Looking to the future, by knowing the past: Conversation with Louis YU
The topic for this thesis was inspired partly by the arts and culture-related projects I worked on during my Part I experience in practice, and partly by the Xiqu Centre and West Kowloon Cultural District that were finally taking shape back at home in Hong Kong.
In 1998, the then Chief Executive promised an ensemble of arts and cultural facilities in the prime harbourfront site at West Kowloon. This was tabled amidst a brewing’ identity crisis’ that troubled many of the city’s inhabitants at the time, a topic widely recognised and discussed in scholarly and popular discourses surrounding Hong Kong and its culture and identity. See, for example, Ackbar Abbas’ seminal book Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, which captures the phenomena of dis-appearance in the culture of Hong Kong approaching 1997, and Leo Ou-fan Lee’s City Between Worlds, which sketches the contour of Hong Kong culture ten years after the Handover, revealing elements that have morphed since, or was not captured, in Abbas’ ‘disappearance model’. The West Kowloon Cultural District encapsulated the vision to transform Hong Kong from just an international financial hub into an arts and cultural one as well.
In the following two decades, the delivery of this vision has been complicated by many hurdles. Still, this vision captured the imaginations of architects and was a rare testing ground for vast, bold and at times unconventional urban ideas likely unprecedented anywhere else in land-hungry Hong Kong. I recall the many iterations of West Kowloon that have appeared on the news, while the land itself remained barren every time I pass by the site adjacent to the Western Harbour Crossing. There was the canopy design by Foster + Partner which won the first Open Concept Competition in 2001 (although it came to a halt in 2006), as well as the three conceptual plans presented to the public in 2010: ‘Cultural Connect’ by Rocco Design Architects Limited, ‘Project for a New Dimension’ by OMA, and ‘City Park’ by Foster + Partners which was adopted for the West Kowloon’ Proposed Development Plan. In 2019, the Xiqu Centre was the first major venue to open at the multi-billion West Kowloon Cultural District development. It is a promising sign of the arts hub to come but has also attracted a fair share of criticism.
Last week, I was glad to meet Mr Louis Yu for a very engaging discussion about the Xiqu Centre, West Kowloon, the development and conservation of Cantonese Opera and the place of culture in Hong Kong. Mr Yu was the Executive Director in charge of performing arts at the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority from 2010 to 2019. He played a pivotal role in leading the delivery of performing arts facilities at West Kowloon Cultural District and worked closely with Bing Thom Architects (now Revery Architecture) for the design of the Xiqu Centre. Mr Yu has also overseen a host of performing arts and xiqu programmes that have taken place in the lead up to Xiqu Centre’s official opening.
Xiqu Centre (photos by author, click to enlarge)
The Xiqu Centre is certainly one of a kind in Hong Kong, and for many reasons.
It has departed from the typologies of cultural centres in Hong Kong in terms of the scale and proportion of public spaces provided within the building under the distinctive oval-shaped ceiling (which has also become a local Instagram hotspot). It is significantly more generous and open, a rare sight and experience in the city.
It has also departed from the typology of urban theatre houses that proliferated across the city in the early post-war decades. Those theatres operated primarily as commercial enterprises, and in most cases, boasted a grand theatre (equipped with revolving stages, novel stage lighting and other technologies, etc.) to attract audiences who were interested in seeing a performance, but also being seen. In addition to the thousand-seat Grand Theatre, the Xiqu Centre also houses a smaller Tea House theatre which aimed to recreate the intimate ambience of early 20th Century teahouses.
In our conversation, Yu also emphasised that this is also the vehicle to cultivate young talents for xiqu in the long run. It provides a platform to stage regular performances by the Tea House Rising Stars Troupe, which in turn provides the incentive for the young performers to continually practice and improve. Similar platforms are rarely seen amongst current Cantonese Opera troupes in Hong Kong as most performers work on a freelance basis, which Yu points out is not ideal for an art form that was traditionally passed on through generations of masters and disciples. Performances at the Tea House Theatre have been cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but I look forward to experiencing it for myself when it reopens.
view of M+ at West Kowloon Cultural District under construction (photos by author)
In Evelyn Wan’s ‘Counting Down on the Train to 2046 in West Kowloon: A Deep Map of Hong Kong’s Spectral Temporalities’, she argued that ‘Past, present, and future collide in the spaces of West Kowloon’.
