In October 2009, Hong Kong’s leadership underwent a wrenching petit mal during which it briefly ceased to think like a real estate company and acted more like a government, resulting in the decision to turn the old Central Market building into an ‘urban oasis’. Soon after, officialdom renovated one side of the faded structure’s shabby but busy walkway linking the Mid-Levels Escalator with IFC Mall and the world. Stripped pine flooring, potted plants and the piped sound of birdsong regaled the once-utilitarian thoroughfare with an otherworldly ambience that hinted at things to come from creative bureaucrats determined to show their green credentials and powers of imagination.
Inevitably, this transformation from simple concrete corridor to sauna-cum-hanging-gardens has not come without a price to pay for the thousands of residents who stroll through the area every day. The newly luxurious space is too precious for people to use without supervision, so it is cordoned off with barrier tape at night. Displays of kids’ mildly bad artwork and design students’ incomprehensible output require further restrictions to access. And then they are still tinkering with the décor.
Over the last few days, passers-by have been blocked from part of the area as workmen with ladders, brushes and cans of white emulsion paint turned up. The outcome is that the stripped pine along the wall accommodating the greenery (all real, by the way) is now being painted over. Some might argue that it is an aesthetic improvement, but most of us would – if we thought about it at all – wonder what the purpose is.
One possibility is that the Department of Painting Things had some money left over in its 2010-11 budget and had to blow it fast to avoid being given less to spend next financial year. Another is that the area is being used as a testbed for the whole Central Market Urban Oasis, and the officials will try out various colour schemes (the white could be an undercoat in preparation for something more, shall we say, vivid). Or perhaps the bureaucrats found the expanses of wooden surface too creepy and uncivilized, redolent of dirty, slimy trees found in malodorous forests, and thus damaging the Big Lychee’s image as a modern world-class city made entirely of nice clean concrete and glass.
Now multiply this application of civil-service mentality over a 100-yard stretch a few thousandfold, and you have the 100-acre West Kowloon Cultural District. When Graham Sheffield became the second person to give up trying to run the ill-fated vanity project after five months on the job, we were almost deafened by all the muttering, innuendo and rumour suggesting that overweening bureaucracy played a part in driving the arts administrator back to the UK. Our local officials adamantly insisted that Sheffield had resigned for health reasons.
But now we find the man has suddenly reappeared as top arts guy for the British Council. Cultural Hub Czar and Chief Secretary Henry Tsang, fresh from penning an article on how fab and groovy the West Kowloon thing will be, is now swearing he will be checking the fine print in Sheffield’s contract to see if he broke any terms (shades of blaming Mike Rowse for the Harbourfest controversy?) Pro-government/pro-tourism landlord Allan Zeman says he understands why Hong Kong people might feel cheated. The subliminal message is that our infrastructure/tourism-obsessed establishment and the public are on the same side here, victims of the devious brown-shirted scoundrel with his horrid taste in ties.
Nice try, but some of us will beg to differ. Taxpayers and citizens owe Sheffield a debt of gratitude for revealing that running the West Kowloon Wonderland is more trouble than it’s worth, thanks to the meddling, arrogant, empire-building public-sector overlords.
That’s assuming the scurrilous rumours were broadly right, of course. And Sheffield’s medical fitness to take on a new job so soon suggests that we can rule out the official explanation. Unless it was his mental, rather than physical, health that was at stake.