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Cultural development in Hong Kong



Striving to be “Asia's World City”, Hong Kong embraces its colonial history along with its Chinese roots, where the city's unique blend of east and west is undoubtedly worth noting. Cultural infrastructure in Hong Kong exists within the built environment, where cultural facilities like performing arts venues, museums and cultural heritage sites are planned, developed and preserved. Provision for cultural development, in terms of policy support, as well as sufficient expertise to plan culturally, appears to be lacking within the planning system.

Hong Kong's cultural development is on the move, but achieving comprehensive cultural development is a challenge, as the lack of a cultural policy and an all rounded vision for cultural development is inhibiting. The current cultural policy in Hong Kong addresses issues related to the physical environment, including land and audience provision for cultural facilities, heritage conservation and the preservation of culture. However, such issues are not acknowledged at all levels of the planning system, where supporting and implementation roles are incoherent and inconsistent.


This study aims to examine cultural development in Hong Kong, and through analysis of the example of Tai O Revitalization, explore the cultural planning and supporting plans and policies in place. The outcomes by the scheme for different parts of the society will also be examined.

This study, moreover, aims to obtain a better understanding of the concepts of culture and cultural development through literature reviews on cultural planning, as well as through the examination of the existing Hong Kong policy context that can play in cultural development.



Throughout the years, people have been trying to define “culture”, and in the end it can be understood that culture takes many different forms and is almost impossible to find an all embodying definition. Countries and cities around the world have become more aware of culture, whether it be their own or even a type of world culture. The differentiations in culture include local or international, modern or tradition, and high or low culture. In considering the relationship between culture and planning, as it can be perceived in different ways, Bianchini and Ghilardi (1997) state that it is important to “note that cultural planning is not ‘planning of culture' but a cultural (anthropological) approach to urban planning and policy”. This complex relationship between culture and planning covers many different aspects, as culture can be imbedded into social, economic, environmental and political fields, for example, cultural policy for social, economic, environmental and political areas, the culture of the built environment and urban design, and even the programming of the city. The impact of cultural planning spans across cultural tourism, education, leisure, the incorporation of art in the city, the demand for high quality events and activities, as well as the connections that residents have with culture.



In considering the linkage between culture and planning, it is important to “note that cultural planning is not the ‘planning of culture' but a cultural (anthropological) approach to urban planning and policy” (Bianchini & Ghilardi 1997). The complex relationship between culture and planning covers many different aspects of planning, as culture can be embedded into social, economic, environmental and political fields. Cultural planning, as defined by the De Montfort University in Leicester, is the “strategic use of cultural resources for the integrated development of cities, regions and cultures” (Deffner 2005, p.127). The idea of ‘cultural planning' is a possible response to the problematic cultural implications of globalisation for cities, where it attempts to challenge the traditional approaches to urban development by recognising the value of local cultural resources.

Cultural planning functions as an alternative for both traditional cultural policies and regeneration strategies with a cultural element, where the aim is to “overcome serious imbalances in the spatial distribution of cultural provision”, with respect to the relationship between “consumption-oriented policies and the support for local cultural production” (Deffner 2005, p.133). While traditional cultural policies tend to take a “sectoral focus (e.g. policies for development of theatre, dance, literature, the crafts and other specific forms of cultural activity), cultural planning adopts a territorial remit” (Bianchini 2004, p.8), which takes into consideration not only the impact of culture on policies for cultural activities, but also on how values and beliefs affect the overall development of a place. This concern for underlying influences takes into account how plans and strategies are developed, the stakeholders involved, as well as who should be responsible.

Cultural planning spans across the public, private and voluntary sectors as well as different institutional concerns, types of knowledge and professional disciplines, hence it could encourage creativity and innovation in cultural production. Bianchini (2004) discusses that advocates of the cultural approach to planning emphasize that policy-makers should not only use cultural resources as tools for realising non-cultural goals, but should also let their own mindsets and assumptions be influenced by the complex assets of local cultural life. As planning involves the planning of resources in the present and for the future, therefore cultural planning should relate to activities, facilities and amenities that make up a society's cultural resources. Cultural resources and their potentials essentially contribute to the future of a given place, where utilisation of such cultural resources through planning could achieve more pluralistic and democratic planning as well as acquiring a better understanding of the place's complexity and the causal relationships.

