Hong Kong as the “cultural hub of Asia”

An interview with Bernard Charnwut Chan

Hong Kong as the “cultural hub of Asia”

“If you had asked me 10 years ago if Hong Kong could be the cultural hub of Asia, I would never get that. But after the protests of 2019 and the closed years of Covid-19, it is really helping Hong Kong reconnect to the world. The good news is that there is no turning back.”

On the north shore of Victoria Harbor, a miracle is taking shape on some of the world’s most expensive property. Landmark public buildings house a contemporary art museum with a groundbreaking collection of Chinese art during the reform and development period; next door is a showcase of traditional Chinese art stocked with national treasures; performing arts centers offer jazz and Chinese opera.

The architects are a who’s who of the industry – Herzog & de Meuron’s elegant slab and podium at M+ Museum, with its giant LED screen flashing art at the city by night; Rocco Yim’s cubist Hong Kong Palace Museum, or HKPM; the late Bing Thom and Ronald Lu’s hat-shaped Xiqu Theater; and Dennis Lau’s Freespace theater and music venue. These are set in rolling parkland with comfortable seating and intimate nooks for family picnics, couples and dog-walkers, facing a breathtaking view of the Hong Kong skyline and harbor.

The West Kowloon Cultural District, or WKCD, is a work in progress. Like Hong Kong itself, it never quite seems finished. But after decades of setbacks, sudden reversals, and economic challenges, it is suddenly coming together as one of the most important urban playgrounds anywhere, an equivalent to New York’s Central Park or London’s Hyde Park, but with better arts and performance facilities.

As Hong Kong mends itself after the dreadful years of protests, Covid-19, and lockdowns, WKCD is helping to rebuild the city’s global connections as a draw not only for tourism but for talent. If its name, WKCD, sounds anodyne, its content is anything but. Its two core museums provide a curated tour of Chinese culture and history from ancient to modern unparalleled anywhere. Its performance centers, including the Lyric Theater still under construction, will rival New York’s Lincoln Center when completed.

Behind the miracle is a patrician, self-effacing, intellectually curious scion of a wealthy Chinese-Thai family who has made a career of bridging arts, politics and finance. Bernard Chan is not the only person who could take credit or blame for WKCD, but as the chairman of M+ and the vice-chair of WKCD, he has helped steer the vision of an art playground set in parkland for much of the last two decades through his roles in legislature and influence.

“I told my boss, the chief executive, to see this as a tool to retain people. We are competing not just with where the jobs are, but on quality of life. Everything matters,” says Chan. “In back of all that, you have a rising 400 million middle class demographics in China, and 160-180 million middle class in Southeast Asia. If WKCD was just for a market of 7 million, it might not be worth that kind of investment. But if you take into consideration China and Southeast Asia – the demand and desire to have exposure to higher quality offerings, that’s why I am excited. This is just the start.”

A long and winding road

It’s been a long and winding road to today’s vision of WKCD. In 1998, former Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa included a paragraph in his policy address on “a new, state-of-the-art performance venue on the West Kowloon reclamation,” as well as “other major facilities.”[i] The plan was to “cultivate Hong Kong’s image as the Asian center of arts and culture.”

1998 was the year that Hong Kong moved its international airport from Kai Tak to Chap Lap Kok on Lantau Island. Designed by Sir Norman Foster, the airport was the center of a vast infrastructure program that included reclamation for the construction of the MTR’s Airport Express line between Hong Kong Station and the new terminal. This new land was designated West Kowloon. “The 40-ha strip of land was always meant for finance, business, commercial and residential. It was meant to pay off the infrastructure expense for the airport and rail tunnel. It was always about money. When this whole arts and culture thing came out, everyone assumed it was just a camouflage,” Chan says.

The new arts district was the subject of not one but two design competitions, in 2001 and 2011, both won by Foster + Partners. An initial plan for a giant dragon-back canopy was scrapped after a controversy inspired by suspicions that the plan was a front to enrich one or two developers. “Then came the park design,” says Chan. “I pushed for that. London has its Hyde Park, New York has Central Park, and Hong Kong needed something comparable. I pushed for the design understanding the opportunity costs.”

