Peering through the smog across the harbor from the towers of Hong Kong's
central business district, one can see a desolate area amid the high-rise hotels
and apartments of the Kowloon Peninsula. This stretch of reclaimed land has
become a metaphor for a struggle for the soul of the city.
Worth several billion dollars, these
empty 40 harbor-side hectares, about 99 acres, are supposed to become an
expression of Hong Kong's official commitment to culture, as well as
money-making. The official plan is for hundreds of millions of dollars to be
pumped into a "cultural district" of theaters, museums, galleries and concert
But instead of becoming a focus of civic
pride, the project has become a battleground, with most of those with track
records of engagement with the arts lined up against the project. Critics say it
is another monument to mammon being bulldozed through by a nontransparent
government with a tendency for cronyism. The project has become another focus
for activism in a city where quality of life issues, including pollution, harbor
protection and the environment, have moved to the center of politics - or as
much as possible in a state with limited franchise.
The reclamation itself so narrowed the
harbor that the tides race through it and the disparate wakes of ferries, tugs
and tows make it a crowded and uncomfortable waterway. The reclamation cannot be
undone, but the question now is over its use. It may test whether the government
is committed to improving quality of life or to using a smog-screen of "culture"
to award this valuable land to a favored developer.
The reclamation was once designated for a
park. Green space is in short supply in Hong Kong's urban area. But instead of
an urban lung, the land has now been designated for intensive development. This
creation would, its supporters claim, be both a breathtaking piece of
architecture and demonstrate Hong Kong's commitment to the arts.
The government decreed that it should be
developed as a single unit with the developer paying for the cultural aspects by
acquiring rights to build apartments and commercial space. It put forward an
outline from Norman Foster, a prominent architect, for a vast canopy to cover
the whole of the culture area within which developers could make their own
Recently the government announced that of
five proposals it received, three, all by consortia including the top six local
developers, would be considered further. This apparent progress toward
realization of a vision of a city of culture was greeted with much cynicism. The
front page banner headline on a leading Chinese newspaper was: "Pretend culture,
fake consultation, real apartment sales."
The suspicion was understandable. Five
years ago the government announced a plan to create a "Cyberport" to attract IT
industries. Without tender it awarded the deal, and its valuable land, to a
company controlled by a son of Hong Kong's best-known developer. Cyberport in
reality has become just another office/residential development.
The public will be allowed to comment on
the short-listed designs but not have any access to the commercial terms being
proposed. All that is known is that the average building to site area ratios
proposed are twice the guideline. In rewriting the competition rules to suit the
developers, Hong Kong's price for a few developer-controlled cultural venues
looks set to be more high rises - and more pollution. A leading brokerage house
says the contract will be "extremely lucrative" to the winning companies adding
up to 50 percent to their share values.
The short-listed developers have started
talking up their new-found commitment to the arts and throwing around their
supposed connections to big names elsewhere - Guggenheim, the Pompidou Center
and Beijing's Palace Museum. But artistic groups that would be the primary users
of the cultural venues complain of inadequate consultation. One not complaining
is the art gallery-owning sister of Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's chief executive.
She backed a museum of ink-painting, which has already been included.
Cynicism may yet be misplaced. Hong Kong
may get a magnificent piece of architecture and fill it with cultural
excellence, local and foreign. But a government that surrenders control of
cultural ambitions for 30 years to property tycoons, whose concern for
architectural aesthetics is not evidenced elsewhere in Hong Kong, is asking for