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HongKongEcho: West Kowloon's grand unveiling and grand ambitions

What’s going on in West Kowloon? Betty Fung says there’s more to come as the city puts the finishing touches on its arts and culture mega project.

“Even though contemporary visual culture may not be very popular in Hong Kong, the people of Hong Kong do embrace M+ as something new and different from what they used to see,” remarks Betty Fung with a wry smile. The CEO of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority points to the 383,000 visitors who stepped foot in the M+ museum during its first one-and-a-half months of operation as proof that the public is hungry for a new cultural offering in the city.

You would have forgiven the former civil servant - who has over 34 years’ experience in public service - if she was a little downcast given the subsequent prolonged closure of the museum as the latest COVID outbreak began to wreak havoc on the city. Add to that the drastic drop in international visitors over the past two years and you’ve got a bleak state of affairs for what should be a vibrant new project.

Instead, the public service veteran is decidedly upbeat. “We’ve come a long way, but there is still plenty to do in the coming years,” she says. After all, she reminds us, there is much more to the District than its iconic centrepiece.


District details


The 40-hectare site along the West Kowloon waterfront is roughly divided into a mix of arts and cultural facilities, retail-dining-entertainment, and hotel-office-residential developments.

Its openings to date include the Xiqu Centre – a venue dedicated to the promotion of Cantonese opera, Freespace – a centre for contemporary experimental performances, M+ – Asia’s first global museum of contemporary visual culture, and the 11-hectare Art Park and Art Pavilion.

Despite the obvious disruptions, Fung and her team still plan to roll out the next piece of the precinct’s puzzle – the Hong Kong Palace Museum – in July 2022, which will feature thirteen loans from the Musée du Louvre alongside over 900 treasures from the Palace Museum, Beijing, as part of the site’s grand opening. The Lyric Theatre Complex will follow and be completed in 2024, which includes a 1,450-seat Lyric Theatre, a 600-seat Medium Theatre, and a 270-seat Studio Theatre.

A vast 254,000 square metre underground area known as the Integrated Basement is also under construction, which Fung explains will house transport infrastructure and utilities necessary to roll out further projects including more arts and cultural facilities as well as hotels, office space and retail/dining/entertainment venues. These commercial developments are crucial to generating long-term income for the HK$21.6 billion venture, as well as the further and sustainable development of the District.

Shifting focus


Fung admits the current situation is far from ideal. “Many art institutions in the world have been facing such a difficult situation and have been exploring various innovative ideas to ‘keep arts and culture alive’ during the pandemic.”

Live and pre-recorded programmes have been rolled out, including curator-led virtual tours of M+ while the West Kowloon Tea House Student Matinees presented by the Xiqu Centre allows students to gain access to Cantonese opera performances and culture regardless of their physical location. A video series of dance programmes, Cantonese music performances, educational videos, as well as artist interviews, will also be launched in current months.

While there is no end in sight to Hong Kong’s tourism standstill, Fung is confident that the District will be a major drawcard for international visitors once the situation allows. “I think overseas and mainland visitors are looking for a new destination in Hong Kong that is not just for shopping and usual theme park attractions. We’re in a prime position to lure this new type of tourist, being located right on the doorstep of the high-speed rail station in West Kowloon.”

Local engagement is just as important, she says. A Consultation Panel has been set up to gauge views and suggestions from the general public and community-focused initiatives like the M+ Teacher Round Table target the input of teachers and students in shaping the museum’s future programmes.

The co-hosting of events like the mega-sized art installations by international art collective ‘FriendsWithYou’ in September 2021 and the Christmas Town 2021 Hong Kong Winterfest (which was shifted from Central) on West Kowloon’s substantial grounds have attracted a large number of local visitors to the District. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong New Year Countdown Concert in December 2021, which used the LED façade of M+ to display the countdown clock, was broadcast worldwide to an audience of over 2.4 billion.


Navigating a new period


“We’ve entered a new, fully-operational phase with the full team of senior executives on board,” says Fung, who believes the high-profile management re-shuffles of recent years are a thing of the past.

But the project continued to court some degree of controversy during the launch of M+ with concerns raised about the feasibility of hosting photographs by artist Ai Weiwei, notably Study in Perspective: Tian’anmen (1997), on the museum’s website. In light of developments in Hong Kong since city-wide social unrest in 2019, questions have been raised about how an internationally minded museum can navigate the current politically charged context and whether upper management would seek to place limitations on artistic programmes.

As the CEO, I fully respect the curatorial independence and professional judgement of the Museum Directors and their teams. The WKCDA Board Chairman and I have only asked colleagues to continue to curate their exhibitions and programmes from the artistic perspective. As a public museum, we must also comply with the laws of Hong Kong, including the National Security Law. Other than that, the decision as to whether something can be shown or not should be guided by research and academic rigour.”  She added that as with other international museums, M+ also takes into account the questions of taste and the response of the audiences in curating exhibitions. “So, there is a degree of professional judgement that must be exercised by all museums.”

It’s still early days, but Fung is adamant that the uncertainty will give way as the District continues to pursue its mission to encourage dialogue between Eastern and Western arts and culture for appreciation by audiences from Hong Kong, the mainland and beyond.

“If I look around the world, I can’t find another example of a cultural hub that is able to do what we’re planning – showcasing the best of Eastern and Western cultures all in one place.”