Measuring Hong Kong’s Cultural Heartbeat

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2010 was a good year for Muse magazine. Three years after its launch, its mix of long features, short fiction and cultural criticism had earned it respect as one of Hong Kong’s most insightful cultural journals. It was sponsoring public lectures, film screenings and a search for Hong Kong’s up-and-coming cultural talents. In September, it made its first real foray into the digital world by launching an iPad edition.

So it came as a surprise when publisher Frank Proctor announced, at the end of the year, that the December edition would be Muse’s last.

“I didn’t see it coming,” says Leo Lee Ou-fan, a scholar of modern Chinese literature who wrote a regular column for Muse. “Muse had become Hong Kong’s representative to the outside world, but the sad part is that right at the point where it was being noticed, Frank couldn’t afford to continue.”

Three months later, another well-respected magazine, C for Culture, published its last issue. Both magazines had suffered from the same simple fate: they ran out of money. Loyal readers and cultural observers were left wondering: does Hong Kong have what it takes to support lively coverage of the arts? And without that coverage, can Hong Kong ever develop a mature artistic and intellectual culture?

Hong Kong has long been accused of being a “cultural desert,” a charge that found resonance largely because there were so few outlets where its culture was expressed. Frank Proctor, the former general manager of the Asian edition of Newsweek, set out to change that. He launched Muse in February 2007, with film critic Perry Lam as editor. It was meant to be a Hong Kong version of the New Yorker: a thoughtful and provocative mix of cultural commentary and in-depth reporting.

(Full disclosure: I wrote regularly for Muse during its last year of publication, including three long features and two short essays.)

“We were trying to create an audience that didn’t yet exist,” says Proctor. “One of the challenges of Hong Kong generally is that the cultural audience is quite fragmented. The philosophy behind Muse was that the audience has to come together to be interested and engaged with one another.”

Part of that meant bridging the divide between languages. Like other bilingual cities, Hong Kong has two distinct cultural spheres — one that functions mainly in Cantonese and another that lives in English. The gap between the two has always been daunting, but Proctor noticed an growing group of bi-cultural and bilingual people who were interested in what was happening on both ends of the spectrum.

“If we published only in English, we found that local readers would instantly dismiss it as a gweilo magazine,” he says. Inspired by the witty double-entendres often found in The Economist, where photo captions would comment pithily on related articles, he decided that rather than fully-translated bilingualism, Muse should encourage a running dialogue between Chinese and English. Each story was accompanied by small blocks of text in the opposite language that commented and reflected upon its themes. “Some said it was like a jazz duo, with the bass player and the saxophonist playing the same song but with a slightly different tune,” says Proctor.

This attitude had its greatest effect on the magazine’s literary and theatrical coverage, which often focused on Chinese works that went uncovered in the English-language press. Sometimes, the opposite was also true. One of the magazine’s great coups was the exclusive publication of Eileen Chang’s 1950s-era English short story, The Spyring, on which her renowned Chinese-language 1979 novella, Lust, Caution, was based.

Each edition of the magazine featured a short story published in both Chinese and English, often written by a writer whose work had never before appeared in translation. One of them was Xu Xi, a Hong Kong-born writer of English fiction whose short stories and letters from abroad appeared regularly in Muse.

“Muse made you understand that there really is a creative scene in Hong Kong,” she says. “It speaks to a vibrant culture that defies the stereotype of a cultural desert and being a city of people who are only interested in money. It became a kind of chronicle of what was happening in Hong Kong artistically, especially the most experimental artists, the young, up-and-coming people.”

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Not long after Muse published its first issue, another magazine tried to fill a hole in the Chinese-language press. “After the late 90s, most of the media gave up cultural pages since they cannot attract enough advertisements,” says writer Au Wai-lin. “Even if it was not cut, there was no platform for critique.” When she found out that the Arts Development Council (ADC) was offering grants for upstart cultural publications, Au lept at the opportunity. C for Culture was launched in May 2008 with a focus on art and culture in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China.

