What happened to the West Kowloon Cultural District? By Natasha Stokes

It’s been nine years since the first proposal for the West Kowloon Cultural District. Nine! Let’s have a district especially for artsy stuff, they said. And you know how we can make it really good? We won’t consult anyone! There’s a reason those fools out there aren’t in government house, eh? Let’s sell the land off… Should we call it a cultural HUB? I know, let’s get some property developers to do it!

At least, that’s how I fondly imagine the goings-on in Legco. But still, whatever happen to the Cultural District? The original plans were scrapped last March, and the site has been stagnant for over a year, save for the creation of Waterfront Promenade, built as some kind of distraction from the absence of things like the proposed “Mega-Museum” or a “performance venue seating at least 10,000,” or “The World’s Largest Roof.” Construction is supposed to start this year, based on a revised model decided upon by the (breath) Consultative Committee on the West Kowloon Cultural District Core Arts & Cultural Facilities, set up last year and headed up by one Mr. Rafael Hui. I went down to check it out as, after all, the website promises two attractions there right now – The Timber Boardwalk and the Dragon of Lanterns.

The Dragon of Lanterns

I arrive at the very first lamppost marking the start of the WKCD area. I wave my cab driver cheerily off despite his gloomy warnings about what could happen to a young lady alone in this undeveloped hellhole. Though conspicuously lacking even a single spoke of culture, there are some signs of civilization present – wind chimes encased in four-meter-high corrugated iron pillars, a barbed-wire fence and, of course, two cheery posters proclaiming the fun ahead.
Each pillar features some manner of traditional Chinese painting. Someone somewhere failed to consider that sheets of rutted iron might not make the best canvas. This must be the Dragon of Lanterns. The wind chimes clank clumsily, while the colored flags strung along the “dragon” flutter in the breeze, like so many little harbingers of failed cheer.
To my left, weeds, sand and construction cranes. To my right, a concrete road runs alongside a fenced-off grove of tiny trees, supported by long bamboo sticks. Before it got filled in, the area was once a dockyard for the Royal Navy. There’ll be no more sailors hoisting their petards here.

On the Boardwalk
After a 30-minute trek, I finally approach the start of the famed promenade. It’s here that I bump into a jogger, Mr. Ng, who turns out to be a police officer. He was making use of his lunch break to jog over from the nearby Tsim Sha Tsui Police Station, before I accidentally tripped him. I take advantage of his position on the ground to collect an opinion on the WKCD debacle: “It’s hard to say what the government will end up doing about the space,” he shrugs. “Erecting buildings will make them more money, and the Hong Kong government is very profit-oriented.”
Around two-thirds of the area will be given over to property development, and Mr. Ng shakes his head at that. His outlook echoes that of Hong Kong Democratic Foundation chairman, Alan Lung Ka-lun, who said the space should be dedicated to a giant public park, not gifted to a developer in return for a few museums. “Absurdly poor value,” said Lung in a 2005 letter to the Housing, Planning and Lands Bureau. “[Nor should] the design and operation of cultural facilities … be assigned to property developers. They are simply not qualified for the job.” It’s hard not to agree, considering the purple iron shack currently enjoying life as a public bathroom on the West Kowloon waterfront.
I stamp forth. A massive blue building looms ahead. Surely a prototype museum? Alas. I speak to one of the many sanitation crews who clean up after the non-existent crowds. “Culture? Yes, I think this is the Cultural District. But the building you’re talking about just houses the ventilation for the sewage system.”
I trudge on. The sun beats down with all the mercy of a fat man denied his daily donuts, and I wonder about why the government decided to scrap the grand glass canopy slated to cover some 55 percent of the area. Using my slippery grasp of aesthetics and physics, I deduce that it’s ludicrous to build a roof over a non-building. That Lord Foster – he did the new airport and thought he was God.

A Well-Ventilated Place

I’m not even a quarter of the way along this 400-meter timber boardwalk, supposedly part of a harborfront beautification project. It’s made from 100 percent recycled material – wood strips left over from past construction projects. It’s actually kind of nice, except the government’s claim that people can relax by the water is risibly off the mark: the harbor is safely hemmed in behind a chest-high mesh iron fence. Still, there’s an old man toting an umbrella scrambling over the fence and onto the huge rocks on the other side. Suck that, government.
There are two young men already there, fishing off the rocks. Apparently, fish like harbors that are filthy and filled with tankers and boats from China. A passing sanitation crew member confirms that all anyone does here is fish or jog. I feel woefully inadequate.
Moving on, I reach a gigantic, round, flat white space. It could be anything from some sort of landing pad to one of the four piazzas that were supposed to be built for our enjoyment. I twirl around and dizzily rejoice in the sheer space before tumbling onto grass. I wonder if this is part of the residential land that was auctioned off last week to a Sino Land-led consortium for $4 billion. That’s $6,157 per square foot, and appraisal firm Vigers Appraisal & Consulting estimated a final sale price of around $8,000 per square foot on the completed project, a luxury housing complex. I later find out its part of another ventilation structure for the MTR system.

Summing Up…
So, there really isn’t anything here at all. The only people here are joggers, fishermen and employees. I’ve given up walking all the way around – everything is fenced-off, twice, and I can only get into a car park and the boardwalk. In the distance, there’s a junkyard of sorts – rusted husks of cars and a decrepit double-decker bus with Paramount painted on its side. I use my literary powers to consider its metaphoric relation to this sad sack of a cultural hub.
The map at the start of this whole journey referred to the fenced off areas as “landscape.” It’s the Hong Kong equivalent of tumbleweeds blowing across the desert scene. Yet a mere glance up and over reveals three high-rises in the various stages of construction. One of them is the International Commerce Centre, a 118-storey commercial tower, slated for a 2010 completion, when it will trump the IFC as Hong Kong’s tallest building. Over to the side is a drive-in theater, a golf driving range and a helicopter landing pad. Walk for five minutes out of the complex, and it’s back to built-up roads, people rushing about and the busy hum of Hong Kong. Whatever did happen to West Kowloon? ■

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