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West Kowloon Cultural District: War of Words Never Ends – US-China Today
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West Kowloon Cultural District: War of Words Never Ends

Plans to develop an ambitious $2.8 billion cultural district in West Kowloon are causing controversy.

在西九龙投资二十八亿发展文化区的计划引起了热烈的争论。

From the first day it was proposed in 1998, Hong Kong’s plan to develop a $2.8 billion cultural district in West Kowloon has been a source of controversy. One of the most ambitious projects in the history of Hong Kong, the local government’s plan includes a 42-hectare space facing Victoria Harbor, with theaters, museums, public parks, shopping malls, and residences. It will transform the landscape on the western side of Kowloon Peninsula.

On March 4, 2011, the government announced the winning design scheme for the project. The battle over what it will look like and the kind of impact it will have continues.

The final winner of the design competition was “City Park”, run by the famous British architect Sir Norman Foster, who also created the headquarters of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Ltd. and the territory’s new Chek Lap Kok Airport. Foster’s proposal includes a 23-hectare public park with 5,000 trees, a shaded 2.2-kilometer promenade along the coast and cultural institutions toward the north of the green space. The theaters – a contemporary art museum called M+ and arts-education facilities – together with commercial areas for shops, restaurants, offices and hotel, will stretch from east to west. The design is intended to be carbon-neutral, and includes plans for waste recycling, as well as solar and wind power.

According to an official statement, the Board of West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA) chose Foster’s ‘City Park’ for its “balanced mix of land uses integrating arts and cultural facilities with commercial uses, and its full consideration of flexibility and public enjoyment of core facilities.”

Foster + Partners – City Park

Not everyone was satisfied with the decision. Albert Lai, Vice-chairman of the Civic Party, contended that Foster won the bid solely because of cost. “Foster’s scheme is the best choice in the financial perspective,” he observed. “But does the design in the lowest financial risk means the best for a cultural district?”

Even some authority members doubted the government decision. Ada Wong, a member of Consultation Panel of the WKCDA, said she preferred another scheme over Foster’s. She said the “Financial District + Great Park Model” of the “City Park” scheme was mundane, and implied that the government chose it for its safety and conservativeness.

The continuing complaints reflect the long-running political battles over the project.

The initial supporter of the idea was then-Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Tung Chee Hwa, who in 1998 called for turning Hong Kong into a hub for art and culture in Asia. An international design competition was organized in April 2001, and Foster, who submitted a costly and enormous “Canopy” design scheme, won the bidding in February 2002. However, after intense public criticism of cost and what were widely seen as excessive benefits for property developers, the decision was overturned. In 2006, the government established the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, with the grant of US$2.8 billion, to take over responsibility for developing the project.

After two public consultations in 2009 and early 2010, the second round of design competition started in August 2010. The WKCDA paid HK$1.5 million to three famous companies, Foster + Partners, Rocco Design Architecture Ltd. and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), to design proposals. The WKCDA held a series of exhibitions to consult for public opinions.

30,000 questionnaires were sent out and 7,000 were returned. According to results announced by the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Foster’s design won the most support. However, serious doubts were raised about the credibility of the survey.

“The government played a little trick by dominating the survey”, said Dr. Robert Chung, an experienced expert in public surveys. “Among the 7,000 questionnaires, 3,000 of them were completed by high school students who took a field trip to WKCD and told by their teachers how brilliant the cultural district would be,” said Chung.

Questions were also raised about the content of the survey. Professor Lawrence Pun of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, thought that some questions, such as “Do you think WKCD is important for the cultural development in Hong Kong?” were intended to influence the responses of the interviewees.

“The root problem of the consulting process lies in the absence of an open system, not the technique,” Professor Pun noted. “The public and professions should play a more important role in discussion and express their opinions, instead of having the government dominate the consultation.”

Eventually, the ‘City Park’ designed by Foster + Partners was chosen. “With this masterpiece, we are now closer to our vision of having a world-class cultural district that represents the aspirations and creativity of Hong Kong,” said Henry Tang, the Chairman of the Board of WKCDA and the leading candidate to be Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive. In a conciliatory gesture, Tang added that the other two proposals, “Cultural Connect” by Rocco and “Project for a New Dimension” by OMA, might also be integrated into planning for the project. The final design will be submitted by the end of 2011, with a groundbreaking ceremony set for early 2012, and the first-phase expected to be completed by the end of 2015.

