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Low Kee Hong
WHEN West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) opens its various arts complexes over the next few years, it will be a game-changer not just for Hong Kong but the region too. Spread over 40 hectares of land, the district will have theatres, concert halls, exhibition spaces and wide-open spaces for public performances. Imagine Singapore's arts hub Esplanade at more than six times its size and you get a sense of how big WKCD will be.
The head of its theatre programme is Singapore's Low Kee Hong, 48, who was previously the general manager of the Singapore Arts Festival and the Singapore Biennale. In early 2014, he left his job with the National Arts Council to take up the post in Hong Kong, and has since been responsible for helping nurture the territory's performing arts scene.
Under his direction, WKCD has launched several initiatives such as long-term courses on dramaturgy and set design aimed at beefing up industry expertise. He's also collaborating with top international artists (whose names cannot be revealed yet) to create works for or bring works to the arts hub that promise to be a big draw for mainland Chinese as well.
Can we begin with a tourist-y question? Having lived in Hong Kong for almost four years, you've come to know the city well. What under-the-radar attractions and artists would you recommend to the Singaporean arts and design lover?
I have to be selfish and begin by recommending WKCD free monthly public events in our park. It's called Freespace Happenings and we've got live music, dance sessions and other attractions. (Even though WKCD's theatres haven't opened, park shows have begun.)
Besides this, I'd recommend Comix Home Base, which is a very underrated centre for preserving comic books and recently had a terrific exhibition of Lao Fu Zi. Also underrated is the Hong Kong Film Archive which has a selection of movies and images going as far back as 100 years. I also like Nicholas Wong, a young poet writing in English - that's rare - and the terrific all-girl band Gai Dan Jane Yuk Bang (literally, "steamed egg with pork") or GDJYB.
How would you describe the Hong Kong arts scene?
The artists here are more gung-ho and entrepreneurial. And I think these are important traits. Historically, Hong Kong has gone through much more s*** compared to Singapore, and has always survived. So the artists are hungrier and prouder of their home.
Comparatively, there are a lot of things Singapore artists take for granted. Singaporeans have a specific ministry looking at culture and the National Arts Council has been around for a long time. The grant scheme has undergone several iterations and there's subsidised housing for artists, which no doubt impact the kind of art they make.
In Hong Kong, the policy structures are not so sophisticated. Artists negotiate directly with landlords. And because rents are so high, they have no qualms travelling to faraway factory spaces for their studios. So the strategies for how artists survive and make work are very different.
Does the fact that they're hungrier and more entrepreneurial make for better art?
It makes for a stronger starting point, which means that if you put the right conditions in place, things move quickly. Often in discussions, I can see light bulbs going off in heads and plans taking shape. That's the huge potential of Hong Kong that I'm very drawn to.
One of the problems many artists face - be it in Singapore or Hong Kong - is that they're often given a grant to create a work within a short time. So the results can seem rushed and unfulfilling. At WKCD, we try to change that. We talk about three- to five-year relationships and we encourage longer runs for each work because all this will mend the way they operate and make new work. It's not so much about the number of performances, but more audiences wanting and being able to see it.
So the principle of WKCD is that we want to present good work, but we believe good work doesn't happen overnight. At least two years before WKCD opens, we're already doing workshop, dialogues, getting international artists to come to Hong Kong to give talks, or sending Hong Kong artists overseas to do research, so we can foster a more ideal scenario for making work.
In visual arts, it always seems that artists from mainland China - being giant that it is - are taking the spotlight away from the artists in Hong Kong, even in the major art fairs. Now that WKCD is attempting to represent Hong Kong artists but also be a top destination for Chinese tourists, how are you negotiating this dilemma?
The advantage of WKCD is that, unlike most arts hubs, we are able to multi-task because we have so many venues. So each venue has a different positioning and purpose. For instance, the Xiqu Centre will be a standalone centre for Chinese opera, collaborating with associations and troupes in the region. And then there's Lyric Theatre Complex, designed for international theatre and dance productions, both large- and small-scale. In a sense, our programmes can cover the gamut and there's a clarity about which facility will present which kinds of art. It's this kind of comprehensiveness that drew me to come work for WKCD - I don't see this happening anywhere else.
Of course, the voice of Hong Kong artists will not be neglected. When WKCD opens its various performing arts centres between 2018 and 2021, the world will be looking at Hong Kong. And Hong Kong will decide what it wants to present to the world.
Ivo van Hove is the hottest theatre director in the world now. Recently, you invited his longtime set designer Jan Versweyveld to conduct workshops for set designers in Hong Kong. On the last day, the participants cried because they loved him. Can I infer that van Hove is staging a play in WKCD in its first year?
I can't divulge that information. All I can say is that van Hove loves us too.