5. CASE STUDY: Existing Policy Context in Hong Kong

Hong Kong's lack of a policy direction reflects a short-sighted cultural vision. Some queried how pluralistic cultural development could be safeguarded, as Hong Kong's cultural vision should be based on liaising with world culture, and developing local culture at the same time. Besides, urban planning strategy and creation of public spaces are all related to a cultural vision.

Those responsible for policies related to cultural and arts development in Hong Kong are working out of sync, with policy matters separated and assigned to a number of different government departments and sub-sections. The lack of collaboration within government departments and branches, as well as between public and private bodies has left Hong Kong's cultural policies fragmented and ambiguous.

It is vital that the community and concern of culture be involved in planning, and although Hong Kong conducts various forms of public consultation throughout the planning process, the dominant top-down approach in plan-making has hindered comprehensive development. Tasks such as cultural auditing and cultural mapping allows for a thorough cultural assessment on the needs and aspirations of a particular community. Since the disappearance of the urban council, where its former activities included cultural assessment within districts, the lack of a local level authority taking the responsibility of cultural development issues has contributed to the difficulty in formulating cultural plans that address communitywide needs. In a city like Hong Kong, the high population density involves people living in close proximity to one another; therefore communities will often have diverse cultural needs and aspirations. Communities should be further engaged in the cultural planning and development process at the earliest stage possible, as it is equally important for the community to fully understand the rationale behind decisions made by policy- and plan-making bodies. Hong Kong's public engagement processes in cultural planning have been highly contested.

6. CASE STUDY: Tai O Fisherman Village Revitalization Scheme

In order to further investigate the role of ‘culture' in urban regeneration in Hong Kong, the local case study - Tai O Revitalization Scheme - was chosen.

Source: Planning Department, 2002

Tai O is a small village located at the south-western part of Lantau Island (Fig. 1). It is nickname ‘Venice of the East' due to the unique cultural activities, stilt houses and method of transportation: the sampan. As a result of the reputation, visitors of all distances have visited this little community. The village provides for the tourists a glimpse of Hong Kong's cultural heritage past situated in a unique natural landscape. The small village, therefore, has become the potential tourism development and a revitalization scheme has been initiated by the government.

Tai O Revitalization Scheme

Given the wide variety of cultural and natural attractions, the government decided to ‘revitalize' the Tai O village in 1998. According to the Planning Department (2000), around 300,000 tourists visit Tai O annually, 90 per cent of which are Hong Kong residents. The revitalization scheme finally aims at attracting more than 600,000 visitors annually, which includes the foreign tourists.

Two folklore museums, namely, the Tai O Experience Centre and the Stilted House Experience Centre were constructed. It is hoped the museums can attract both local and overseas tourists who keen to learn the history of Tai O and its traditional salt industry. Other new elements were also introduced, for example, a hand-pulled ferry and a free MP3 tour guide along nearby nature trails.

The government, moreover, has improved the physical environment for the whole area. These included the changing of information and directional signs, as well as improvement of the gardens at Yeung Hau Temple and Kwan Tai Temple which are two major landmarks there. Other improvement works included a new paving, tree planting and landscaping of the promenade and gardens around the village. A boutique hotel has been building on the renovated Old Tai O Police Station, which costs HK$66.7 million and will be completed at mid-2011.


Local Residents

Tourism is welcomed in the community given the existing economic activities in Tai O. However, one has to consider and respect the aspirations of the community is to preserve the quietness of the small village, and maintain their social ties. Ageing population is a critical concern for the village, and more social services for the aged residents are another anxiety.

