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Feature: The future of Hong Kong performing arts venues

Running a performing arts venue may not seem like the most practicable investment in Hong Kong, but with growing interest in the performing arts in recent years, the demand for venues is also growing.

HKFP spoke with three different groups on planning, running and performing in local venues.

West Kowloon: Solution to all problems?

The government seems optimistic in meeting this growing demand, with its only hindrance seemingly being constant delays and an increasing budget on the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD).

Louis Yu Kwok-lit. Photo: West Kowloon Cultural District Authority

Louis Yu Kwok-lit. Photo: West Kowloon Cultural District Authority

The arts hub in West Kowloon recently faced another deadlock. The latest proposal for the arts district is likely to spark a deficit of HK$400 million by 2018 or 2019, and artists have expressed doubts over the appointment of a new CEO.

However, those hurdles doesn’t seem to stop Louis Yu Kwok-lit from envisioning the district’s future with sheer enthusiasm. Yu took up the position as the hub’s performing arts executive director in 2010.

WKCD's Xiqu Centre. Photo: West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.

WKCD’s Xiqu Centre. Photo: West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.

“The goal of West Kowloon is to have a whole cluster of venues for arts development which show strong artistic characteristics,” the arts veteran said. While Yu admitted that constructing a hub “won’t solve the problem” of venue shortages in the city, he said that it depends whether a venue shows personality. “There are, in fact, not enough performing arts venues in Hong Kong. You wouldn’t be able to use a venue without booking at least 12 months in advance,” he said.

Interior of the Xiqu Centre. Photo: West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.

Interior of the Xiqu Centre. Photo: West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.

Yu said that the WKCD venues due to open in 2017—Freespace and Xiqu (Chinese Opera) Centre—both show distinct characteristics. Speaking about Freespace, he calls it a “a big box inside a park.” He said: “From the very first day, we designed the venue to have a young and innovative personality that is closer to youth culture.”

Freespace, a black box theatre that accommodates concerts, drama and dance performances. Photo: West Kowloon Cultural District Authority

Freespace, a black box theatre that accommodates concerts, drama and dance performances. Photo: West Kowloon Cultural District Authority

The arts hub places emphasis on training for local artists and regularly holds New Works Forums, where international theatre experts are brought together to nurture young talent.

Yu said: “I don’t think that artists’ difficulties in finding venues is the core of the problem. If your work isn’t good enough and yet you put it to the public, then so what?” He said that audience who saw the performance may be disappointed and as a result never return to the theatre again. In order to boost audience attendance in subsequent performances, Yu said that performers then have to nag their friends to support them. “This is very bad marketing and becomes a vicious circle,” he said.

The 49-year-old does not see the arts district as simply a venue provider. He strongly believes that in order to build world class venues, the hub would first have to ensure that the quality and resonance of works are able to match audience expectations.

Performing: Artocrite Theatre, local theatre ensemble

Local ensemble Artocrite Theatre offered differing opinions from a performer’s standpoint. “If you ask me, West Kowloon is just a tourism project,” said founding member Pun Kim-chau. He said that after investing so much money on building the project, the arts hub would not take the risk to invite small arts organisations to perform there.

Members of Artocrite Theatre.

Members of Artocrite Theatre.

The group, founded by six graduates from the Academy for Performing Arts, has staged small-scale productions in venues such as the Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui and Kwai Tsing Theatre. Having just finished a rehearsal for their upcoming production An Angel Dumped into New City, they seem excited to discuss their experiences—but also their frustration at arts development in Hong Kong.

“Even if the WKCD organises a ‘fringe theatre festival’ and we were invited to perform there, I think we would only be helping them meet their monthly target,” said Raymond Wan Wai-ching, an actor at the company. He added: “The performance venues may only be a concept to package the property development. It’s quite worrying.”

The theatre company in rehearsal for their latest production, An Angel Dumped in New City.

The theatre company in rehearsal for their latest production, An Angel Dumped in New City.

