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Hong Kong looks to raise its artistic profile
Kate Arnott reports on Hong Kong's push to transform itself into a multi-billion dollar cultural and artistic hub in Asia.

Hong Kong is by no means short of wealth, yet it's never been considered rich in culture and the arts.

But now, there's a concerted push to raise the city's artistic profile.

After years of delays, and scandals, a much troubled multi-billion dollar cultural district is finally getting off the ground.

Kate Arnott reports from Hong Kong.
KATE ARNOTT, REPORTER: It's a major Asian financial centre and shopping mecca for tourists. But Hong Kong remains something of a cultural desert.

MICHAEL LYNCH, CEO, WEST KOWLOON CLUTURAL DISTRICT AUTHORITY: All the great world cities, and I include Hong Kong as one of those, really see the necessity to be more than just, you know, the finance centre.

I think it just creates a sense of dynamism that Hong Kong has in so many other ways but it just doesn't have it in the artistic or the cultural sense.

(Time lapse footage of bamboo theatre being built plays. Courtesy: West Kowloon Cultural District)

KATE ARNOTT: Things are changing, though, and quickly.

In the past year, art has been springing up all over Hong Kong. There have been mobile exhibitions of local works and a bamboo theatre has been built to showcase Cantonese opera.

(Footage of an opera plays)

As well, a much troubled arts precinct is finally moving ahead.

MICHAEL LYNCH: It's an extraordinary chunk of land in the city where land is at the highest value, I think of just about anywhere in the world.

(Footage from West Kowloon Cultural District corporate video plays)

KATE ARNOTT: This is the master plan for the 40 hectare West Kowloon Cultural District that will encompass 17 human museums and theatres as well as a large public park. It's had a turbulent history plagued by funding and political scandals nothing has been built on the site since it was proposed in 1998.

But finally international teams are being brought on board to design the individual venues and curators have started putting together a collection for the contemporary museum known as M+

STELLA FONG, M+ EDUCATIONAL CURATOR: We've aimed to build best kind of museum in Asia, especially, well the collection is not just from Hong Kong but also we are going to collect works from regions in China and Asia and also to the rest of the world.

KATE ARNOTT: In a major boost to the collection, former Swiss ambassador to China, Dr Uli Sigg, donated nearly 1,500 Chinese contemporary works to M+, valued at $US165 million.

During the 1990s in Beijing, Dr Sigg bought directly from studios and became friends with artist and political activity Ai Weiwei.

(Stills of works donated to M+ by Dr Uli Sigg shown. Courtesy M+ Sigg Collection)

DR ULI SIGG, CHINESE CONTEMPORARY ART COLLECTOR: At some point I realised that nobody, no individual, no institution, neither in China nor abroad, was collecting Chinese contemporary art, except some random buying. And once I realised this I felt that this was very strange situation. This is the biggest cultural space in the world and in hindsight this will prove to be a very important period in Chinese history.

KATE ARNOTT: With arts still heavily censored on the mainland, Dr Sigg says he chose Hong Kong for its collection for his freedom of expression. 26 of the donated works were created by Ai Weiwei.

STELLA FONG: It is our vision to be more open and receptive to different voices. So our mission is to show the best art to the rest of the world, and Ai Weiwei's one of the best artists.

For the success of the museum it is very important for us to have these kind of freedom of expression and freedom of speech.

KATE ARNOTT: There's no doubt Hong Kong's transformation as a cultural hub is happening at a rapid pace. But local artists are at risk of being left behind. They're struggling with high studio rents and independently run spaces aren't getting much support:

KATE ARNOTT: For conceptual artist Pak Sheung-Chuen, it's not an easy profession.

PAK SHEUNG-CHUEN, HONG KONG ARTIST: Basic survival condition in Hong Kong, the level is very high.

I think the commercial or the business or the market before in Hong Kong is not very strong. So basically Hong Kong artist is just doing the hard work for their own self.

KATE ARNOTT: Until recently Mr Pak says Hong Kong artists were barely recognised, and international curators weren't interested in their work.

(Stills of contemporary Hong Kong art pieces are shown. Courtesy: West Kowloon Cultural District Authority)

PAK SHEUNG-CHUEN: One more most basic thing is about the Hong Kong art history of contemporary art history. If you to find out in the library or in the internet, it's very difficult to find out.

KATE ARNOTT: It's almost missing?


KATE ARNOTT: Local artists are starting to receive more support though, and it's hoped M+ will help put them firmly on the international map.

(Stills of contemporary Chinese art pieces are shown. Courtesy: M+ Sigg Collection)

MICHAEL LYNCH: Well I think we can sort of probably continue to challenge government, to the way that they support us, the way they support arts organisations. So I think having state of the art spaces, being able to make sure that we can help them in rehearsal, in developing work, all of those sorts of things, they're going to be really important parts of building the artistic ecology of Hong Kong while at the same time helping use it as some sort of bridge.

KATE ARNOTT: Michael Lynch took over as chief executive of the West Kowloon Cultural District authority a year ago, before that he ran London's South Bank Centre and before that the Sydney Opera House.

Taking on a project tainted by a multitude of controversies hasn't been easy. And Mr Lynch is only too well aware of the how the people Hong Kong feel about the precinct.

MICHAEL LYNCH: Well I think they've being pretty sceptical. I think we have spent a lot of time in my first year trying to take the community with us in terms of showing that we were competent as an organisation and making progress.

(Footage from West Kowloon Cultural District corporate video plays)

KATE ARNOTT: It's been challenging but Mr Lynch seems determined to clean up the mess.

MICHAEL LYNCH: Let's not look back. I am reasonably positive in my view that we've got to quickly to hold to the time table.

But I think this new government which has to over the course of the five years deal with the idea of universal suffrage being introduced in 2017 sees this project as something that can symbolise and signify that they've made progress.

(Footage from West Kowloon Cultural District corporate video plays)

KATE ARNOTT: Most of the major venues are scheduled to be finished by the end of 2017 and if the cultural authority can continue at the same time pace it has been for the last year, the project just might just be ready on time.
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