Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
At first glance, it appears that Hong Kong does not have much of a cultural scene. Yet, if you scratch the surface you will find vibrant activities. Certainly, Hong Kong suffers from a lack of suitable venues. Besides, the business focused ethos means people don’t have time for the arts. Getting space and time in this hectic city is a constant challenge.
The government has woken to the issue with efforts to improve venue availability. The West Kowloon Cultural District aims to address some of the difficulties. The district will feature a museum of visual culture, theatres, concert halls and other venues. Unfortunately, with the project mired in controversy, it's delayed. There are many who feel art hubs grow organically, not from the desks of civil servants. A lack of familiarity with the art world shapes their approach. Some fear the whole project is in danger of becoming another property development.
So, to the crux of the matter and the question to ask is ... has China influenced the arts scene? The answer is yes. Hong Kong movies are being made with the mainland market in mind. In other instances, endings or scenes are re-written to appease mainland censors. The best example is the movie ‘Internal Affairs’. A cop corruption drama about double-dealing. The original Hong Kong version had the corrupt cop succeeding with the elimination of his clean rival. For China, the ending was re-scripted with the corrupt cop arrested. This small change impacted the flow of the movie by removing ambiguity. The mainland version had the authorities winning. Hong Kong is not alone in crafting movies to pass the mainland censors. Hollywood has done the same in many instances.
The once mighty Hong Kong film industry gave us Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Chow Sing-chi. Today, many of the city's film directors, such as Wong Kar-wai, Andrew Lau Wai-keung and Johnnie To Kei-fung, have turned towards the mainland. This allows them to reach a larger audience. In the process, the profit margins increase. In its heydey, during the 1990s, Hong Kong produced 300 films a year. Last year, the figure was 59. This is despite government policies that favour the industry. The Film Development Fund, launched in 2007, has provided HK91 million in support. To date 17 films from first-time directors have appeared.
Under the 2003 Closer Economic Partnership Agreement, Hong Kong films are exempt from the mainland’s quota system. Thus, allowing distribution all across the country. Of course, mainland censorship rules apply. Still, despite the government's worthy efforts, the future of the Hong Kong film industry remains in doubt. Competition from new technology, coupled with commercial pressures will narrow the market. Certainly, any provocative works that step on ideological toes won’t get a showing on the mainland.
The music scene is a mixed bag. The occasional big name acts transits through to perform in our inadequate venues. Currently, the AsiaWorld Expo at the Airport is favoured. This sterile location is remote and dull. It doesn't work well. The Hong Kong Stadium is better. But, its use draws complaints from residents when the crowds get noisy. In a bizarre incident patrons at one event were issued gloves to dull the noise of clapping. A couple of sites on open ground work well; one next to Tamar and the other at the West Kowloon Cultural District. If the weather cooperates these venues provide a splendid city backdrop for a concert.
Local independent music is being generated to showcase at places such as Hidden Agenda. Sited in a old factory building this venue has attracted a lot of attention. Operating in breach of the land lease, Hidden Agenda attained some notoriety. A raid by Immigration Officers resulted in assaults on public servants. With police reinforcement called in to maintain order, some arrests resulted. The site has since shut down citing concerns over fire safety. Some bands have taken to the streets performing in underpasses and other open venues. Using social media to call in the audience, lookouts warn of approaching officials. With soaring property prices, locating a permanent venue for performances will continue to be difficult.
In the more mainstream arena, remnants of Cantopop nostalgically rumble along. Supported by the Chinese diaspora overseas and in southern China, it harks back to the past. Stars such as Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung, George Lam, Alan Tam and Sally Yeh are recognised as household names. Official attempts to marginalise Cantonese as a language met with strong resistance, reinforcing the standing of Cantopop. Yet, its days appear numbered as young people switch their attention to Korean pop stars.
Occupy generated a burst of artistic activity. Creative banners, cartoons and artworks appeared. Each side got in on the act. Short films supporting the police appeared, whilst the other side countered with their own narrative. Shared through WhatsApp and other social media, these pieces circulated quickly. Most became more noise reverberating through respective echo chambers. None of this changed minds. In the end, all it did was reinforce already held opinions, giving legitimacy to views and feelings.
Despite Hong Kong’s saturation with new media, books remain a staple for many. Anything that touches on China's leadership and their private lives proves popular. There also exists a trade of exporting banned material into the mainland. This came to the fore in the so-called ‘Bookseller’ saga. If you want details then see this. Cutting to the chase. It's alleged that five individuals involved in smuggling sensitive books into China were detained. In one instance the bookseller was allegedly picked up in Hong Kong. He was then spirited across the boundary to the mainland. This caused an uproar. Whilst not proven, many believe that Chinese security agents took the bookseller. If this is true, it undermines the Basic Law.
Exactly what happened remains unclear. Although, it's certain the saga dampened the trade in illicit books crossing the border. It’s also probable that writers are careful not to offend powerful interests. Much of the content of the books is salacious gossip, without any sign of its authenticity. It is disappointing that damage resulted to Hong Kong’s confidence over such poor quality material.
To sum up, Hong Kong’s government is sensitive to the hijacking of the arts scene for political purposes. A light show was pulled in May 2016 after local pro-democracy artists hijacked the event to display protest messages down the side of the ICC building. There is a long history of political art that interprets and comments on events. In modern Hong Kong, with Beijing watching, it’s evident artists may feel constrained.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.