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The Hong Kong Palace Museum deal: What’s that smell?

Some people are opposed to the Palace Museum project because they do not relish the thought of Carrie Lam as Chief Executive. Some are opposed to it, perhaps, out of habit. Some people may just not like museums. Some may be put off by the thought that the best contents of the old Imperial Palace were spirited away to Taipei 50 years ago, and the best of what is left is unlikely to leave Beijing.

I am not in any of those categories but I have to say that the project has a distinct smell about it. For those of you who have just come in, before Christmas the government announced that a Palace Museum, housed in a replica of part of the Forbidden City, would be built on part of the land reserved for the West Kowloon Cultural District. The construction will be funded not by the government, but by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which runs our two horse casinos and a fleet of betting shops.

palace museum poster

An ad for the Palace Museum in a Hong Kong MTR station. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

What bothers me is the chronology. Early in 2015 the internationally famous museum director who was steering the cultural district project resigned, and was replaced with a retired Hong Kong civil servant. In September of the same year Ms. Lam visited Beijing and toured the Palace there, which is not a replica. The director thereof then asked her if she could arrange a venue in the Cultural District where selected objects from the palace museum might be displayed for the delectation of Hong Kong citizens.

Ms Lam, according to her account of the proceedings, saw this as an opportunity to “do something for Hong Kong,” and the possibility that Hong Kong might not be overwhelmed by the prospect of a branch museum does not seem to have crossed her mind. Also, according to her account, she considered that she could not take the matter further with the Beijing museum until she had located a site and the money to pay for a building.

We must suppose that Ms. Lam, who considers herself a “proactive official,” put her mind to this as soon as she returned. And in fact in December 2015 the Jockey Club was first asked if it would cough up the large sum of money which the project would require. This does not come as a great surprise because the LegCo Finance Committee was being rather difficult at the time.

carrie lam

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam tours the Palace Museum Learning Centre in Beijing. Photo: GovHK.

Saying that “the Jockey Club was requested” is a polite way of putting it. Actually disbursements from the Jockey Club Charities Fund are decided by a joint committee on which the government is represented. This is a useful arrangement for both sides. It allows the government to save money by having someone else pay for clinics, schools and such like which it would otherwise have to pay for. It allows the Jockey Club to plaster its logo over said clinics, schools etc., thereby distracting the casual observer from the sordid nature of the club’s main source of income. So there is give and take. It would be astonishing if a suggestion strongly supported by the Chief Secretary were refused.

Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, alias the King of Votes, was unkind enough to point out in LegCo that while the Jockey Club was, at least in theory, pondering its response to the funding request, the club was fortunate enough to secure an extension on a racecourse lease and permission to hold more race days than before. Mr. Chu has an admirable nose for research. He also noted that the Jockey Club’s Executive Director collected a Gold Bauhinia Star last year. No doubt these happy events had nothing to do with the final decision, officially made last October, that the Jockey Club would pay for the museum.

Certainly Ms. Lam seems to have been confident, because having got the money lined up, she proceeded to tackle the problem of a site. The planning of the Cultural District had been going on a long time and there were of course no large spaces left vacant. Happily, though, the flying finger of fate came to the rescue, because in July 2016 the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, chaired by a Carrie Lam, announced that it was abandoning plans to build a mega performance venue in the district, leaving an empty space. Is the Carrie Lam who is chair of the Cultural District Authority also the Carrie Lam who is the Chief Secretary, and who we left a few sentences ago looking for an empty museum-sized space in the cultural district, you are wondering? Yes she is. Indeed the one and only Carrie Lam turned up in person to perform at the press conference announcing the cancellation.

At this point the smell becomes a problem. Ms. Lam said, and I quote from a boring newspaper which usually supports the government: “any plans on how to replace the mega performance venue and exhibition centre would be decided by the WKCDA and its committees.” This was no doubt an accurate summary of the constitutional position, but hardly of the practical one. It led reporters and their readers to believe, as Ms Lam should have known and presumably intended, that the cancellation of the mega performance venue had been entirely due to problems with the venue idea itself, and that the resultant vacant space would now be the subject of fresh cogitation on what might occupy it instead.

Carrie Lam

File Photo: GovHK.

But this was not the case at all. At this point Ms Lam was six months into her negotiations with the Jockey Club over money. An architect had already been engaged – apparently on the strength of his experience in museum work – and had advised on the potential use of the site. In other words the Palace Museum was virtually a done deal. Only if the Authority chose to defy the evident wishes of its chair or the Jockey Club suffered a late attack of political timidity would the museum be in any danger. To give the public the question that the site was now in a state of pristine virginity, waiting for some good idea to come along and seduce it, was grossly misleading. It was for all practical purposes already spoken for.

I do not know what the public reaction would have been if the press conference in July had been told that the planned mega performance venue would be replaced by a replica palace. Perhaps it would not have gone down too well. If people had been told that the replica palace would be paid for by the Jockey Club they might well have wondered whether the Jockey Club would have been equally willing, if asked, to pay for the performance venue. The official version is that the cancellation of the old plan had nothing to do with the upcoming museum one. This is difficult to believe. Did Ms Lam tell her fellow members of the authority, one wonders, that seven months before this matter appeared on their agenda she had been asked by a Beijing bigwig to find space in the cultural district for a museum?

Clearly Ms. Lam would be a worth successor to C.Y. Leung in at least one respect: her public pronouncements need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

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The Hong Kong Palace Museum deal: What’s that smell?