January 4, 2005

Arts Project Provokes Hong Kong Uproar


Protesters taking issue with plans for the West Kowloon Cultural District on Christmas Day.

HONG KONG, Jan. 3 - Imagine a cultural complex several times the size of Lincoln Center sitting on a long peninsula jutting into the heart of one of the world's greatest natural harbors, with four giant museums, four large concert halls and theaters, a school for the arts and more.

That is what the Hong Kong government wants to build. It has already commissioned a design by Norman Foster for an immense canopy of clear plastic over the peninsula and taken bids from developers to build the complex, the West Kowloon Cultural District.

But the project has become the center of a bitter debate in the last few weeks. Artists here are deeply split on the idea, and a street demonstration on Christmas Day drew hundreds of protesters. Since the three main proposals for the district's layout were put on display in a Kowloon hall in mid-December, nearly 50,000 residents have flocked to see them.

International cultural institutions and even world leaders are being drawn into the fray. Hong Kong is Asia's busiest transportation hub and the gateway to China, prompting a free-for-all among major American and European museums that would like to play a role in the complex. President Jacques Chirac of France flew here in October to ask Hong Kong leaders to choose the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris to operate one of the four museums in the district, making it potentially the center's first overseas operation. But the Pompidou Center finds itself in sometimes catty sniping with rival institutions that also want to run museums in the district, notably New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Museum of Modern Art. Unlike local institutions, an out-of-town museum would already have access to a top-quality permanent collection and would have the connections to borrow important works from other big museums. The Pompidou, for instance, has said it could obtain works from the Louvre.

The Guggenheim's overseas operations, most notably in Bilbao, Spain, but also in Venice and Berlin, have made it the front-runner to operate at least one of the museums here. That has drawn gibes from other museums' leaders.

Senior Pompidou officials told reporters in Paris last month that their center was reluctant to work with any "second-class" operation that turned out overseas museums like a "Coca-Cola factory," remarks that were widely interpreted as a criticism of the Guggenheim. The comments attracted particular attention here because the Pompidou and the Guggenheim are both part of the most elaborate development proposal here, being led by companies controlled by Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong's, and Asia's, wealthiest person.

Pompidou officials have since gone out of their way to emphasize that the Pompidou and the Guggenheim collaborate on many projects, including a planned exhibition later this year of works by David Smith, the American sculptor, that will travel from the Guggenheim to the Pompidou.

"We are not like Pepsi against Coca-Cola," Bruno Maquart, the Pompidou's executive director, said in an interview here. "Basically with the Guggenheim we are partners, we can be friends - we have different views on different subjects."

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has been somewhat more circumspect than the Pompidou, emphasizing a preference for frequent loans to other museums instead of franchised operations overseas. The museum is in discussions with a rival development group here and says that it is prepared to work closely with a locally run museum in the cultural district.

"We can't imagine a museum in New York would know how to run a museum in Hong Kong better than people in Hong Kong," said Terence Riley, the chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art.

The Guggenheim has avoided public criticism of its rivals, while complimenting Hong Kong and its residents almost to the point of flattery.

"The cultural history of this part of the world is enormous, and the center of contemporary art is not necessarily in New York," said Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Foundation. He added during a recent visit here that the planned cultural district represents "the most exciting opportunity in the world because of the scale and the location."

But before any major museum has a chance to mount a single sculpture or painting, the government and residents here must actually decide to go ahead with the project. The effort has proved increasingly contentious, involving everything from local financing for the arts to the future of democracy in Hong Kong, which Britain returned to China in 1997.

Donald Tsang, the chief secretary and second-ranking official here after Tung Chee-hwa, the chief executive, has pushed a plan calling for developers to submit bids for construction on the entire, 100-acre site. The winning bidder will build not only the museums and concert halls and cover their operating losses for 30 years - the lure for international museums - but will also be allowed to build and sell condominiums, luxury hotels and shopping malls on the government-owned land between the cultural venues.

The executive branch of the government here has broad discretion over the use of the land. So this plan allows quick action without the involvement of the fractious legislature, where democracy advocates in the opposition hold nearly half the seats. By contrast, selling the land and using the proceeds for cultural activities would require approval by the legislature.

The land for the cultural district was reclaimed a decade ago for a tunnel under the harbor to a new airport but has lain vacant ever since. If some version of the plan does not go ahead soon, nothing may happen for a long time, Mr. Tsang warned in an interview. "It will require a new generation of politicians, a new generation of artists and perhaps a new generation of people to see it in a new light," he said.

Lord Foster's canopy design, included by all three layouts under review now, has been the focus of debate as well. Supporters say that it resembles an immense dragon and will become a symbol of the city to compare with the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Sydney Opera House.

Detractors liken the canopy to the Nike "swoosh" and warn that a humid greenhouse effect may develop underneath, and that overhead panels may blow away in typhoons and become scythes. Leslie E. Robertson, a prominent American structural engineer working on the project, said that experiments in wind tunnels had showed that such problems could be avoided.

The government's plans have particularly divided artists here. Many question whether the project places too much emphasis on property development, and warn that Hong Kong has done little to assemble important museum collections or to invite internationally renowned performance troupes to appear at the site.

"It's good to have a couple nice buildings around, but how is the hardware going to help the life of the people, is it going to go beyond being a tourist spot?" asked William Kong, a producer of the films "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers."

As the project has acquired critics in the cultural community, populist politicians in the legislature here have begun suggesting a different approach. They want to sell the land, worth as much as $6 billion, to developers. The legislature would then direct a small part of the proceeds to cultural programs and the rest to social spending, notably to cancel the government's recent move to cut welfare payments.

The current cultural district plan "is undemocratic and without proper consultation," said James To, a senior lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Party.

In an unusual twist, the government's plan is also opposed by many property developers, the most politically influential segment of the city's business community, who usually are adversaries of the Democratic Party in the legislature.

The developers usually back the Tung administration, whose members are selected by the Beijing officials who also control the fate of the developers' many projects in mainland China. But the government's decision to put the entire peninsula out for tender as a single project meant that only a handful of the wealthiest developers could submit bids last summer. The rest of the developers want the project withdrawn and broken into smaller pieces on which they might compete.

Local politics also loom large. Mr. Tsang and Henry Tang, the financial secretary and third-ranking government official here, are the leading candidates to succeed Mr. Tung as chief executive when his term expires in 2007. Mr. Tsang is a former civil servant sometimes perceived as an ally of the city's leading tycoons, while Mr. Tang comes from a wealthy manufacturing family and has strong ties to many developers and other business executives.

The possibility that the whole idea for a cultural center might be defeated or considerably delayed has made some early skeptics in the arts community more supportive of the plan in recent days. "The more I understand the mechanism of the government, the less and less I feel we have a choice" in moving as quickly as possible without the legislature's involvement, said Kai-yin Lo, a prominent jewelry designer.

Gauging public opinion here is difficult; no reliable polls have been conducted. But on a recent evening, visitors to the cultural district design exhibition were uniformly enthusiastic about the project.

"When I went to Europe, I visited a lot of places, but we don't have much in Hong Kong," said Thomas Fok, a 34-year-old pastor. "We cannot make the issue too political."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

West Kowloon Reclamation Competition