Confidence in this ambitious blueprint was shaken by a dramatic change in the project’s leadership. In March 2010, Graham Sheffield, the former artistic director of the Barbican Centre in London, was appointed to be the Chief Executive Officer of WKCDA. In August, he came to Hong Kong to take the position and expressed confidence that he could develop the WKCD into a world-class cultural landmark.

Just four months later, though, following his Christmas break in London, Sheffield suddenly resigned, blaming unspecified “health problems”. Less than two months later he was named a director of the British Council in London.

The reason behind Sheffield’s sudden resignation remains a mystery. “He had said before that he disliked Hong Kong all the way, the food, the climate, and the local culture,” noted West Kowloon Consultation Panel member, Ada Wong, who claimed Sheffield left because of homesickness.

Another area of speculation centered on tensions between the arts and money. A local artist, Chow Chun Fai, suspected that Sheffield was forced to leave because he wanted to focus primarily on developing the arts, while the government was more interested in profits from development.

Others see Sheffield as the victim of a power struggle. P.Y. Tam, chairman of Hong Kong Institute of Planners, who met Sheffield several times, believed that political conflict, rather than a so-called “health problem”, was the real reason for his departure. In fact, the authority has a long history of internal trouble. More than 30 percent of its staffs has resigned during the years it has been in existence, including Chan Sak Quen, the former Chief Executive Officer who resigned after taking the position for only one week. The authority West Kowloon Cultural District Authority has avoided answering questions on how the project will proceed without a chief executive. On its website, the advertisement for Sheffield’s successor is still up.

In the real-estate world, all eyes have been on West Kowloon since the Hong Kong government set aside HK$21.6 billion (US$2.8 billion) and 40 hectares of prime waterfront real estate several years ago. Many organizations, developers and prominent personalities have been vying to be part of the project, leading some to wonder whether the Cultural District will have the same fate as the Hong Kong Cyberport. The Cyberport project was initially planned to develop Hong Kong’s IT industry but ended with numerous luxury flats built in the area instead.

“The number one enemy of West Kowloon Cultural District is money,” claimed Chik Wing Hong, one leading member of Hong Kong Alternatives, a citizen’s group unaffiliated with any commercial or political groups, committed to the development of the West Kowloon site in the best interests of the Hong Kong people. “Ordinary citizens should benefit from the cultural project rather than land agents.”

There are some benefits to the public-private-partnership model adopted by the government. It allows less direct investment in public facilities and introduces market-driven cultural management as well. This also raises fears that the public interest will be ignored.

As a city where everyone thinks about getting rich, many in Hong Kong suspect that all the government’s talk, consultations and the design competition have been less about developing culture and art than making more money for the already bulging government coffers and the pockets of real estate developers.

Another concern is that after the culture district is established, it might become a luxurious entertainment center where culture is traded like commodity. A former senior of Hong Kong Arts Development Council, who asked not to be identified, said the Hong Kong government was not clear about the goal of WKCD. According to its consumable model design, the WKCD would be far away from the initially declared “pure culture district”.

Given the relationship between culture and business, one widespread view is that business is an essential factor in the development of arts and culture. “Artists are learning how to cooperate with businessmen and the government to make a healthier and more blooming improvement”, said Chow Chun Fai, a young artist of Fotanian, a local artists’ group. “Not enough positions are given to artists to speak out about what we need and want.”

The final fate of the WKCD remains uncertain. As a new Chief Executive for Hong Kong will be chosen in 2012, there is speculation that the new administration might put forward some changes for the WKCD plan. “The decision-making power of WKCD is commanded neither by WKCDA nor by Henry Tang, but the citizens themselves,” said Albert Lai. “WKCD needs to be more closely connected with local community, so Hong Kong citizens should pronounce their voice loudly first.”

Renee An, Yibo Zhang, Jewel Zhu are students in the Journalism Program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.