I moved to Hong Kong to take up a faculty position in 2013. Prior to my relocation, my understanding of Hong Kong’s theatre scene was mainly based on my yearly holidays to Hong Kong as well as the two occasions in 2004 and 2006, where I toured two different theatre productions from Singapore to Hong Kong.
One thing I understood then was that most theatre groups in Hong Kong, similar to Singapore, are non-profit in nature, and rely on grants from government and other charitable organizations. Having been here for four years now, I am seeing more differences than similarities. This short reflexive essay seeks to provide international readers with some general knowledge of the theatre ecology in Hong Kong. Having run a theatre company in Singapore myself, it is inevitable that I make some comparisons between Singapore and Hong Kong in the present essay.
One obvious difference between doing theatre in Singapore and Hong Kong is in the control mechanism. In Singapore, theatre groups or artists are required to submit the scripts of their works to the Infocomm Media Development Authority for vetting, at least eight weeks before the first performance. The play might be assigned a rating, such as M18, which means that the play contains matured content and is only suitable for audience members eighteen years old and above. The authority may also request the removal of undesirable content in the play.
I had my fair share of run-in with the censorship body in Singapore, and had one piece received a total ban. Without an official license from the censorship body, the show is not allowed to go on. Hong Kong is very much the contrary. There is no script-vetting process, or a rating system for dramatic works. The only possible rating is when videos or moving images are used alongside the play. In such a situation, the videos must be vetted and be approved by the governmental body, Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration. Though it is unheard of, there is the possibility that the play admits audience members above the age of eighteen if only one of the videos used in the play is given a restricted rating.
In recent years, there is a rising fear, amongst theatre stakeholders, of intervention by the Chinese government, especially on productions that are critical of the central administration in Beijing. Under the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, it is unlikely for the Chinese government to directly interfere in Hong Kong’s internal matters, such as how theatre productions are being managed. However, indirect threats are possible, such as funding cuts, rejections by venues, or barring from bringing shows to China. The fear of these threats may trigger a bigger problem of self-censorship in the near future.
In Hong Kong, there are hundreds of professional and amateur non-profit groups, for-profit companies, drama clubs in schools and universities, and independent theatre makers. Government grants are mainly available to non-profit arts organizations or independent artists. It is worth mentioning that there is no governmental secretariat (that is, Culture Bureau) that specifically takes care of the arts and culture in Hong Kong, despite attempts to form one by the previous Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, who just stepped down on June 30, 2017. There are concerns about who would lead the Bureau, and how it would affect the development of arts and culture in Hong Kong, especially in issues such as censorship. Currently, the Home Affairs Bureau (HAB) is in-charge of Hong Kong’s cultural policies and funding support.
Between 2005 and 2007, the Hong Kong government reviewed the performing arts’ funding mechanisms and, in early 2007, ten performing arts organizations received direct subvention from the government. Of the ten organizations, four were theatre groups, namely, Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, Chungying Theatre, Theatre Ensemble and Zuni Icosahedron. In 2008, Theatre Ensemble voluntarily exited the scheme and the composition has since remained unchanged. These remaining nine organizations are informally known as the “Big 9.”
On a yearly basis, HAB dishes out a direct subvention to the “Big 9” in hope that they will present high quality performances to local and international audiences, undertake long-term planning and development, and accumulate reserves.
In the financial year 2016/17, HAB allocated HK$334.6 million (USD$42.9 million) to the “Big 9.” The three theatre groups received close to 20% of the total funding, with HK Repertory Theatre, Chung Ying Theatre and Zuni Icosahedron receiving HK$38.34 millio (USD$4.91 million), HK$15.1 million (USD$1.93 million) and HK$11.5 million (USD$1.47 million), respectively.
HAB also provides a budget for its statutory board, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (ADC), which, in turn, provides funding opportunities for all the remaining performing, visual, literary, video and community arts organizations beyond the “Big 9.” In 2016/17, ADC received HK$124.4 million (USD$15.93 million) from HAB. With this budget, ADC supported eighteen theatre groups via its one/two/three-year grant scheme, granting amounts between HK$385,000 (USD$49,300) and HK$1.81 million (USD$232,000). ADC also provides project grants of smaller amounts to a list of theatre projects by other ad-hoc groups and independent artists.
In May 2016, I convened a conference in Hong Kong to discuss the issues pertaining to the funding disparity between the “Big 9” and the groups that are supported by ADC. The conference closed with four conclusions. First, despite the limited budget, ADC is supporting a large number and variety of arts groups. Under the current policy, it is possible for ADC grantees, who receive six continuous two- to three-year grants to apply for alleviation to the Major Performing Arts Organizations status, should they meet the organizational and administrative criteria. This means that there could be a “Big 10” or “Big 11” in the future. However, this is a chicken-and-egg problem. Currently, the lowest-funded theatre group in the “Big 9,” Zuni Icosahedron, still receives six times more funding than On & On Theatre Workshop, which is highest funded theatre group by ADC. With this gap in funding, it will be a challenge for On & On Theatre Workshop to fulfil the criteria to be upgraded. Having said this, not every theatre group funded by ADC has strong interests to become a major performing arts organization.
Second, it is not the right time to debate whether the “Big 9” policy should be abolished so that money can be diverted over to ADC. No doubt the “Big 9” groups are in a privileged position; they have used the funding to invest heavily in human capital and are supporting many artists, technicians and arts administrators. Putting an end to this scheme could be disastrous for many stakeholders.
Third, it is necessary for arts groups, especially groups that not in the “Big 9,” to look for other opportunities. For instance, Edward Lam Dance Theatre, a three-year ADC grantee, has received commercial success by touring their shows to Mainland China and other Chinese-speaking cities.