If Muse was perched precariously on the precipice of a cultural chasm, C for Culture dove head-first into the often tempestuous sea of Hong Kong’s art world. Its criticism was unabashed. In 2009, the magazine skewered the Museum of Art for lavishing the vast majority of its budget on the high-profile, commercially-driven Louis Vuitton: A Passion for Creation exhibition. “We paid for it, because we got no advertisements from Hong Kong museums for around one year after this issue,” says Au.

That might have cost it the advertising dollars it needed to survive after its grant was abruptly terminated by the ADC in 2009 — a decision that Au believes was retaliation for criticism the magazine published of the ADC’s operating behaviour. (The ADC denies that its decision to discontinue the grant was related to C for Culture’s editorial content. In a statement, it said the termination was based on concerns that the magazine was incapable of “meeting the operational goals stipulated in the [grant] agreement.”)

Still, C for Culture’s irreverence won it many admirers. One reader, Anita Tse, was so inspired she began writing critical essays for the magazine. “It had an attitude — it was willing to be offensive,” she says. “So often, you see so-called art criticism and it’s only for selling tickets. Those who wrote for Muse magazine or C for Culture were knowledgeable and they had high standards. I had never seen anything like it here before.”

The launch of Muse and C for Culture, along with the recently ebullient art scene, raised hopes that a cultural renaissance was underway. Their closure is somewhat mitigated by the success of another cultural magazine, a.m. post, that continues to publish and is even considering an expansion later this year.

“The population of art lovers has increased, so we’re going to do more mass art information for the general public — something more popular and easier to access than a.m. post,” says publisher Tam Wai-ping, who is also a visual and installation artist. The key to survival, he says, is to take it slow and keep an eye on the bottom line. “Most art magazines cannot survive because they never think like entrepreneurs. They had a dream but to achieve the dream they need the right tools.”

Frank Proctor admits that Muse struggled to sustain its ambitions from the very beginning. “We were never able to establish a business model for what we were trying to do,” he says. The recent decline of readership and advertising revenues in print media didn’t help. “We were trying to do something at a watershed moment in media that fit the old paradigm, not the new one.”

Proctor says he will put all of Muse’s archives online and keep the magazine’s brand alive through new digital projects. C for Culture will do the same, with plans to sponsor more events, produce web videos and an e-book version of the magazine. Au Wai-lin says she currently in talks with investors to fund these new projects.

Surviving on the web may be difficult, however. There is still no clear way for online media to make money; most web publications are still supported by revenue from print media. “You can save on paper and printing costs, but that’s not most of the cost of a publication,” says Proctor. “High-quality original content produced digitally — I’m not aware of anyone who has made that work.”

Still, Proctor is convinced that Hong Kong needs the kind of cultural focus that Muse and C for Culture provided, especially with a rapidly-expanded repertoire of major cultural events like ART HK and the development of the West Kowloon Cultural District. “Everywhere you look, the cultural scene has expanded and cultural atmosphere improved,” he says.

Many Muse readers and contributors would agree. “Art criticism and reporting is definitely needed in Hong Kong for the healthy development of the arts, but it is largely lacking at the moment,” says painter Casper Chan, who often worked as an illustrator for Muse. “The creators of Muse care little about business and only work for what they believe in. I am really touched by that. Wouldn’t this be a much better world if there are more dreamers like them?”

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Friday September 02 2011at 04:09 am , filed under Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Society and Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “Measuring Hong Kong’s Cultural Heartbeat”

  • To my mind, both Muse and C for Culture suffered by covering primarily knee-jerk “pan-cultural” material that sought an audience looking more to be hip by grabbing at the right niches–a bit of theater here, a gallery exhibition there–than to engage in discourse or exchange on any level. Neither one ever contained much that could be called “criticism,” with the exception of material like that that Leo Ou-fan Lee contributed.

  • Is a pan-cultural focus really such a bad thing? After all, that has been the underpinning for a century’s worth of successful magazines.