Shocking lack of cultural values

South China Morning Post  |  Jun 1, 2001

By Sin-ming Shaw

Byline: The team set up to advise on the SAR's heritage has a duty to be practical rather than political, says Sin-ming Shaw

HONG KONG WAS once a vibrant haven for writers, scholars, musicians, opera singers and film-makers. No more. Now, Hong Kong has a growing reputation as overpriced, overpaid and under-skilled. There is also a widespread perception that the city has little "culture".

The Culture and Heritage Commission, set up last November, is supposed to advise the Government on funding priorities to "promote and develop culture and heritage" in Hong Kong.

Chairing the commission is Chang Hsin-kang, an engineer and the president of the City University of Hong Kong. No better person could have been chosen for the job, as Professor Chang is comfortable with scientific and literary pursuits. He is living proof that the late English scientist C. P. Snow was wrong to say the gulf between the sciences and humanities is too wide to bridge.

The Culture and Heritage Commission comprises six members from statutory bodies, such as the Arts Development Council, two from government, and 11 drawn from various professions, including jewellery designer Lo Kai-yin, architect Simon Kwan Sin-ming, and Lan Kwai Fong realtor Allan Zeman.

The commission has set for itself several goals that range from helping the economy to become more creative, developing Chinese culture and integrating different cultures, to building up national pride. A consultation paper was published in March and the deadline for public submissions has been extended 'til the end of this month.

Unfortunately, the closest the commission comes to telling us what it means by culture is: "Culture is about life." The commission's real agenda has turned out to be more concrete than "life." The commission bemoans the fact that Hong Kong is losing its economic edge due to insufficient creativity and its tendency "towards short-term interests and utilitarianism at the expense of spiritual pursuits". This begs the question whether making lots of money in a short time is justified as long as such endeavours are creative.

Who in Hong Kong is guilty of short-termism? Is it ordinary people who work their tails off just to pay exorbitant rents and mortgages, leaving them little time to be cultivated? Or those from privileged families, who have been educated at (but not necessarily graduated from) the world's best universities? Or could it be the Government, with its misguided land policy that has kept our cost structure high and so has erected a difficult hurdle for would-be artists?

Local university bookstores are a disgrace, being little more than stationery stores selling textbooks instead of treasure troves of great books. Why is this so? The reason is elementary: real estate is too expensive to be used to stockpile books, even at universities.

Property tycoons are coveted and honoured by China's top leaders, as well as by Hong Kong's ruling and intellectual elite, in a fashion no other society can imagine. Universities rush to confer honorary doctorates. They are Hong Kong's role models. The message to the young is that money is everything.

The real-estate business is privileged for two reasons. First, it is a sanctioned cartel, and second, it can create permanent symbols of excellence. Witness the cathedral at Rheims, France, and the gothic buildings at England's University of Cambridge.

With the exception of the I. M. Pei-designed Bank of China building - which is a modern gothic cathedral - and perhaps two other buildings, our famed harbourside and The Peak are littered with architectural trash erected by university honourees and incompetent officials. The Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui and the new Central Library in Causeway Bay are textbook examples of mindless bad taste and official irresponsibility.

If the people of Hong Kong are short sighted and too utilitarian, it is because the elite of this town teach them to be this way through public policies and private endeavours. In fact, the elite, more than the people, are badly in need of a cultural-development policy.

The commission could do Hong Kong a huge favour by not trying to attain the unrealistic goals in its consultation paper. Most of all, it should avoid political correctness, a curse to creativity and intellectual integrity. It should recommend that our universities each be given a one-off endowment to produce sufficient income to cover each year's projected expenditures - thereby cutting the financial umbilical cord to Government.

The money belongs to the community, and the community would gladly unshackle universities from politics. Universities have been conspicuous by their failure to contribute to Hong Kong's intellectual, artistic and "cultural" life, and have not participated actively as constructive critics of public policy - perhaps for fear of offending those who control their appointments and purse strings.

To encourage private donations, the commission should recommend that all donations be tax deductible at twice their value. That would meet the objections of those who complain the current measly tax deduction of 15 per cent is inadequate. A 30 per cent deduction comes close to what American donors get.

Professor Chang once wrote that competence in a language is a precondition for any creative thinking. Spot on. Chinese should mean Putonghua, not Cantonese. And children should be taught to master Putonghua by scrapping the current mother-tongue policy immediately.

All public-works construction should be open to competition. The Government's Architectural Services Department should only organise such competitions, not do design work.

The commission itself should abandon impossible goals, such as "strengthening social cohesion [and] building up the confidence and pride of people in China". To be proud of what? China's system of justice? Its heritage of Marxism-Leninism? The Communist Party has caused more social division than any other of the despotic rulers in China's long past.

The word "heritage" appears rarely in the commission's consultation paper, although it is at the core of any culture and should not just be about preserving buildings. Hong Kong has a joint heritage: Chinese and British. This has given Hong Kong its valuable uniqueness, which mainland Chinese wish they had. To emphasise the English lineage, which puts the rule of law above men, is apparently not quite fashionable these days. So the commission's omission was perhaps deliberate.

Lastly, the commission should make sure an English-degree holder vets its final report, so as to avoid babble.

The commission should stick to the less pretentious, and then it might do some real good for this community.

Sin-ming Shaw ( is an economist. He was previously a TV and film producer, as well as a visiting research scholar of Manchu history at Harvard University

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