New venues open in Hong Kong and Taiwan amid strained relations with China

Two flagship cultural institutions in East Asia, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, will open this summer. Both are government-backed and come at a time when relations between Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China are becoming more strained.

On July 2, Hong Kong’s West Kowloon cultural district unveiled the Hong Kong Palace Museum (HKPM), a massive new exhibition space for ancient Chinese antiquities. On August 7 in Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, the Taipei Performing Arts Center (TPAC) will elevate the city’s already intoxicating theater scene with a slate of interdisciplinary and internationally collaborative productions.

The performance space of three theaters is supported by the Taipei City Department of Cultural Affairs, which also operates the Taipei Museum of Fine Arts. It is hoped that the new space will draw international attention to the island nation. “Taiwan has a lot of young talent,” says TPAC director Austin Wang. “It’s very exciting to see them perform, but they don’t have the resources to go international. We will play a connecting role with the outside. TPAC has already reached an agreement with the
Manchester International Festival, to share one production per year. “It’s a starting point,” says Wang.

OMA-designed Taipei Performing Arts Center in Taiwan’s capital aims to collaborate internationally Hsuan Lang Lin Photography

Overlooking Taipei’s iconic Shilin Night Market, the 50,000 sqm performance space is already a major landmark, with a building designed by renowned architecture firm OMA. Facility costs totaled $225 million and annual operating costs are expected to be $16.8 million, 92% of which will be provided by the government. The center hopes to reduce government funding to 50% within 20 years.

The New Hong Kong Museum is part of the state-supported West Kowloon Cultural District, and stands next to the new M+ Museum and the Xiqu Center Chinese Opera Theatre. HKPM director Daisy Wang compares the neighborhood to America’s Smithsonian. “It’s one of the most ambitious cultural projects in the world,” she says. The museum’s strategic partnership with the Beijing Palace Museum in the Forbidden City is a “special and close relationship, with unprecedented loans of treasures,” she says. The Beijing museum will provide an initial loan of 914 objects for up to a year, but will not provide any funding or control over programming, Wang points out: “We are not a ‘branch’, we are independent.”

A $117 million grant from the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust funded the construction of HKPM’s 30,000 m² facility, designed by Hong Kong firm Rocco Design Architects. Although it does not have an acquisition budget, the museum has received donations from private patrons, including a donation from Betty Lo and Kenneth Chu of 946 Chinese gold and silver antiques from the Mengdiexuan Collection. Others will be sought.

The non-profit Jockey Club supports many artistic activities in the city. HKPM’s opening exhibits include an exhibit on horses, but Wang denies the topic is in deference to the funder. “The Jockey Club is a very professional philanthropic organization,” she says. Other opening exhibits include The Making of Masterpieces: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy from the Palace Museum and a multimedia project featuring six Hong Kong artists reinterpreting palace art. Education about Chinese imperial history is another pillar of HKPM’s mission, but Wang says there will be no influence from Beijing and is not tied to controversial new laws imposing “guoxue or mainland-centric “national education” in Hong Kong schools.

Censorship issues

Art censorship has intensified in Hong Kong since the passage of the National Security Law, which was enacted in 2020 by mainland authorities in reaction to the city’s 2019 pro-democracy protests. HKPM’s sister institution, M+, has removed works by mainland artists referencing the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre of Chinese student protesters. But Wang says the scope of the HKPM isolates the project. “We are dedicated to traditional art and culture, and committed to professionalism and the highest standards,” she says, reiterating that the museum has “no issues at this time” with censorship.

In contrast, TPAC opens in an atmosphere of cultural freedom. “There is no censorship here [in Taiwan], we are pretty much free,” says Austin Wang. “There is absolutely no government oversight” of content, even in public institutions, he says. Taiwan, autonomous since 1949 and democratic since 1996, is territorially claimed by China, but has never been part of the People’s Republic. The island’s liberalism fosters vibrant cultural scenes, including what Wang calls a “golden age” of theater, with state theaters evolving from “rental houses” for independent troupes to active collaboration with creators. “Despite the pandemic, the creative energy has been very strong,” he says. “Compared to the West, things can be done very easily in Taiwan. It is a technological island, with resources and talents.

TPAC’s opening season includes collaborations with artist Hsieh Chun-Te and filmmakers Tsai Ming-liang and Tun-ye Chou. Along with a project by Hong Kong independent playwright Vee Leong, the lineup brings together artists from Myanmar, Vietnam and New Zealand for the ongoing interactive series IsLand Bar—Ratava. “Taiwan is right in the middle of Asia, with connections to Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia; we don’t understand these cultures, so we have to work together to create an Asian identity to meet the rest of the world,” says Wang.

Formal artistic ties between Taiwan and Hong Kong and mainland China have diminished since the mid-2010s. In independent spaces, mainland Taiwanese artists are under particular scrutiny, and stricter visa rules have reduced opportunities for artists Chinese to experience the freer environment of Taiwan. Nevertheless, some interactions are possible, such as a theatrical conference organized by the Goethe Institute for Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. “From Taipei’s perspective, this is the only window still open” for conversations with the mainland and Hong Kong, Wang said. The reasons are more political than related to the pandemic, he adds. “I hope it’s not for too long.”

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