Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Creativity in Hong Kong and Singapore

I am winding up a trip to the Lion City today, my bags packed for my 4pm flight back to the Big Lychee. We met some principals of a cultural attraction in Singapore, and they seemed on board with our project. (Hopefully we can reveal to you who they are soon.) We also had some wonderful meetings in Singapore and Malaysia with tour agents that really appreciated the merits of an audio tour that highlighted Hong Kong's history and culture. Far from some common Hong Kong reactions of cynicism (what history?) and negativity (that'll never work), many of the people we spoke to were genuinely enthusiastic; they only wished we covered more districts! We should mention that our trip was actually organized by the Hong Kong Tourism Board; as an organization they have been supportive of us and their people that came along on the event were incredibly helpful in helping us meet many counterparties.

But this week has made me reflect on the nature of creativity, and on its endowment in every society. For I do believe every place, and every people have creative potential; but it is the way it is allocated, determined by social hierarchies and value systems, that is what makes a society creative or not.

What I have tentatively concluded is that fear and cynicism on the one hand, and creativity on the other, are opposing forces in any society, locked in a zero-sum struggle. The more cynicism you have in a society and the more fear there is of stepping out of line, the less likely people are to exercise their imagination.

To me, Hong Kong has always obsessively focused on the practical, the pragmatic, the here-and-now. But this relentless pursuit of the tangible, of immediate returns (exacerbated by the high cost of survival in an astronomical property market), creates an atmosphere of cynicism and negativity that throttles many creative ideas. Business plans are immediately rejected out of hand if they aren't going to make money in a few months' time. Intangible assets are no assets at all. In that environment, the ability to find a faster, more efficient way to do some existing task is enhanced; but the ability to create revolutionary new ideas is badly hamstrung.

Singapore is often spoken of as a place that lacks creativity. Former colleagues of expat colleagues of mine in Singapore used to call locals 'muppets' right to their faces for not appearing to be creative. Yet there is an arts scene in Singapore that not only seems to be more active than its Hong Kong counterpart, it seems to have trickled down more into the local consciousness as well, that informs local tastes and ideas of beauty. You speak to local creative talent, walk around the city's museums, its parks, its beautifully, creatively laid out public spaces along the River (with quite a number overseen by local architects and planners) - and you realize that despite the authoritarian government, locals are able to find enough encouragement from above, and are able to carve out enough pluralistic space within the society to find a niche.

Of course there are tensions in any such arrangement; artists and creative talents are less likely to tolerate limits to their visions or scope of thought. Sometimes it is two steps forward and one step back, with many bloggers in Singapore afraid of speaking their mind with the recent arrests of two bloggers for racist slurs. But it does seem that overall, the powers that be in Singapore have tried to create enough of a 'support shield' from above to allow the creative process to develop. People that call Singapore 'boring' should really give its culture and nightlife another go - those labels in my opinion belong in the history books.

Hong Kong does have such people too. But I can't help but feel that they exist in spite of the city's character, rather than because of it. For every Wong Kar-Wai there are so many other hacks that simply try to direct films in existing genres that try to maximize a predictable revenue stream. Why? Because Hong Kong is an unforgiving city when it comes to failure, not only economically but also socially, making so many people risk-averse.

So, the limits to creativity in Hong Kong come from the private sector, whereas in Singapore they come from the public. The Singapore government, recognizing this, has tried to foster an environment more tolerant of both creativity and failure; Hong Kong's government simply throws some money at funds for entrepreneurs to experiment, but does little to change the aversion-to-creative-destruction-mindset created by its own relentless capitalism. Which city then is indeed more creative?

These are preliminary thoughts rather than concepts I regard as cold, hard facts. I would love to have a conversation with others in cyberspace that also have a view on both cities. Look forward to your comments!


Anonymous said...



Dave and Stefan said...

Hi Doug, glad to see you approve (unless you've mispelled 'weird' instead!). I was also gratified to see Simon also agreed with my view (one he shared himself in a column last week on the civic-mindedness of Singaporeans). Singapore is deliberate, yes, but that does not mean it is sterile. On the contrary, it seems that the deliberation on how to make Singapore more of an 'ideas' capital may soon pay significant dividends.

Huichieh said...

Well, I'm torn between saying "yes, the grass always always appear greener on the other side" and "about time"... Though I would not call Singapore sterile, "creative" just isn't quite the word that comes to mind immediately (the company that invented the soundcard notwithstanding). And it's not as if Singapore is all that forgiving a place for failure either. But perhaps you are on to something here.