The revitalization scheme has been seen by the population as ‘too commercial' and not local people oriented whereby the local community needs were not fully addressed. One of the major concerns of the local residents was the removal of the stilted structures for the construction of the river-wall along Tai O Creek. The stilted structures of Tai O are not only a home for the residents of Tai O, but also represent the history of the generations they have lived there. The multiple layers of the stilted houses (tree bark and the layer of metal on top of it) are the depths of memory that the family has in Tai O. Moreover, the displaced people arising from the construction of the river-wall would be re-housed in the new neighbouring public housing estates, which the stilt house residents are reluctant to do. The reason is that being mostly elderly people, they cherish the social network among their neighbours, and the firm bond that have evolved over the years in the original village.


New developments such as the folk museums, entrance plaza, waterfront promenade and the sheltered boat anchorage (SBA) have attracted visitors. However, questions were always raised by the visitors that the new developments are not well integrated into the traditional fishing village without affecting the village fabric. One prominent comment on the construction of the museums is that the culture preservation of Tai O does not merely putting relics in the museums. Tourists are eager to experience the real lives of the villagers, who have built this community, but not the relics in the museums and fake life.

Green Groups

Green groups were largely disappointed by the scheme. ‘Earth Station' of the Friend of the Earth (FoE) was originally incorporated in the plan at Shek Tsai Po. The Station would serve as an educational centre and research and exchange base for showcasing Hong Kong's natural renewable energy. It was estimated that the Station would attract 35,000 visitors per year, most of whom would be students. However, the Rural Committee demanded the FoE to support the direct North-South link from Mui Wo to Tai Ho on Lantau Island, in exchange for their support of the construction of the Earth Station. FoE refused and made a such response, ‘advocates water transport instead of road because road transport would bring more traffic to the island and the only beneficiaries would be real estate developers' (SCMP, 2000), and the government has even finally rejected the Committee's proposal. As a result, no green groups (such as FoE) can initiate any educational plan in Tai O.

Professional Bodies

In the process of drafting the revitalization scheme, the Hong Kong Institute of Architects (HKIA) started a workshop to ‘explore the means to conserve the unique stilted houses and preserve local heritage while rejuvenating local economy through cultural tourism' (HKIA, 2001 p,5). This workshop was significant as it included local ‘experts' along with various professional bodies and government officials and NGOs to draw conclusions, which is seldom happened in the top-down planning system in Hong Kong. The local community was actively involved and opinions solicited were of the prime importance with the professionals taking a back seat and only helping them in drawing up plans and development. Some recommendations were accepted by the government, for example, the reconstruction of some stilt houses.



While existing planning processes in Hong Kong such as social and community planning, environmental planning and management planning often address issues of cultural relevance, cultural planning aims to ensure that all aspects of cultural life are addressed in a systematic and integrated way.

It should be recognised that cultural services provided at the district level can be strengthened through better integration of cultural strategies with their broader priorities and objectives. Therefore, cultural amenities are not seen in isolation to everyday life, but as being fundamental to people's needs. Cultural planning can provide better insights into the values and aspirations of a community, where effective execution of cultural planning ensures that, what we understand “culture” to be, can be a part of local decision -- making and the community's aspirations.

Community engagement and activity, in any form, is how people make sense of their environment, express their aspirations and celebrate their uniqueness. This is an essential concept in creating city and neighbourhood environments, which are distinctive and have a sense of place. Place making is becoming increasingly important with urban regeneration and gentrification.

Fostering community well-being and expanding participation in cultural activities is fundamental to growth and sustainability. Urban development and gentrification have a significant impact on the aesthetic and spirit of an area, therefore, it is important to ensure that areas are designed to complement and enhance the local identity, as well as encourage integration.


The first order of business is to change the government and community's mentality, perception and understanding of culture. Cultural planning does not need to be a separate practice, so long as culture in its broadest sense is taken into consideration throughout various planning processes. A vibrant cultural life plays a key role in strengthening citizenship, affirming diversity and providing a safe environment where a wide range of activities can be enjoyed. An active cultural life contributes enormously to personal well-being and vibrant communities. For the future, Hong Kong needs to acknowledge that it has the necessary elements to be a successful cultural city, and embrace cultural development in all aspects.


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