Wan and fellow member Wong Chiu-yum said that the problem did not simply lie with West Kowloon. In fact, it has always been incredibly difficult to book a venue—even if you are only looking to perform for a weekend. Wan said: “Even if we successfully book the venue for a week, we only get to perform during the weekend as the rest of the week would be for rehearsals.”

“In other words, we only perform for three days when we’ve rehearsed for more than two months. The cost makes no sense,” he said. Wan said that due to a “fair use policy,” the government rarely allows bookings over one week for smaller groups like theirs. He said that ultimately, it is because of the lack of venues that the government needs to come up with such policies.

Members of Artocrite Theatre. Photo: HKFP

Members of Artocrite Theatre. Photo: HKFP

The company agrees that the demand and supply for venues are disproportionate. “We can foresee the trend that an increasing number of small-scale arts groups are developing, but not the venues,” said Pun. He said that this explains why arts groups now convert their rehearsal rooms into small theatres, so they can perform without paying additional rent.

Kwai Tsing Theatre. Photo: WIkimedia Commons.

Kwai Tsing Theatre. Photo: WIkimedia Commons.

It takes performing arts groups at least six months to book a government venue, unless they join the LCSD’s venue partnership scheme. A quick browse of the list of venue partners would show that most are renowned arts groups funded by the government, including big names such as the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre and Chung Ying Theatre. Even when smaller groups such as Hong Kong Theatre Works are given a partnership, they are allocated to less accessible venues such as the North District Town Hall in Sheung Shui.

Birdy Wong Ching-yan, the ensemble’s actor and playwright believes the government’s lack of attention is to blames for the dismal state of the arts.

Artocrite Theatre.

Artocrite Theatre’s production “The Cans”, staged at Kwai Tsing Theatre in February 2015.

Wong said: “If the government thinks it’s important, they should take the initiative to develop the scene rather than respond passively.”

The company offered an ideal scenario that they would like to see happen in Hong Kong. “Why is there a need for sportsmen, but not artists? The city would be very different if families could consider watching dramas as an ideal weekend activity.” Pun said.

Cattle Depot Theatre

Imagine having the luxury to run and perform at your own theatre away from the threats of rent hikes—and suddenly a new MTR station opens on your door step.

Chan Ping-chiu could probably echo voices from both sides of the argument. As well as running a venue, he is also head of a theatre company. Chan runs the Cattle Depot Theatre located in To Kwa Wan and is artistic director of On and On Theatre Workshop.

Cattle Depot Artists Village. Photo: Wikimedia.

Cattle Depot Artists Village. Photo: Wikimedia.

“I think that we are lucky—if the SCL started constructions 10 years ago, we might be in trouble,” he said. On and On moved to its current site at the Cattle Depot Artist Village in 2001 from the Government Supplies Department on Oil Street, North Point. Chan said that if construction commenced then, district councillors would question what they were doing with the site.

He continued: “But now that we have produced results and received acknowledgement from our industry and the Arts Development Council, we are less worried.”

Since moving into their current site in 2001, hundreds of productions ranging from concerts to experimental theatre have been staged. Other than presenting their own performances, the venue also welcomes productions from other arts groups.

To Kwa Wan station of the SCL under construction in March 2015. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

To Kwa Wan station of the SCL under construction in March 2015. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Chan also does not have much hope in WKCD. “It could solve some of the problems, but not the core ones,” he said. He pointed to the fact that performing arts ensembles need many smaller venues rather than a few larger ones. He asked: “With over hundreds of productions staged each year, how can we solve the problem with only one smaller theatre?”

In order for Hong Kong’s performing arts scene to succeed in the future, Chan thinks that the city should imitate the off-Broadway culture in New York. “Smaller theatres can benefit from a wide range of societal theatres and develop it themselves,” he said. 

Cattle Depot Artists Village. Photo: HKFP.

Cattle Depot Artists Village. Photo: HKFP.

“But the difficulty is that Hong Kong does not have old neighbourhoods. Old neighbourhoods like Western District have been developed into luxury districts as well,” he said.

Feature: The future of Hong Kong performing arts venues