By the way, I seem to have missed the column by simon you mentioned. Could you post a link? Thanks.

Dave and Stefan said...

Hi Huichieh, yes, I suppose I am writing more for the benefit of those cynical Hong Kongers that run down Singapore out of habit. It is another thing to live in Singapore, and perhaps it is easier to appreciate the city from afar (although I may need to move back in the near future!). I was just looking at creativity in a relative sense, and felt that Singapore, contrary to the belief of many in Hong Kong, is in fact a more creative city.

I think it helps also that it is much more of an English-speaking city than Hong Kong. To that extent, it participates in a global dialogue about art, culture and society that Hong Kong unfortunately misses out on because of its insistence on Cantonese, which results in a sort of cultural/linguistic xenophobia. Now that Hong Kong is a part of China, the resistance to replacing Cantonese as the primary language will grow stronger rather than weaker, leaving Hong Kong out of the loop (except for its English-speaking elites).

Dave and Stefan said...

Unfortunately, Huichieh, I don't have the link anymore to Simon's column (I think it was actually in a comment response to someone) and could not track it down. If I do I'll let you know...

Huichieh said...

You're right: Singaporeans--especially the English educated, the ones comfortable with the language--are potentially quite well tapped into the global dialogue (even if not necessarily as participants, at least as informed observers).

Thanks for helping with simon's post/comment. I'll try to look for it as well.

Jonas said...

I agree, to an extent. I have reservations on the term 'cynicism' however. UK has, in my opinion the most cynical people in it but it is arguably one of the more creative counties in the world.

I believe is more a top down trickle effect of governence. There is low state sponsored art grant system in HK, making the art community relying on Jockey club etc instead. The message this sends out to the community is the government has art and culture low on their piority. Which is true. The Arts do not have a seat in Legco.

Another example is the property market, or rather of architecure. Whereas other countries have systems that ensure the design and quality of buildings are of satisfactory quality, by reviewing all proposals to sufficient details (down to the design and materials used in the external walls), our Town Planning Board only cares about floor areas. Our zoning plans lack the ability to subscribe quality of spaces to potential developers either.

If there is no aspiration shown by the leadership, it is very difficult for the people to produce, however willing. If a parent show no aspiration for their children, how could the children shine?

Singapore has shown the way. When will HK follow. When will HK lead?

Dave and Stefan said...

Hi Weewhale, I do agree with you to a point that the government needs to do more to support the arts - but it is also a matter of societal priorities. I would argue the key reason London and New York have thriving arts scenes despite the high cost of living is not through government support, but through rich individual and corporate benefactors. There is a social advantage to supporting the arts and being a patron in those societies that is largely absent in Hong Kong. Until Hong Kong society collectively values art's role in society, and are willing to pay for (and thereby support financially) great art, it is a dead letter.

Also, there are of course different types of cynicism. The British type may be biting and sarcastic, but it does not dissuade people from pursuing artistic careers because there is a proven track record of some people trying that path resulting in great success, from Damien Hirst to Coldplay.

Also, the fact is (and Bromgrev is right in pointing out the fallacy of the conventional wisdom that money = thriving arts scene) that Vietnam is a very poor country, yet has people flying in from all over the world to buy art. Yes, you could argue some of it is cookie cutter, and most all of it bought by foreigners rather than locals. But there, or in Beijing, artists are not afraid to strike out on their own and try. In Hong Kong, people are too afraid. Governments I think can only do so much - affirmative action in the art world has to be met by a societal change.

Dave and Stefan said...

I do think that the Public Works Department and Architectural Services Department's track record in creating beautiful, edifying public space is totally atrocious. That they are trying to throw money now at one mega project to change their own image (the West Kowloon project) and wash their hands of past misdeeds makes me even angrier. In that sense, Weewhale, I totally agree with you.

Anonymous said...

I feel the vibe is better in HKG! It's alive, man!

Dave and Stefan said...

Hong Kong is indeed an all-action city. But even though I've lived here for 18 years I sometimes miss the contemplative life. Art and creativity are sacrificed here for greater gods (efficiency and immediate profitability). The 'vibe' as you say is strong, but I guess I would like to see more. Perhaps I am simply expecting it to be something it is not, and is unrealistic. But I can always dream (even though dreaming is not encouraged here!).