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Yau Ma Tei Theatre in Kowloon

Yau Ma Tei Theatre in Kowloon is the oldest remaining theatre in HK. It was built in 1930 and is used for Chinese opera.

It has been interesting learning about the cultural scene here in Hong Kong over the past year. Paul and I both work in the arts, Paul on the production side and me in marketing/communications, and my background is as a classical pianist, so going to concerts and theatre is a big part of what we do in our personal and professional lives, both at home and when we travel.

Here in Hong Kong, I would estimate that we have attended some type of live cultural event about once every two weeks over the year we’ve been here. This has included classical and modern dance performances by local and touring companies; theatre, locally produced, both in Cantonese with English subtitles and in English; classical music performed by the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra and the HK Philharmonic; and concerts by various presenting organizations. I’ve been to four Chinese operas and number five is coming up. We’ve been to various outdoor/street performance/community-type events. There is plenty to choose from.

Hong Kong bills itself as “Asia’s World City” which to me implies world-class standards. Certainly, some A+ level artists like Yuja Wang and Gustavo Dudamel come to Hong Kong. The month-long Hong Kong Arts Festival probably has the best international programming in a variety of disciplines, and some organizations bring in really fine internationally recognized or rising stars. But culturally, this city is not London or Berlin, New York or Montreal. In fact, Hong Kong is not a world-class player in the performing arts.

The HK Cultural Centre, opened in 1989, is the city's major multi-purpose performance facility. It occupies one of the most coveted sites in HK, overlooking Victoria Harbour to the famous HK skyline -- and it doesn't have a SINGLE window!!*

The HK Cultural Centre, opened in 1989, is the city’s major multi-purpose performance facility. It occupies one of the most coveted sites in HK, overlooking Victoria Harbour to the famous HK skyline — and it doesn’t have a SINGLE window!!

In fairness, I am referring to Western-style performing arts, of which there has not been a long history in HK or anywhere in Asia. The British did an awesome job of developing Hong Kong’s infrastructure and business sector, but they did not invest in culture. Hong Kong artists are working hard to make up for lost time. There is some very good work going on and I have seen some excellent performances.

The visual arts scene seems to be on quite a different level from the performing arts. There are tons of private galleries; there is a lot of energy around contemporary Asian artists, both emerging and established; Hong Kong has a huge annual international visual arts exhibition, Art Basel, etc. etc. That scene is thriving, probably because it involves money and investment, the fundamental aspects of day-to-day life in HK. You can buy art, display it, collect it. There is a culture here that supports that, especially the buy and invest parts.

The performing arts are different. They require investment but the return is not always monetary (unless it’s a Broadway-type of production). The return is intangible and aesthetic. You can’t turn around and sell it back for a profit.

Probably the biggest obstacle to a thriving performing arts scene in Hong Kong is the lack of space. Workshop, rehearsal and performance space is at such a premium that it is not unusual for plays to run for just three days. Small companies sometimes perform only a few nights a year in clubs or art galleries or wherever they can grab a few nights. The majority of HK’s performance venues are run by the city’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) – also THE major presenter here – and arts groups, local and touring, need to submit applications for venue space far in advance. Over 70% of applications are declined because of lack of space.

Understandingly, the LCSD has a maximum two-week booking policy in order to be fair and to share resources across the community. A two-week window, however, limits technical capacity for lighting, sound, cueing, and dramaturgy, all of which are aspects of stagecraft that require expertise and maturity. I’ve seen my share of new dance and theatre works that are way too long, so chock full of ideas and concepts that they fail to tell a story convincingly. More established fare sometimes suffers a similar fate. In a recent article about an upcoming Cantonese production of God of Carnage, actor Anthony Wong Chau-sang said “Although Hong Kong has been staging translated plays for a long time, most of them are not nicely adapted. Very rarely will the audience, and sometimes even the actors, understand entirely what the play is about. If we compare theatre making to cooking, those productions are still raw grains yet to be cooked into rice.” (48 Hours Magazine, July 30, 2015)

The space problem is just as challenging in the private sector. The independent music scene has seen 12 live music houses close in the last 11 years, due mostly to surging rents, leaving only a handful across the city (read more …). Big name pop artists pass on Hong Kong because there aren’t big enough venues here.

One of the brightest spots on the horizon is the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD). I know: you are thinking I’m biased because my husband works there, but I can’t tell you how many people in the industry I have met who look on that project as the Great White Hope. The district is well underway and will soon (2018-ish) be home to the Xiqu Centre with its Chinese opera house, Tea House (a small venue for experimental work), rehearsal hall and creation spaces; Freespace, located in a harbour-front park with a large black box theatre, a small music-performance space, and a big outdoor venue; and the Lyric Theatre (projected for completion in 2020) with three performance spaces for dance and theatre plus rehearsal and creation spaces for dance. WKCD will do some of its own programming, but much of what they hope to do is foster artistic development through partnerships and presentations. The District will be a huge bonus to Hong Kong’s performing arts community, hopefully leading to exciting new developments and the realization of the dreams of many arts practitioners here.

The Xiqu Centre -- coming soon to West Kowloon Cultural District

The Xiqu Centre — coming soon to West Kowloon Cultural District

The Hong Kong arts community is tenacious. There is some real talent and dedication here, and slowly but surely, Hong Kong artists are gaining recognition around the world. Paul and I will support the sector as best as we can through our work and attendance and attention. Culturally, Hong Kong isn’t there yet, but maybe one day it will live up to its billing as “Asia’s World City”.