Fourth, there needs to be a concerted effort to develop more arts audiences. Unlike Singapore, there is currently no research done in Hong Kong about the residents’ motivations and barriers in attending arts programmes. Audience development strategies of theatre groups are very much aligned to marketing, which may not be the most effective way to truly build future audiences.
Hong Kong is known for its expensive property prices due to the land scarcity. In Singapore, there is an arts housing scheme, whereby groups with certain track record can apply for a highly-subsidized space from the National Arts Council. Back then, my experimental theatre company was allocated a room in an arts centre, revitalized from an old school building. I converted the room into a small blackbox theatre that could seat up to forty audience members. More established theatre groups in Singapore are given bigger and better spaces. The Singapore Repertory Theatre, for instance, has a four-hundred-seater performance venue. In Hong Kong, only a very small number of theatre groups have their own little rehearsal space, let alone a performance venue. Hence, theatre groups have to rely on renting performance venues in order to run their seasons of works. Unfortunately, there is also a clear shortage of performance venues, so competition for space is extremely high. This situation partially explains the noticeable short-run theatre productions in the city. Most productions happen within a week, which include bump-in and strike. Major productions may spread over to two weeks at most.
Most of the venues in Hong Kong are run by a government department known as the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), which aims to enhance the cultural vibrancy of the city and bring arts to different communities. The department runs performance venues in sixteen different centres spread across Hong Kong. Most of these centres have two performance venues with different seating capacities. LCSD does not have a resident company scheme, but, instead, collaborates with a few selected theatre groups on a venue partnership scheme, usually on three-year cycles. Venues partners are given some benefits such as priority booking and administrative support.
Besides LCSD, there are some venues managed by universities and commercial entities. Flexible theatre blackbox spaces are also limited in Hong Kong, which further worsens the situation for smaller experimental theatre groups. Due to this scarceness of performance venues, theatre groups or artists are required to put in their venue booking applications up to a year in advance. Administratively, this suggests that theatre groups are expected to plan their productions way ahead. Artistically, this also means that it is quite impossible for theatre groups to present timely works in response to any current happenings in Hong Kong or the region.
Perhaps, one major project that could potentially reshape the theatre ecology in Hong Kong is the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD). The idea of WKCD was first announced, in 1998, by the Chief Executive of Hong Kong then, C. H. Tung, in response to the need to provide more cultural opportunities and exposure for local residents, as well as to put forward a world-class arts and cultural hub for tourists. Several rounds of planning and consultations took place in the years thereafter, with the official formation of the WKCD Authority in 2008, and an initial approved budget of HK$21.6 billion (USD$2.8 billion), in 2011. In the initial plan, the district will house at least nine performance venues, catering to a range of performing arts activities, from outdoor music festivals to Chinese opera. Nevertheless, the planned completion of the first phase of WKCD was delayed, resulting in further delays of the second and third phases. It is likely that the first venue, which is specifically built for Chinese opera, will only be ready in 2019. It is unsure, at this point, whether WKCD will ease the venue shortage problem. According to a report, WKCD has specific aims to work on artists’ residencies programmes and, perhaps, even having a resident company.
Apart from WKCS, the government announced, in 2014, their plans to launch the East Kowloon Cultural Centre in 2021, which will house five venues, three of which are small spaces. Performance venues wise, there is certainly a lot to look forward to in Hong Kong in the coming years.
The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) offers a comprehensive range of theatre-related programmes in acting, directing, theatre studies and technical theatre, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. The institution was established in 1984 and, since then, has focused mainly on practice-based education. Many of the theatre practitioners in Hong Kong graduated from HKAPA, and, somehow, this led to a strong support network amongst the HKAPA graduates. There is this trend, where a director or producer, who is a HKAPA graduate, engages actors and production designers who are also HKAPA graduates. Some actors and production designers who are not graduates of HKAPA find it difficult to enter the “clique,” even if they are professionally trained in prestigious drama schools overseas. Besides the HKAPA network, there is also the Hong Kong Federation for Drama Societies, which serves as a networking channel for theatre groups and independent theatre artists alike.
Considering the publication channel of this essay, it is apt to conclude with a discussion on the state of theatre criticism in Hong Kong. In Singapore, theatre critics are not really part of the theatre ecology. Do not get me wrong, there is a group of theatre critics in Singapore who are serious about theatre criticism. Generally, theatre critics in Singapore just do not get the opportunities to transfer knowledge other than writing about the shows they watch. Arts critics who are attached to prominent news media are paid more attention, but, still, they do not go beyond their duties of reviewing shows.
In Hong Kong, on the other hand, theatre criticism is a completely different ball game. IATC Hong Kong (HK) is a full-fledge organization that devotes itself to theatre criticism. Besides writing theatre reviews, IATC HK has also published numerous books on Hong Kong theatre, some in collaboration with theatre groups. They are also involved heavily in theatre archival works, including an annual Hong Kong theatre yearbook. On top of these, IATC HK also engages in dramaturgical researches and provides extended knowledge on theatre. One recent example is their collaboration with LCSD’s World Cultures Festival 2017, which focuses on African theatre. IATC HK produced a critics guide to offer potential audience and critics crucial understanding on the historical and contextual background of African theatre. This publication is highly utilitarian because African theatre is something quite distant from the local residents. It is without a doubt that IATC HK has effectively found a footing in the Hong Kong’s theatre ecology.
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*Benny Lim is currently Assistant Professor at the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Prior to his current appointment, he has taught in several institutions of higher education in Singapore and Malaysia. Since 2001, Benny has produced and managed over seventy arts events, including drama productions and arts festivals. In 2015, Benny was invited by IFT Macau to develop the city’s first programme in Performing Arts Event Management. Currently, he sits on Advisory Committee of CUHK Shenzhen’s auditorium and concert hall development.