When the Hong Kong public was invited to choose a master plan for the West Kowloon Cultural District, they were met by ambitious presentations from each of the proposals. The most sophisticated pitch of all came from Norman Foster’s office, which provided seductively realistic renderings of their City Park concept, which included grassy meadows overlooking Victoria Harbour, replete with picnickers, kids kicking around a ball and kite-flyers.
This provided no shortage of amusement to cynics: “As if it would ever look like that — Hongkongers don’t like sitting on the grass!” That’s something I heard more than once. After all, this is a city where people won’t sit on a concrete step without first protecting themselves with a sheet of newspaper, and where putting a handbag on the floor is tantamount to licking crumbs off the linoleum.
But Foster’s plan won for a reason, and it wasn’t just the slick sales pitch. Public behaviour in Hong Kong is strictly regimented by design and regulation, but this is a deeply informal city at its heart — shopping malls may be popular, but even tycoons have a soft spot for dai pai dongs. You could see this last weekend at the Freespace Festival, a music, art and dance event on the waterfront of the future cultural district. There were people on the grass — and not just sitting, but also sleeping, playing games, picnicking and playing music.
The whole festival felt slightly unhinged, which was probably the point. As Beijing indie rockers whipped people into a frenzy at the main music stage, people were given wacky hairstyles in a little tent — think Marie Antoinette meets food colouring and plastic action figures — while Suitman spun lovers rock from his mobile DJ booth. There were outdoor movie screenings, open mic events on the lawn and a haphazard flea market strung out along the waterfront. Nadim Abbas, an artist known for his obsessive, painstakingly researched, science-based art, made a series of remote-controlled miniature dune buggies mounted with CCTV cameras that broadcast their footage back to old tube TVs in a makeshift living room.
Basically, it was everything you weren’t supposed to do in a Hong Kong public park. I’ve heard many times from the people in charge of West Kowloon that the district’s public spaces will be lively, informal and unburdened by the onerous regulations placed on public life elsewhere in the city. I was always sceptical that would happen. But Freespace gives me hope — it lived up to its name and it felt like an example of the kind of approach West Kowloon will take to its space, especially since the authority in charge of the cultural district was the organization responsible for the festival.
My impression was bolstered by Michael Lynch, the CEO of the West Kowloon Cultural District, whom I met yesterday in his office overlooking Victoria Harbour and the WKCD site. Lynch is 62 years old, plain-spoken and gregarious, with a long career as an arts administrator — in the late 1990s, he ran the Sydney Opera House, and in the early 2000s he oversaw the revitalization of London’s South Bank Centre, a cultural district whose construction in the early 1950s is probably the closest parallel to West Kowloon. Until recently, South Bank was seen as a grim failure, drab and uninspiring, but the introduction of pop-up markets, restaurants, shops, book dealers and street performers has given it new life.
I asked Lynch about Freespace. “Hong Kong seems to have a real problem with outdoor events — they just resisted it,” he said. “What we proved with events like Freespace this year is that the appetite is growing and there’s an audience for them.”
He told me he had gone around “congratulating anyone who was lying on the grass.” (He must have been busy.) “People were doing extraordinary stuff all over the place,” he said. “It had a feeling that people had not been given this opportunity before. They were playing football, talking in events, there were people doing artworks, people into music, people into the street performances or having their hair done. It felt in microcosm of what you’d like the place to be like in 10 years’ time.
“What we learnt from Freespace is that people love coming onto the site and doing things that are different from the normal Hong Kong experience. We had about 20,000 people there over the two days of Freespace, largely local, young people, families. There was a thing called Heliograph that was a balloon with a dancer attached. It was interesting to watch people just spellbound by that balloon. I don’t think they’d seen anything like it before. That’s the kind of spirit we want to create for the site.”
Tags: Festivals, Hong Kong, Kowloon, Streetlife, Urban Design, Urban Planning, Urban Play, West Kowloon Cultural District