Economics Cultural policy Features China

Hong Kong grows ever closer to China’s mega-city

The mainland’s manufacturing heartland, the Pearl River Delta, will be increasingly influential

West Kowloon will be well connected to the mainland. Photo: punxkid.egloos

In a couple of years, when the Hong Kong portion of the controversial and long-awaited high-speed XRL train line becomes operational, it should take just 48 minutes to travel from the former British colony to Guangzhou. The capital of Guangdong province is one of the stops on the way to the route’s final destination, Beijing. For now, the quickest direct rail trip between Hong Kong and Guangzhou, the two largest cities in southern China, takes nearly two hours. The XRL project, which is expected to cost HK$70bn ($9bn), is a centrepiece of an ambitious political policy to accelerate economic integration within the Pearl River Delta, one of China’s most dynamic regions.

The area, made wealthy as the “factory of the world” due to its manufacturing and service industries, is home to around 120 million people. Apart from Guangzhou and Hong Kong, Guangdong includes the major cities of Shenzhen, Foshan and Dongguan, as well as the special administrative region of Macau.

The ongoing, economics-driven transformation of the region into a single mega-city is seen by many as inevitable. Hong Kong has long been the “front office” and the financial centre, Macau’s casinos have made it China’s playground, Guangdong and Shenzhen have provided production and logistics muscle. As a whole, a better connected Pearl River Delta offers a compelling business proposition.

But what about cultural integration? The region shares a common local language in Cantonese, and a can-do entrepreneurial spirit that, in theory, can support artistic innovation. At first glance the integration policy of Pearl River Delta looks like a natural solution to the main obstacles that Hong Kong artists face. Away from Hong Kong, rents are much cheaper, perhaps allowing artists to make larger, more experimental works. Guangzhou and Shenzhen also have museums and art spaces, and communities of curators connected with China’s powerful domestic art world, which usually does not pay much attention to the achievements of Hong Kongers.

“Our lifestyle and culture is being recreated by infrastructure,” says the Hong Kong artist Chow Chun Fai, anticipating the launch in the coming months of the high-speed rail line. A number of artists from Hong Kong have already quietly set up studios in Shenzhen, only minutes away by train. In Shenzhen property prices are dramatically lower, even compared to relatively inexpensive Hong Kong neighbourhoods such as Fo Tan, the industrial zone where many local artists live and work. Contemporary star Fung Mingchip, whose ink paintings featured in the recent New York Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China”, maintains a work space in Shenzhen. Other Hong Kongers have gradually taken up spaces at Ox Lake Village, a thriving artists’ community.

The argument for Hong Kong artists to look towards China is longstanding and unresolved. But the geography and the figures make it compelling. To begin with, the Pearl River Delta represents a much larger public for Hong Kong art. Shenzhen is a metropolis of seven million, the same number of inhabitants as Hong Kong. Guangdong province has a population of around 105 million. Hong Kong is linked to that part of China by not only roads and airports, but also several rail lines, frequent bus services and ferries. Notably, in the past six years an unprecedented number of Hong Kong artists have participated prominently at art events in mainland China.

Last year in Shanghai, the inaugural Hugo Boss Asia Art Award for Chinese artists was given to Kwan Sheung Chi, the Hong Kong mid-career conceptualist. He was up against big names from the mainland such as Birdhead, the artist collective that represented China at the Venice Biennale in 2011. Wilson Shieh Ka-ho and the late Luis Chan, also Hong Kong artists, are among the prominent painters who have been included in the International Ink Art Biennale of Shenzhen, China’s leading exhibition of the fashionable genre of “contemporary ink art”. The Guangzhou Triennial, the biggest such art event in China, has put the spotlight on Lee Kit and Leung Chi-wo, Hong Kong artists especially popular with curators. And the list goes on.

Mr Chow, the artist who lived for a period in Beijing, says: “For my mainland Chinese friends, Hong Kong is now part of China, one of the cities of China. But it’s hard to get noticed because Hong Kong’s population is just too small and our history is different.” For him, that clear difference helps to make the territory’s artists stand out, but also separates them from Chinese art inner circles, often formed around relationships nurtured at the mainland’s elite official art academies.

Ruijun Shen, a curator at the Times Museum, Guangdong, believes that Hong Kong’s pop culture, especially films and music, has been a strong influence in the Pearl River Delta. Art, though, has not achieved the same kind of respect and power. She says: “The political climate is different. Hong Kong artists are more likely to focus on their everyday lives and find Hong Kong’s identity through their practices. In recent years China’s own contemporary art has been looking for its place in the world’s culture. Therefore, a different pursuit brings a different outcome.” As a result, Hong Kong art is often very foreign to the Chinese eye.

One of the most contentious questions about the future of the West Kowloon Cultural District project, which aims to increase the area’s cultural offering, is about its audience. Who will visit and enjoy the M+ museum and the other institutions that will open in Hong Kong’s arts project? Although West Kowloon’s HK$21.6bn ($2.8bn) estimated cost will be shouldered by Hong Kong taxpayers, its location and the timing of its inauguration strongly suggest that the project’s audience will be predominantly mainland Chinese.

Indeed, as in many other walks of life—from luxury retail to international transport to the stockmarket—Hong Kong’s arts infrastructure already caters to China. The territory became the third-largest auction market thanks to Chinese purchasers, who enjoy the city’s freeports, convenient logistics and zero sales tax.

Once near-empty and unpopular with locals, Hong Kong’s museums have recently experienced a surge of visitors, especially for Chinese-themed shows, such as the Hong Kong Museum of History’s recent exhibition of Imperial robes lent by the Palace Museum, Beijing, which was thronged with visitors. Hong Kong’s museums, which charge between HK$10 ($1.30) and HK$30 ($4), have lately become stops for Chinese holidaymakers, many of whom arrive by bus from Guangdong province.

Since the 1997 handover of sovereignty to Beijing, Hong Kong’s legal and financial systems have remained officially separate from China, an arrangement set to remain in place for 50 years. But, with Pearl River Delta economies becoming more integrated, mainlanders have flowed into Hong Kong. Of the 54 million visitors to Hong Kong in 2013, 70% were from China. The high-speed XRL train will bring even more mainlanders, and the new rail line terminates at a station in West Kowloon, in the middle of the new cultural district.

As Hong Kong embraces its Pearl River Delta destiny, the question remains about whether or not there is a bright future for Hong Kong artists in China’s larger, more established culture ecology. Ruijun Shen says: “There are some similarities between the lifestyle in Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta area. Hong Kong has more connections to the world and access to information. In the Pearl River Delta, we have diverse museums and spaces funded by both government and private companies. Cheaper labour and a lot of manufacturing allow bigger production. If an exchange network can be built, we will both benefit from it.”

The Times Museum that Ruijun Shen runs is a private institution with a space designed by Rem Koolhaas and a reputation for engaging contemporary art. She not only works with Chinese artists and curators, but also with a roster of international collaborators, such as Los Angeles-based artist Mungo Thomson and Swiss-born Pipilotti Rist. She has also collaborated with Hong Kongers including the artist Pak Sheung Chuen, the lyricist Chow Yiu Fai and the film-maker K.M. Lo. For the museum’s next exhibition, “Landscape: the Virtual, the Actual, the Possible?”, one of the highlights will be a newly comissioned video installation by Hong Kong artist Tsang Kin-wah, which is due to open later this month.

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