For years, the 40 hectares of West Kowloon remained an urban wasteland. A tattered banner hung on steel fencing marking the location as the “West Kowloon Cultural Hub.” Gradually, between 2017 and the present, it has taken shape, first with a waterfront promenade in 2017, followed by the Xiqu Center and Freespace venues for performing arts, in 2019, M+ Museum in 2021 and HKPM in 2022. The subterranean transport and parking areas remain unfinished, in part due to the seven-year delay in completing the West Kowloon High-Speed Rail Station, which opened in 2018.

Today, visitors can walk across the street from HKPM’s astonishing Sanxingdui exhibition of 3,000-year-old artefacts from the Bronze Age culture in China’s southwest, to the Madame Song exhibition at M+, a homage to the woman who helped to transform Chinese fashion in the 1980s. Freespace hosts jazz, dance, theater and exhibitions, with audiences for its Lau Bak Livehouse often flowing onto the lawn. Partly due to remaining issues with transport and infrastructure – it is a long walk from the closest Kowloon MTR station – it has not yet mined its full existing potential. “West Kowloon is a work in progress,” says Chan. “There are gaps to be filled.”

Meanwhile, 60% of the visitors to West Kowloon are from outside Hong Kong. “That’s definitely what West Kowloon is all about,” says Chan. “It’s not only for us but for mainland China and the region.” According to the latest annual report, by March 31, 2023, M+ had a footfall of over 2.6 million visitors, HKPM had just under 1 million visitors since its opening, Freespace had 260,000 during the year and Xiqu Theater and the Art Park had 100,000 for WKCD’s first art tech festival.[ii]

Completing the vision

The last of WKCD’s challenges are financial. Twenty-five years on, completion of the last of six core facilities is still two years away. WKCD has nearly exhausted its HK$21.6 billion endowment. And of the planned arts and culture facilities, only 50% will have been finished in 2025, when the Lyric Theater opens its doors.

“We don’t have money for the rest,” admits Chan. But the impact is already being felt. “If you had asked me 10 years ago if Hong Kong could be the cultural hub of Asia, I would never get that. But after the protests of 2019 and the closed years of Covid-19, it is really helping Hong Kong reconnect to the world. The good news is that there is no turning back.”

The economics of arts facilities are never easy. Instead of profits, museums look at recovery rates – the share of costs that can be met through incoming revenue. The best recovery rate in the world is London’s Tate Museum with 50%. The recovery rate for WKCD overall is 37%, with the Hong Kong Palace Museum at 44% and M+ at 46%. That is a polite way of saying that WKCD is losing money – it had a HK$718 million operating deficit in the 2022-3 fiscal year, on operating income of HK$553 million, with about half from commercial revenues and another half from admission fees and fundraising.[iii] While revenue jumped 412%, with fundraising up 641% year over year, when the Lyric Theater is finished, the operating shortfall is likely to increase to HK$1 billion, according to Chan.

“In the US, wealthy families and corporations would create endowments to cover the losses of cultural institutions. In Europe, it’s the government. In Hong Kong, it’s always real estate,” says Chan. “Not until today, as vice chairman of the district, do I have a better understanding of the entire financing. Fifteen to 20 years ago, they didn’t think through the details. Am I regretting it? No. The decision we made was a good one. Only now do I understand how the whole thing works.”

During his 15 years as non-official member and convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council, or Exco, Chan helped to push for the green, park-like design that won the competition in 2017. That meant that out of the total 40 ha of reclaimed land, 23 ha would be reserved for open space. Of the remaining 17 ha, equivalent to 850,000 m of Gross Floor Area, or GFA, 40% was reserved for arts and culture. 42-3% was reserved for commercial and residential, with the remaining 17-8% for food and beverage.

“What does that mean?” asks Chan about the 23, non-revenue generating hectares of parkland. “You can’t make money on it.” With the benchmark interest rate in Hong Kong hovering close to 6%, it’s hard to convince developers to bid on the 360,000 m of GFA allocated to commercial and residential uses. “In the long term, I have no doubts,” says Chan. “But in the short term, we will have to think of something.”


