Hong Kong must evolve beyond big events to be a cultural hub in digital era


    This article appeared originally in the SCMP on 7 August, 2021.
    Authors:  Helen So, Lead of Arts and Culture, Yolanda Lam, Assistant Researcher and Elena Vermeer, Intern at Our Hong Kong Foundation

    Hong Kong must evolve beyond big events to be a cultural hub in digital era

    The 14th five-year plan is the quinquennial national plan that establishes the strategic direction for China’s economic and social development. One short phrase in the plan has sparked copious discussions in Hong Kong’s cultural industry, and that is the mandate to develop our city into a hub for arts and cultural exchanges between China and the rest of the world.

    Yet, despite months of talking, we seem no closer to an action plan. That is because all talk so far has been empty. No one has bothered to fathom or define, through a more nuanced and astute angle, what the mandate could or should entail.

    Last month, the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles Hong Kong Member Association held a dedicated forum at which Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and state officials delivered addresses on the directive. This occasion spotlighted a divergence between local and mainland officials’ visions and strategies in working towards the ambitious goal, and this divergence might be the most telling takeaway from the forum.

    The chief executive’s speech outlined existing policies in four aspects: infrastructure, collaboration with overseas partners, collaboration with the mainland and arts tech. While these elements are certainly important, the speech seemed to lack vision and impact because it read like a progress report.

    It revealed how our administration’s vision of “cultural exchange” remains confined to physical events – examples cited included museum exhibitions, performing arts tours and arts festivals.

    To be fair, the Hong Kong government has done its part to facilitate these traditional forms of cultural exchange. It has organised and supported numerous international festivals, visits and cross-border collaborations, including the Hong Kong International Film & TV Market (Filmart), Hong Kong Arts Festival, Hong Kong Book Fair and Art Basel Hong Kong, among others.

    Offices dedicated to coordinate arts touring are also in place, with funding available. All these policies highlight the local administration’s commitment to an events-based approach.

    But while events remain indispensable, the government should be aware that they are not the be-all and end-all of cultural exchange.

    Times have changed since 1987, when cultural exchange first appeared on Hong Kong’s policy papers and denoted cross-border visits and activities. Today, we have entered an era of digital culture in which online cultural consumption has become the norm.

    In this landscape, cultural exchange happens digitally. ViuTV’s remake of the Japanese drama Ossan’s Love exemplifies this. Exchanging intellectual property and localising the drama can also be taken as a way of cultural exchange between Hong Kong and Japan.

    This points to how the word “exchange” embodies a much larger scope for the potential of cultural exchange. It connotes an interflow of ideas and information, but also high value-added commercial opportunities. Administrations around the world thus need to adjust their mindsets and acknowledge that cultural exchange manifests beyond physical events.

    Predictably, mainland China has realised this and set out aggressive short-term and long-term goals. Speeches by Vice-Minister of Culture and Tourism Zhang Xu and Lu Xinning, deputy director of the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, both emphasised how a cultural hub goes beyond a mere events space, encapsulating an array of opportunities in the cultural industry and in the digital sphere.

    Zhang supplemented his vision of Hong Kong’s industry-based cultural exchange hub with pragmatic tactics. These included strengthening digital content creation, harnessing industry incubation schemes and accelerating IP trading.

    This argument is hardly surprising. Zhang’s ministry published a blueprint in June on digitalising and bolstering the cultural industries under the 14th five-year plan. The blueprint defined clear performance indicators and concrete steps, such as short-term goals of incubating more than 100 original online productions, immersive projects and digital art installations, as well as setting up at least 10 international-facing cultural trading bases to make China a soft power nation by 2035.

    This signals a need for Hong Kong’s ambitions to move with the times and align with the national vision. Our first step is to turn from events-based to industry-based thinking.

    Lu also detailed the government’s top-down role in leading society and the market to generate synergy that stimulates quality content creation. New, creative and farsighted policies targeted at developing Hong Kong into a cultural hub are lacking, and this ought to be a wake-up call for our government to rise to the occasion.

    Hong Kong would benefit from aligning its strategy with the national vision and expanding its ambitions to encompass the digital and commercial spheres. Without a bold vision, a clear strategy and active leadership, Hong Kong’s status as a cultural hub is empty, remaining a buzzword rather than a concrete goal.

    The government would do well to reflect upon the way forward to achieve Hong Kong’s full potential at this momentous juncture.