Translation of the "Hong Kong Letter" by the Secretary for Home Affairs, Dr Patrick Ho, on Radio Television Hong Kong

Following is the translation of the "Hong Kong Letter" by the Secretary for Home Affairs, Dr Patrick Ho, on Radio Television Hong Kong this morning (December 18):

Dear Mr Dylan,

How are you? Maybe I should call you Bob. First, let me congratulate you on Rolling Stone magazine's selection of your masterpiece "Like a Rolling Stone" as the greatest song of the past 50 years.

In those days, the average length of a pop song was three minutes. "Like a Rolling Stone" was twice as long. Had it not been for your perseverance, it might have been brushed aside and forgotten long ago. I have always admired both your creativity and your persistence as an artist. You know, when I was studying in America in the seventies, at one time I made a living by performing on the street, singing your songs while strumming my guitar. That's why I always tell my friends it was music that brought me up.

The dilemma of arts development in Hong Kong

Here in Hong Kong, developing the arts is no easy task. Hong Kong is a small place with no natural resources to speak of, but it has made its mark as a major international financial centre. This economic success involves many trade-offs. To develop our economy, for example, some charming old buildings had to be pulled down to make way for factories and commercial and residential blocks. Life is so hectic here that everybody toils long hours to make a living. How can people have time to pursue arts and cultural interests when they have put their last ounce of energy into their work? Also, to maximise land usage, some of our district leisure and cultural facilities have to be housed in market complexes. Every so often, while reading in the library, one may smell the fish in the market downstairs. This inevitably offends many in the arts sector.

Being an official in charge of cultural matters, I am well aware of these problems. Indeed, I daresay that I understand them better than most. Arts and cultural projects have to compete for limited resources with various other projects, and the chance of success has never been high. Should we forget about social welfare, and use our resources to develop arts and culture? Can we turn a blind eye to the development of health care services? Can we say that there is no need to develop education or protect our environment? Can we do without our fire services, police force and customs department? Can we put all these aside, freeze their expenditures, and commit all our new resources to developing arts and culture and preserving our cultural heritage? The fact is, we cannot. I cannot find it in my heart to persuade my colleagues to do so. I can only say that arts and culture are one of many policy areas, one that must compete fairly with other priorities for resources.

The West Kowloon Cultural District project offers a golden opportunity

The West Kowloon Cultural District project provides us with a golden opportunity. The fact that a premium site is earmarked for the project means that substantial resources are being devoted to arts and cultural development. This is an opportunity that we should seize and cherish. Soon Hong Kong will have more museums, art galleries, theatres and concert halls. I'm told that some arts organisations have already accepted our invitation to become arts groups-in-residence. They will have their own place for rehearsals and a greater choice of performing venues. Not long ago, Mr Hardy Tsoi, a community theatre director, produced a drama that was well received. Despite the actors and production crew having devoted well over half a year to the work, it turned out that only three or four performances could be staged. This is indeed discouraging. Arts professionals in Hong Kong are not happy with this situation. Neither am I. I really hope that good dramas can run for a long time, so that not only four, but 14 or 40 or even more performances can be staged.

The West Kowloon Cultural District project is an historic turning point for the development of our arts and culture. In Hong Kong, few people choose a career in the arts. Sponsorship is hard to come by, and very often the meagre sponsorship that they can get is not even sufficient to cover performance expenses. How then do they have money to spend on publicity and marketing? It is true that Hong Kong's arts and culture are not world famous, but that has nothing to do with their quality. We lack only the marketing and publicity campaigns. There are actually many local painters whose works merit admiration in major international exhibitions. Their development is hindered only because they lack connections to art gallery agents, and this is not their fault. In fact, many local singers and actors have risen to fame thanks to professional image building and business management. It is never a bad thing to combine business with the arts. The only downside is when they fail to work together. We do not fear comparison with others. What we fear is a lack of opportunity to showcase our works. Commercial publicity, marketing, public relations and business management can, to a certain extent, promote the development of local arts and culture.

The West Kowloon Cultural District is also an historic turning point for Hong Kong's overall economy. The global economy is now evolving from being nation-based to "city-region"-based. Some experts predict that our future global economy will be controlled by some 30 "city-regions", and only those cities with dynamic and pluralistic global cultures can attract international liquidity and professionals to help them gain a foothold in this global environment. Hence, the development of the West Kowloon Cultural District will not only benefit the arts sector but also enhance Hong Kong's overall competitiveness.

Do not make prejudiced remarks

Some critics say, "The West Kowloon Cultural District? Do you really think we can achieve anything impressive? It's not possible. We should concentrate on property development and making a fast buck. That's what Hong Kong is all about." I believe that such harsh words are just cynical remarks. This is absolutely not the future that we would like to see. Hong Kong is our home, and it will be home for our future generations. We love Hong Kong and we care about its prosperity and reputation.

Mr Dylan, this brings to mind another of your songs, "The Times They Are A-Changin". As the song goes, "the wheel's still in spin ... the times they are a-changin' ". Let's all grasp this golden opportunity and rise to the challenges of a new age.

Your fan,

Patrick Ho

Ends/Saturday, December 18, 2004