Is An Art and Cultural Bureau what Hong Kong needs?

Recently, Chief Executive Carrie Lam indicated that she intends to set up new bureaus for housing and culture.

At the same time, Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong has also urged Hong Kong to expand its international reach on the arts and culture frontier and to promote deeper integration with China’s rich cultural heritage. This sentiment was echoed by Beijing’s 14th five-year plan.

There is a public consensus that housing is the Achilles heel of every government administration. But what about art and culture? Are they amenities, a form of ‘collective nostalgia’ of past Hong Kong glory, or do they have the potential to drive today’s economy?

Hong Kong was the birthplace of Canto-pop culture, which was worshipped by a diaspora of Chinese-speaking people around the world as well as other Asian cultures. There is no denying that such culture, along with the wider creative industry, is long overdue for a hard reboot. Due in part to disenchantment caused by a lack of economic opportunities, we have seen a precursory renaissance of local culture. Late millennials and Gen Z crave homegrown productions as a distraction from negative news such as the pandemic. The popularity of Canton-pop sensation Mirror, and the record-breaking medal haul at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are frequently cited as evidence of the resurgence of local pride.

Whatever the real reasons behind this revival, it is crucial to first recognize that the lasting prosperity of arts and culture, as well as the extraction of quantifiable benefits, must be embedded with intelligent city planning and policy implementation. For one, there must be a high concentration of cultural enterprises and a creative workforce in the same geographic area.

Such reshuffling would enable creative partnerships to develop. Clustering new-aged businesses and young innovators will breed new specializations and disciplines. Places where innovations are prized are conducive to unlocking synergy opportunities. This, in turn, can promote distinctive living and working spaces that can boost even more creative exchanges and a strong sense of communal identities. Late millennials and the Zoomers generations would love nothing more than to have communities they can call their own.

the presence of public art and related streetscape facilities such as sculptures, interactive art and logos can often attract casual perusal, Instagram fanatics or investment in other artistic projects.

It must be noted that such creative clusters are not limited by space and size. Dense creative facilities can occur on a range of scales, from a single building to a streetscape or a neighborhood. For example, the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups Jockey Club Social Innovation Centre was housed in a single industrial building in Wong Chuk Hang that aims to encourage start-ups with socially oriented objectives.

Further, arts and cultural activity can increase attention and foot traffic to an area, including attracting passersby and the length of time and amount of money they spend. Proximate business such as restaurants and malls can take advantage of shared interests and elevated economics. Similarly, the presence of public art and related streetscape facilities such as sculptures, interactive art and logos can often attract casual perusal, Instagram fanatics or investment in other artistic projects.

There has been intermittent effort across the community to revitalize industrial buildings in the name of art, culture, and innovation. Should an independent bureau be established, it can direct more resources for artists, innovators, and people in related economic clusters. For example, the government could form a cultural and tourism partnership that encourages interdisciplinary collaborations among tourism, historical sites, and cultural groups. Such a partnership could also help the tourism board develop new strategies to revive local tourism as part of a broader economic scheme.

Another impetus could be derived from an injection of new gastronomical ideas to transform older districts into a culinary oasis. Health and eco-conscious enthusiasts are increasingly concerned with nutrition, fitness, stress, and their environment. Many of these new-aged consumers have reservations about highly generic chain restaurants and shopping scenes that do not necessarily address their needs. New culinary entrepreneurship in eco-friendly and healthier food sources such as ‘Impossible Foods’ and ‘Beyond Meats’ can breathe new life into traditional cuisine. New clusters centered around a brand-new food culture could be used as an incubator for other forms of innovation hubs. For entrepreneurs, the district could provide more than caffeine and a place to work. Restaurants could be entwined with a distinctive entrepreneurship ethos to allow patrons to listen to startup pitches, give advice, and test new products.

A flourishing arts and culture sector could influence where the workforce in this digital age, especially the ‘Zoomers’, want to work and live. To extend the reach of Hong Kong arts and culture to overseas regions, we must first focus on developing the specificities of local culture, artistry, and craftsmanship. If communities begin to deem an area as an art and cultural district, we can centralize creative assets and draw more resources and engagement throughout the larger community.

Lastly, the creation of an art-focused bureau is also in line with the current political landscape. The vacuum left by opposition parties means that there is now room for legislative and executive branches to replenish the talent drought. For the benefit of Hong Kong, we must begin to pave the way to introduce new blood into the Hong Kong political arena. More than anything, this will be the perfect opportunity for new talents who shied away from political filibustering to put their hats in the ring to rebuild Hong Kong.

Despite concerns that the arts and culture bureau might create a bloated government, the renewed focus on art will boost economic vitality and forge a bond between innovators and Hong Kong residents. There is much untapped economic potential interlinked with the region’s artistic ecosystem that is waiting to be explored.

(An abridged version of this article first appeared in the South China Morning Post)

Head of legal with an MBA@MIT. Exploring topics on education, data privacy, tech, entrepreneurship and PE/VC landscape.