Chan was leading a group of wealthy American visitors through M+ when one asked, “Do you take your instructions from Beijing?” Chan replied, “I don’t take instructions from the Hong Kong government, let alone Beijing. Of course, I am accountable if something blows up. But the professional curatorial staff decides what to show. I try to give the public enough notice so that they understand.”

Yet political issues do regularly blow up, primarily from critics demanding more censorship. In March 2021, before the opening of M+ Museum, museum director Suhanya Raffel said in a media preview there would be “no problem” displaying works by China’s most famous dissident artist, Ai Weiwei.[iv] In his Study of Perspective photographic series, produced between 1995 and 2017, he takes a world tour of power centers where he sticks his middle finger up standing in front of the White House and the Forbidden City, among others. Several Legco members attacked the museum for sedition. Chan promptly wrote an opinion editorial in the South China Morning Post, “Art censorship: why the Hong Kong government has no business playing cultural gatekeeper.”[v] He blames politicization and social media for attacks on freedom of expression not only in Hong Kong but around the world, including in the US.

Chan tries to serve personally as a bridge between politics and the arts (more on his background in the arts below), while understanding the perspective of different stakeholders. “M+ is about contemporary art, and not everyone has the stomach for it,” he says. “That’s the beauty of it. Art is a platform to be able to see from different perspectives. It’s a platform to educate. Nothing that we collect, or display is illegal, but that doesn’t mean that everyone will agree” (one of the contentions of critics is that art can violate provisions of the 2020 National Security Law imposed by Beijing). When he does intervene in curatorial decisions, it is to help gauge stakeholder reactions in advance, and telegraph the intentions of the curators “so that people understand.”

Chan’s internal benchmark for success is when exposure helps people “think beyond your boundaries.” Of all the collections of M+, the one that is most controversial, but also most consequential, is the M+ Sigg collection, most of it a donation by Uli Sigg, a Swiss businessman and diplomat who was the Swiss ambassador to China, North Korea and Mongolia from 1995-98. In 2012, he gave his collection of contemporary Chinese art from 1972 to 2012 to M+. The largest collection of contemporary Chinese art in the world, it instantly put M+ on the map as a major museum. Only 200 or so works can be exhibited at a time, and while the specific work that was criticized by Eunice Yong Hoi-yan and others in 2021 was not in the first collection on display, it is part of a photographic series in which he represents himself giving the finger to various centers of power, including the US White House.

Sigg entrusted his huge collection to M+ because he wanted the pieces to return to China, according to Chan. “What he told me was so powerful. He collected these pieces not because he liked them, but because they told the history of China over the last 40 years. Of course, M+ is not just about the Sigg collection. But clearly the Sigg collection has put M+ on the map. It’s the single largest collection of Chinese contemporary art in the world.”

Chan acknowledges that appreciating M+ may be a learning process for the Hong Kong public. But he thinks the impact on mainland visitors will be electrifying. When he heard about the current exhibition on Madame Song, he initially had no idea of her role in Chinese fashion and the arts in the 1980s. “For us, it’s amazing,” he says. “But for people from the mainland, it will mean so much more. The exhibition allows them to dial back the clock. You can see how visible the difference was from the 1980s to today. That transformation, in the last 30 to 40 years, is just amazing.”

So who is Bernard Chan?

Chan is a member of Hong Kong’s elite. His family, the Chinese-Thai Sophanpanich clan, built Bangkok Bank Public Company (BBL.BK), one of the few lenders to Chinese companies before the 1970s, and has a controlling interest in Bumrungrad Hospital Public Company Limited (BH.BK), one of Southeast Asia’s largest medical tourism enterprises, of which Chan is a director. He is the chairman and president of Asia Financial Holdings (0662.HK) and Asia Insurance Co., Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of Asia Financial Holdings. Out of 100 or so members of his extended Sophanpanich family, only 10 are in Hong Kong, with the rest in Bangkok.

Growing up, Chan had a chronic disease that left him with 50% of his kidney functions at the age of 18.[vi] As a student at Pomona College, a liberal arts college in Claremont, California, he switched from economics to studio art because the latter offered independent study, and he was in and out of hospital. He began painting himself, and while he says finance was his first love, he developed a reputation as one of the few in his category in business and politics with an art degree.

