network it is constructing. In this new world order, “cities [are] the basic units of economies rather than nations, and [...] clusters of interacting cities are the engines that drive growth by stimulating innovation and a greater division of labor” (Timberlake, 2018). A number of agencies track the competition, and, it stands to reason, propel it as well. In addition to the Global Creativity Index prepared by the Martin Prosperity Institute, the UN and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences collaborate on a Most Competitive City ranking, Japan’s Institute for Urban Strategies releases the Global Power City Index and the global management consulting firm A.T. Kearney issues an annual Global Cities Index.
Hong Kong ranks high on those indexes that favor metrics of economics and accessibility, placing fifth on the 2019 Global Cities Index and ninth on the 2018 Global Power City Index (GPCI). Hong Kong makes it only to 20th place on the Global Creativity Index, however, based on its inability to lure members of the international creative class. That conclusion is seconded by a separate ranking within the GPCI: the Actor-Specific Ranking, which identifies indicators required by certain groups of people to be attracted to a city. Hong Kong falls dead last (#44) as a city attractive to artists. Tellingly also, Hong Kong is not included in the Global Cities Outlook report which predicts “the next generation of global hubs”.
Hong Kong Arts Festival: Top-down programming
As the city’s most recognized cultural event, the Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF) is a microcosm of both the city’s aspirations as a creative city and its veritable commitment to realizing those. The Festival’s mission is four-fold: “to present an arts festival of the highest artistic standard; enrich the cultural life of Hong Kong; act as a catalyst and arouse wider interest in the arts; and encourage cross-cultural fertilization” while presenting “a balanced Festival programme” (HKAF Society, 2018).
British cultural policy models were founded on a Keynesian belief in great art’s purportedly civilizing effect, leading policymakers to insist on “excellence” as a precondition for funding (O’Brien, 2014). The model carried over to British Hong Kong: the Executive Council prioritized the promotion of Western high art in the 1980s (Ho, 2017), and Western high culture is still considered “a special characteristic of [the city’s] ‘distinct identity’” (Karvelyte, 2018).
HKAF’s mission may be interpreted as a continuation of a British-era celebration of Western cultural models. Since its creation, the Festival has invited every year European national symphony orchestras and European and Russian ballet companies, as if these were de facto quality guarantees. The Festival’s dependence on corporate sponsorship and donations, which comprise HKAF’s biggest funding stream (33%), may be further motivation for such choices, which will dependably satisfy corporate tastes, but risk creating an elitist programme.
In per capita terms, the Festival’s approximately HK$119M budget translates to HK$16 spent on every one of its 7.336 million residents, which puts it on target with other international arts festivals hosted in a world capital, such as Paris’s Festival d’Automne or Brussels’s Kunstenfestivaldesarts (HK$14.38 and HK$16.83 respectively, in per capita spending). However, Paris and Brussels offer more ambitious programmes in size and scope, precisely because they conceive their mission to be central to an ecology of arts creation. These festivals’ mission statements speak of long range dedication to the contemporary arts, to multidisciplinarity, the creation of new work, artistic vision and a need to broaden audience perspectives through art.
To be sure, Paris and Brussels set a high bar among their peers, and the comparison is inevitably unflattering to Hong Kong’s festivals, which must operate in a different context. More than these other festivals, HKAF straddles cultures—specifically, two very distinct cultures, British and Chinese—and must answer to many constituencies: Hongkongers from opposite extremes of a very unequal gap of education and earnings; mainland Chinese visitors and residents; international expatriates and tourists; and corporate sponsors and their clientele. Moreover, Paris and Brussels benefit from proximity to each other and to other world art capitals to build their programmes, while operating in a landscape where art’s intrinsic value goes unquestioned (France now leads the world for public arts spending, at €3.6M annually). Hong Kong’s relative isolation incurs higher operational costs in a context where access to art is considered more of a luxury than a right.
HKAF’s 2020 programme includes the Bavarian State Opera, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Igor Moiseyev Ballet, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, the Festival Strings Lucerne, the Salzburg Marionette Theater, the Prague Philharmonic Choir, the Kammerorchester Basel, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the Béjart Ballet Lausanne, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, the International Theater Amsterdam and Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe. HKAF does also commission local arts groups, in its aim to be “inspirational in its influence on the local arts scene” and “to showcase the best of local talent with a preference for new works”. More programming may be anticipated in the coming years in light of the additional HK$40M promised to the Festival in the HKSAR 2018-19 Budget to encourage local commissions (2018-19 Budget Speech). However, we know from Bourdieu (1984) that “taste classifies and it classifies the classifier” (p. 6). In the richest city in the world, HKAF’s programme and ticket prices risk telegraphing to the public that corporate sponsors, donors and their peers are the Festival’s target audience.
HKAF’s priorities speak to consensus, revenue, sponsorship, reputation and global standing, but, as Hong Kong’s rankings in the global cities indexes suggest, a more ambitious formula is needed to attract the creative class of the 21st century. Unweighted by tradition, younger arts festivals are using technology, 21st-century marketing and adventurous programming choices to appeal to a wide Hong Kong audience, and thus offer illuminating examples.
Local Alternatives: Bottom-up audience building
Le French May is only half as old as HKAF, but it is proving to be a quick study of Hong Kong’s cultural landscape. The annual celebration of all things Gallic in Hong Kong, with support from the French government and the Alliance Française, also benefits from HKSAR funding through the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and is featured on the websites of both Brand Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Tourism Board. More notably, it has partnered with 124 galleries, shopping malls, museums, universities and performance venues in Hong Kong, Macau and Shenzhen. The Box theater at Freespace in the West Kowloon Cultural District, is only the latest.
