What should we do with West Kowloon Cultural District?

What should we do with West Kowloon Cultural District?

Hong Kong's building the space, but what to put in it? Ai Wei Wei, Nury Vittachi, Tanya Chan and others head online to discuss options for the West Kowloon Cultural District

November 20 is the deadline for the end of the public engagement exercise for the proposed West Kowloon Cultural District master plans, but that won't be the end of the discussion.

Some of the key players in the cultural district’s development crowded into a former dining hall at the old Victoria Prison last Monday to witness the launch of West Kowloon Cultural Dialogues, an online effort to keep the conversation about the cultural district going.

While the overall structure of the cultural district might soon take shape, we still have no idea about how that space will actually be filled. The Dialogues aim to maintain the momentum in public conversation on the cultural district during the lead up to construction, and beyond.

Spearheaded by architects Marisa Yiu and Eric Schuldenfrei and the Hong Kong Ambassadors of Design, a not-for-profit group that promotes design and culture, the project brings together a diverse range of luminaries who share their visions for West Kowloon through interviews, sketches and articles.

"I like to say it’s a one-month project that will go on for 10 years," said Schuldenfrei, who draws an analogy to TED, the global conferences dedicated to good ideas. "It’s what we do with our friends -- discussing and analyzing current events." 

New material is being rolled out every two weeks, but dozens of videos are already available on the Cultural Dialogues website. In one, mainland artist Ai Wei Wei -- an increasingly sharp critic of Beijing who was recently

placed under house arrest -- underscores the importance of making West Kowloon a project "for the people, not the government."

Nury Vittachi from WKCDialogues on Vimeo.

In another video, writer Nury Vittachi draws an analogy to two 1960s pop acts: The Beatles, who worked their way out of Liverpool, and The Monkees, assembled for TV by a pair of Hollywood producers. “What happened to the Monkees?” he asks. “After the TV show ended, their record sales dropped to nothing.”

The lesson? Manufactured culture doesn’t last.

At the launch event, Marisa Yiu makes another point: culture can’t exist in isolation. While the three master plans proposed by Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas and Rocco Yim all emphasize connectivity to the surrounding city, there still isn’t any clear sense of how the activities that take place in the cultural district will be linked to the arts communities that already exist in Hong Kong.

Part of the reason the Cultural Dialogues project was unveiled in Victoria Prison is because, over the next few years, it will be transformed into a Jockey Club-sponsored cultural hub. “Cultural sites should not be isolated,” says Yiu, and finding a way to integrate all of Hong Kong’s disparate cultural activities will be key to the success of West Kowloon.

Ultimately, though, talk is easy -- a point made clear by legislative councillor Tanya Chan, who advocates better arts education in a video on the site. “These days we’re having a very concentrated discussion about hardware, but we need to focus on the software,” she says. “Words are only words. How do you create the right atmosphere [for creative expression]? It’s very difficult.”

Graham Sheffield, head of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, was also at the launch, but he kept mum about his thoughts on the matter, sharing only a few words with reporters about the importance of public participation.

Perhaps the most meaningful words came from Prudence Mak, a young designer whose interview can be seen on the Cultural Dialogues website: “Art is about making mistakes,” she says.

Hong Kong has been talking about the West Kowloon Cultural District for nearly a decade -- isn’t it time to shift focus away from the district and back towards the culture that will bring it to life, even if that culture is organic and unpredictable?

Or, as the film director Fruit Chan puts it: “I say build it! Just do it!”


Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
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