Indeed, time and memory are curious concepts in Hong Kong – a comment that Yu and I have repeatedly referred back to during our conversation. It is a notion that has been actively debated in discourses relating to Hong Kong’s cultural heritage, identity and collective memories. It has been explored creatively in films and artworks, such as Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 (2004), as well as Sampson Wong and Jason Lam’s artwork 'Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now/ Countdown Machine' (2016). In Wan’s analysis, the dynamics between time, memory, culture, and heritage is peculiar and heightened at West Kowloon. How does a cultural hub that has always aspired to be global interface with that of the local? How does West Kowloon build its character, represent a facet of ‘Hong Kong-ness’ and respond to existing conceptions of ‘Hong Kong-ness’ when it was built on reclaimed land with little or no history and identity at all? Where does one begin to anchor this part of the city, spatially and temporally?
When asked of the positioning of the West Kowloon Cultural District within the wider landscape of Hong Kong and the city’s cultural scene, Yu expressed that both Xiqu Centre, and West Kowloon at large, has been forward-looking and future-oriented from the very beginning. They are about the future – the future of traditional performing arts and cultural practices in a modern city, the future of cultural venues, their relationship with both high-arts and popular culture, and their role both as an institution and a public space in the city. For Xiqu Centre and West Kowloon to succeed as a piece of city-making that looks to the future however, Yu also emphasised the importance of knowing the past. For Yu, knowing the past and learning the heritage is the first steps to constructing something that could resonate with the contemporary language. I think this was beautifully realised in the series of West Kowloon Bamboo Theatres that were constructed annually between 2012-2014 (see images here: 2012, 2013, 2014)
view of Hong Kong Island, from Art Park at West Kowloon Cultural District (photo by author)
In a city that has become the textbook example for its incredible speed of development, demolition and redevelopment, where ‘ “Fifty years without change” – are thus belied by an urban landscape that mutates right under our noses’, to borrow Abbas’ words, preserving historic fabric, cultural heritage and identity is a difficult endeavour.
It was interesting to learn that as the design for Xiqu Centre developed, there were extensive conversations about how the architecture might engage in a dialogue with the local vernacular of temporary bamboo theatres or matsheds. The use of synthetic bamboo in the building’s ribbed façade was considered, and so was the use of bronze – which may evoke a warmer atmosphere and is more similar in colour and tone to that of bamboo theatres. As part of the design proposal submissions for the Xiqu Centre, architects and designers were also asked to identify an area and illustrate how a bamboo theatre might be constructed in their proposed scheme – in Bing Thom’s vision, this would take place in the generous atrium.
During our conversation, Yu also kindly directed me to consult various references related to the history of Hong Kong’s urban planning and infrastructure development, development of traditional theatre houses in China (especially in Shanghai and Beijing), as well as several pilot studies in developing areas neighbouring West Kowloon. I will return to these in future blog articles and research.
view of Hong Kong's skyline and tenement houses at Jordan from Xiqu Centre (photos by author)
Finally, in light of an increasingly polarised Hong Kong, Yu reminded me that although culture may not be an elixir or immediate fix to heal divided communities, it plays an integral role nonetheless. Culture provides a platform not only for diverse opinions to be expressed, but more importantly, for these opinions to be enacted in one way or another, and it is through materialising them that the society could begin to work out what reality should become – in other words, where the community should be headed, and what the city should look like.
Xiqu Centre (photo by author)
Note: The interview was conducted in Cantonese and English. Above mentioned points about topics discussed are translated by the author.
 Foster + Partners, ‘Winning Concept Plans for West Kowloon Reclamation Announced | Foster + Partners’, accessed 8 June 2020, https://www.fosterandpartners.com/news/archive/2002/02/winning-concept-plans-for-west-kowloon-reclamation-announced/.
 West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, ‘Conceptual Plan Options’, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, accessed 8 June 2020, http://web.westkowloon.hk/pe2/en/conceptual/index.html.
 Evelyn Wan, ‘Counting Down on the Train to 2046 in West Kowloon: A Deep Map of Hong Kong’s Spectral Temporalities’, Hong Kong Studies 2, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 2.
 Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, 1997, 64.