With the help of a digital marketing agency, Le French May boasts enormous popular success, claiming to reach over 1 million people annually. This is an astounding figure that, if applied just to physical attendance at the festival’s events, would dwarf HKAF’s 113,000 ticketed attendees and the 190,000 people served by its education and PLUS programmes. In reality, the figure reflects audience engagement numbers reached through social media, live streaming and direct marketing. Le French May’s stated mission is “to touch everything, to be everywhere and for everyone”, a hollow slogan, but the combination of its wide-ranging programming, which includes educational and lifestyle events promoting French style and gastronomy, along with its vast network of both high art and popular culture venues, does aim to leave no stone unturned and no demographic un-“touched”. The two-month long event has yet to prove itself as a performance programmer, particularly in theater, but it does appear motivated by the French belief in culture’s intrinsic value for people and communities while marshalling technology to do so. In terms of audience engagement and reach in Hong Kong alone, Le French May is setting an example other cultural actors would do well to watch.
For innovative and contemporary art forms, however, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department’s New Vision Arts Festival offers the most adventurous programme to Hongkongers. It aims to “[help] artists and audiences explore trailblazing frontiers, [...] widening and deepening the reach of the arts in Hong Kong” with the goal to “challenge the conventional and broaden realisations and concepts of ‘art’”. Although there have been only nine editions of the Festival to date, New Vision tackles these objectives through a cutting-edge programme of multidisciplinary performances, targeted educational programmes such as an arts criticism exchange, as well as conferences and symposia that seek to elevate artistic discourse and understanding, led by academics and arts leaders. The IATC(HK) is a partner of New Vision, making it a critics’ festival, perhaps, but one that aspires to initiate intelligent dialogue about art with a public of no particular social status.
Those intentions are indissociable from its context, as an offshoot of the unelitist Leisure and Cultural Services Department, whose mission includes developing access to sports, beautifying the environment, managing performance venues and providing library and literacy services. New Vision takes no corporate funding and does not seek individual sponsorship, which may explain its biennial schedule (and consequently its absence from the Tourism Board’s website). That arrangement has its tradeoffs, however: Fewer institutional stakeholders translates into greater independence, but the risk of its biennial schedule is a loss of both visibility for audiences and sustained influence on local artists and the community.
Lessons from Taiwan: Out-of-the-box vision
Finally, an instructive regional example comes from Taiwan, where the Taipei Arts Festival has rehauled its programmes to reflect local themes and priorities. These changes come from its director, Austin Wang, and its newly appointed curator, Tang Fu-Kuen. Wang’s description of the Festival’s previous model could just as well describe HKAF: “It used to be known for being a ‘name-brand festival’ with big, brought-in shows shown at the National Theatre. People would instantly recognise the artists and that was the main reason for buying a ticket. But there was no residual benefit for the local art scene, and it was elitist” (Tsui, 2019).
To change that, Wang and Tang worked with atypical venues and local artists to develop a programme that speaks to issues of social and political identity in Taiwan as well as new artistic forms. Their objective was to create a new audience on which to build their vision for the Festival, even at the risk of seeing revenue decrease in the short term (attendance did go down by 20% for the first edition—a success in their eyes) (Tsui, 2019). Similarly, the Taiwan International Arts Festival revamped its focus in 2019 to “successfully transform itself from a window of displaying art visions to a platform for the exchanges between artists and audiences”. The translation is awkward, but the meaning is clear. Out of frustration with the status quo of corporatized, elitist festivals, arts leaders in Taiwan are turning to innovative forms more in line with local audiences and their concerns, and moving Taiwan’s art scene boldly into the future.
As Hong Kong aspires to build its brand as a world city, all of the city’s arts and cultural institutions have an opportunity to lend meaningful, long-term cultural and social value in the 21st century. One of the oldest actors in Hong Kong’s creative industries, HKAF is the product of history and tradition. Given Hong Kong’s aging population, HKAF’s predilection for classical dance and music and traditional theater forms may be a judicious short term bet on what future midlife and senior audiences will want to see and hear. But will today’s Snapchatters become tomorrow’s festival goers if HKAF does not bring them in now? Hong Kong’s younger arts festivals are aiming to reach those audiences, by focusing on engagement and innovation. Taiwan’s arts festivals are going even further, throwing away profitable, but consensual formats to bet instead on art’s intrinsic value to bring social, cultural and perhaps even economic benefits to the public. Hong Kong has long invested in art’s instrumental value and the economic opportunities it may bring but as the global city indexes make clear, sustainable creativity matters, a lesson no aspiring world city can ignore.
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Tsui, E. (2019) ‘Taiwan arts scene thrives in spite of Beijing isolation tactics - new venues draw more diverse audiences’, South China Morning Post, 9 March [online]. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/long-reads/article/2189154/taiwan-arts-scene-thrives-spite-beijing-isolation (Accessed: 15 May 2019)
 In comparison, Taipei and Shanghai allocate 3.5% and 2.3%, respectively, of their municipal budgets to arts and culture (Karvelyte, 2018).
 Hong Kong Ballet, Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, City Contemporary Dance Company, Chung Ying Theatre Company.
 In the interests of disclosure, I have contributed copy to HKAF’s house programmes and other Festival publications.