In 1998, Rita Fan, the president of the Legislative Council, asked him to design a new logo for Legco. “She said, you’re the only one with a degree in art” among the first batch of Legco members. “You’re in charge. That was my first lesson in combining art and politics together.” The new logo, which was adopted in 1999, combines立, the first character in 立法會, or Legislative Council in Chinese, and a capital L, reflecting “that Hong Kong is a place where Chinese and Western cultures blend in perfect harmony,” according to the Legislative Council website. “Later, Rafael Hui, then the chief secretary, asked me to be in charge of heritage conservation. I said, wait a minute, I know nothing about heritage conservation. He replied, didn’t you study art? And you also understand business.”

“In each of these situations, they didn’t see me as an artist. If an artist is what you want, there are plenty that are better than me. My job is always around dealing with different stakeholders, to see it from every angle, not right or wrong.”

At Pomona College, where he is an emeritus trustee, he is often asked to talk about how his liberal arts education helped him. “First, it’s about thinking beyond the box. Creativity and thinking beyond the box is key to what I do. How do I make myself different from others?” As an example, he gives his experience as founding chairman of HKPM. Several years before it opened, he went to visit the museum director of the Palace Museum in Beijing. The two institutions are independent, but HKPM has on loan 900 works of art from the former Forbidden City, seat of China’s emperors.

“I asked the director if he saw us as a threat, because I didn’t know anything about Chinese art,” says Chan. “He laughed and said, you’re not a threat. We have 1.3 million objects and we can only show 2% at a time. He said, please, do it differently from us. I came back to Hong Kong and said internally, where is the best place to see Chinese art? Some would say Beijing, Taipei, even London. Why would anyone come to Hong Kong? What should we do to put Hong Kong on the map? How do we connect with people, especially those who do not connect with 5,000 years of history? We can never be the Forbidden City. But if you look out from here, you can see the harbor.”

So, under Chan’s direction, HKPM took a storytelling approach, showing the daily life of emperors and their consorts, taking viewers into how imperial objects were made and the craftsmen behind them. When a new museum director from the Palace Museum walked through, he told Chan, “Your approach is so different. I learned something.” Says Chan: “The role of Hong Kong is not to be the same as China. Beijing expects Hong Kong to add value. Our job is not to present just to Hong Kong or the mainland but to the world.”

Bernard Charnwut Chan, born in 1965, is a Hong Kong politician and businessman. He is the grandson of Chin Sophanpanich, the late founder of Bangkok Bank, and a former convener of the non-official members of Hong Kong’s Executive Council. He contributes frequently to The South China Morning Post, The Standard, and other publications. He graduated from Pomona College in 1988.

[i] 1998 Policy Address by Chief Executive, Daily Information Bulletin, Government Information Services, October 7, 1998, https://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/199810/07/cepa.htm

[ii] West Kowloon Business Review, 2022/2023 Annual Report, https://wkassets-production.s3.ap-east-1.amazonaws.com/documents/wkcda-annual-report-2022-23-book-1-english-FINAL.pdf?VersionId=jxI1f.5yETYnvbmJyC0bbRk2nCKwW5B0

[iii] West Kowloon Governance Report and Financial Statements, 2022/23 Annual Report, https://wkassets-production.s3.ap-east-1.amazonaws.com/documents/wkcda-annual-report-2022-23-book-2-english-FINAL.pdf?VersionId=BRb.ZRPwOo5NJbxtoeoWlAeuc44koex.

[iv] Kanis Leung and Enid Tsui, “Storm over M+: is Beijing targeting the Hong Kong museum, or is it just politicians looking to score points?,” South China Morning Post, April 6, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3128350/storm-over-m-museum-beijing-targeting-hong-kong-art-scene

[v] Bernard Chan, “Art censorship: why the Hong Kong government has no business playing cultural gatekeeper,” March 26, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3126963/art-censorship-why-hong-kong-government-has-no-business-playing

[vi] Nick Chan, “Friday Beyond Spotlights – Mr Bernard Chan, the man behind and beyond the spotlights,” The Standard, February 19, 2022, https://www.thestandard.com.hk/breaking-news/section/2/187172/Fri…ights—Mr-Bernard-Chan,-the-man-behind-and-beyond-the-spotlights