A town for tradition and tolerance
Hong Kong fears nothing more than being prematurely swallowed by China. In defiance, the people of this commercial metropolis are not only taking to the streets, they are also making themselves a whole new arts town. One of the largest theatre- and museum-districts in the world is currently being built in the shadow of the enormous residential towers that make Hong Kong look like a giant machine – and overshadowed by the demonstrations and protests that have gripped the world since the summer.
Six theatres, three museums and several multifunctional venues are currently under construction in the former Victoria Harbour on the Kowloon Peninsula, right opposite Hong Kong’s world-famous financial district. West Kowloon Cultural District is the name of the lavish 2.4 billion Euro project. The entrance to the 40 hectare “arts park” – with open spaces covering 23 hectares – is marked by the towering Xiqu Centre, the first of a brood of ultra-modern performing-arts-buildings to be built here. It is an imposing theatre, designed by Revery Architecture and Ronald Lu & Partners. Yet unlike the fortresses that European theatres usually resemble, this building draws visitors in almost coincidentally with an entrance area that seems like a public space. A central, raised podium is the only element that hints at its function as a theatre. On a terraced, round-marble stage stands a traditional wooden structure, a replica of a Chinese village opera theatre, dwarfed by its surroundings.
This new Xiqu Centre (pronounced: Shi-Ku) is dedicated exclusively to classical Chinese opera and its roughly 1200-year-old traditions. Some 400 local and historical variants of the popular opera form – the best-known being the Peking Opera – are housed in this eight-storey palace. Visitors can watch original operas in a large hall seating over 1000 or excerpts from the operas in a teahouse theatre with 200 seats. Alongside these, there are eight rehearsal studios, two of which have eight-metre-high ceilings to allow productions to be rehearsed in their original dimensions and to stage workshop performances.
From the outside, the façade of the Xiqu Centre is reminiscent of a stage curtain draped around the square of the theatre, with a crack left open at the entrance. This portal represents a moon gate, the kind of round entrance that was once commonly found at traditional Chinese gardens. Kee Hong Low, director of this and the forthcoming theatres in West Kowloon, explains the idea behind it: They wanted a low-threshold access to this temple to the arts “to preserve the immaterial global legacy of the Kunqu opera and the Yueye Opera, among other things”.
In the huge foyer, an escalator leads up a floor, where the teahouse theatre is located. Here, short performances of this cultural legacy are shown that are universally understandable, even for Europeans. Tea and biscuits are served during the performance. To deepen the sketchy knowledge of Cantonese opera we have gained in the teahouse theatre, we go to a seminar room one floor higher before moving on to the large hall under the roof, where complete reconstructions of classical operas are shown.
Back in the teahouse gallery, looking over the heads of the audience, we see a proscenium stage, panelled and framed with lashings of tropical wood. Tea is steaming in front of us and our cups are constantly filled. The height of the seats up in the balcony can be adjusted. Anna C. Y. Chan, who was director of dance for the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority until 2018, explains a small technical detail: The balustrades we are sitting behind were too low under British law and needed to be raised to comply with Western requirements. But the average Chinese person is distinctly smaller, so height-adjustable seats were fitted. Shortly before the theatre’s inauguration, however, the colonial-era law was changed, and the regulations brought into line with Chinese standards.
Since the protests this summer, changing laws has become very difficult. Hong Kong has officially been conceded extensive rights of autonomy until 2047 but building law has already been altered – like various other things, such as freedom of the press and of opinion – much earlier. The planning for this cultural district started the year the handover occurred. It was intended from the outset as a diplomatic device for demonstrating Hong Kong’s independence.
It is purely thanks to the art-makers themselves that so many became involved in planning this impressive facility, replete with what will soon be one of the largest museums of contemporary art (from 2020), a musical theatre and (from 2023) a dancehall. The outcome: in 2008 the government set up the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority in the old Victoria Harbour.
A free space for free Hong Kong
Everyone involved nevertheless assures us that the emphasis here will be on contemporary arts from Hong Kong, including in the Great Theatre, Medium Theatre and Music Centre. Those are the three other, medium-sized theatres that will soon emerge on the shores of the South China Sea. Currently, they only exist on the drawing board, where plans also feature a hotel especially for guest- and resident-artists, close to the “freespace” that opened in June this year – an outdoor terrain with a pavilion roof, set to present a thrilling programme of martial arts, parcours and contemporary music concerts, such as hip hop. The only tangible location for the contemporary arts that has been created so far, then, is open-air and free of charge.
The real attraction of the Xiqu Centre, the main building so far which seems round but is in fact very angular, is the Grand Theatre. The stage and 1073-capacity auditorium were hung, so to speak, into the top floor. Sitting up there, you easily forget you are hovering 27 metres over ground level in a container that is impervious to all the noise of the city because it doesn’t touch the walls. Standing downstairs in the foyer and looking up, meanwhile, it is hard to imagine that the enormous ceiling rosette made of saltwaterproof aluminium, the same material as the outer façade, marks the floor of the largest theatre hall in the building.
This elaborate construction was necessary as the Xiqu Centre is built directly above an underground station. The 45-metres-high building is supported by six gigantic concrete pillars of the kind normally used for skyscrapers, which absorb the ground vibrations. Encased in aluminium fins, the pillars are almost invisible. Once the roof truss was fitted, which at 180 tons is over half the weight of the Eiffel Tower, the individual floors were hung, one-by-one, into the building like shelves. Each floor was strengthened with steel trusses to guarantee horizontal stability, then the mezzanine levels were formed of aluminium by an extrusion process and inserted.
Traditionally, visitors to performances of Chinese music theatre take breaks whenever they like and as they see fit. For this reason, the stage in the roof area is flanked by two gardens for relaxing from the intense input of classical Chinese music. The view from up here is breathtaking. You look out over the skyline of the banking district from a building that shines in the night like a Chinese lantern and has just been honoured by having its image grace the new 100 Hong Kong dollar bill. Identity, here, really is a question of money. But in the light of the protesters’ fires, which are visible in the distance, identity is even more so a question of courage.