Meet the Woman Who Runs Hong Kong’s Unheralded Cultural Juggernaut

Michelle Li is perhaps Hong Kong’s most important cultural bureaucrat, but she laughs when this suggestion is put forward over dim sum in Sha Tin. “One of them,” she says.

She is being modest. Li is the director of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), which spends nearly HK$8 billion each year taking care of what people in Hong Kong do in their spare time. Its reach is enormous. On the leisure side, it oversees the city’s many parks and gardens, 25 sport centres, 41 gazetted beaches and 43 swimming pools. Its cultural arm runs almost all of Hong Kong’s arts venues, more than 80 libraries, and 14 museums – seven big, seven small. When the government funds the annual Hong Kong Arts Festival, it’s the LCSD that takes care of things, and it runs another three festivals of its own. The department also organises the Hong Kong Flower Show. All told, listing its activities fills most of the 170 pages of its annual report.

Of course, the LCSD is not responsible for everything cultural in Hong Kong. The so-called “big nine” arts organisations, including the philharmonic and Chinese orchestras and the Hong Kong Ballet, are supported by the Home Affairs Bureau; their combined funding comes in at less than a third of the LCSD’s spend. The Arts Development Council also has a role, though with a budget that’s less than 1/40 of the LCSD’s (HK$183 million in 2016). And there will soon be the West Kowloon Cultural District, run by its own authority, and the Jockey Club-backed Tai Kwun in the former Central Police Station and Victoria Prison complex.

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Getting ready for a Chinese opera at Shatin Town Hall – Photo Zolima CityMag

Nonetheless, Li’s department is the heavyweight, and soon to be even more so once it starts receiving the billions more dollars it was granted in this year’s budget. Among the highlights: HK$20 billion for buildings, HK$500 million for museum acquisitions and exhibitions, HK$300 million for intangible cultural heritage projects, HK$200 million for libraries to encourage reading, and HK$140 million for cultural exchanges in the Guangdong-Macau Bay Area.

Who is pushing for all these extra funding? “We’re the one who is driving it,” says Li. “We’re saying please give me the money,” says Li. “We have a long wish list. Every year we have a long wish list.”

That’s only part of the answer. Since Carrie Lam replaced CY Leung as chief executive last year, spending on culture has become a priority. One reason for this – the one Lam has stressed – is to raise Hong Kong’s reputation as an international cultural capital and make it a place that allows “a great continuum of cultural businesses and ventures to flourish,” as Lam told a cultural forum last November.

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Backstage at City Town Hall theatre – Photo by Zolima CityMag

Li became head of the LCSD four years ago after five years as deputy secretary of education, and a career in the civil service that began in 1988, straight after she graduated from the University of Hong Kong with a law degree. “I belong to the cadre of administrative officers. We are given postings. We have no choice,” she says. “After almost 30 years in the civil service, I’ve learned something – we can’t choose our jobs, but we can choose to like our jobs. That’s my philosophy. Once I knew that I was being posted to the LCSD, I began to learn more [about culture], to watch more performances, to participate in a greater variety of ways and just immerse myself.”

That job has evolved over the last four years. “In terms of workload, it’s much busier,” says Li. “In terms of breadth, it’s much broader.” Making it even broader is a growth in cultural exchanges. Some of these are international, bringing shows and institutions from around the world to Hong Kong. But also important is sending groups out from Hong Kong, especially to other parts of China, whose fast-growing affluence is creating a demand for higher-quality entertainment and culture.

Towns and cities have rushed to build state-of-the-art performance venues, but struggle to find performers to fill them. For Hong Kong arts groups, says Li, this is an opportunity. “Here, performances compete for the limited budget of the local audience. I’m not saying we’ve plateaued, but the potential for further development is not as great as in [Guangdong’s] Bay Area or mainland China as a whole. We have to facilitate our local groups to go out of Hong Kong and explore new frontiers.”

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Props filling the backstage – Photo by Zolima CityMag

Yet if Hong Kong has long been a place open to entertainment from other countries — its fondness for South Korean soap opera being a notable example — more recently it has also come to have a growing appreciation of its own popular culture. “I think more people are conscious of preserving heritage now, unlike previously when we focused on development,” says Li. “The egg tart, dim sum, Cantonese opera or South China music are all things they associate with Hong Kong – all things which we can preserve and hold fast to.”

The years immediately following the 1997 handover saw a growth in official interest in local history, promoted by a government looking to create a post-colonial notion of Hong Kongness. The early 2000s saw the opening of the Cultural Heritage Museum in Sha Tin, the Coastal Defence Museum at Shau Kei Wan and the building of a permanent home for the Film Archive in Sai Wan Ho. But the same period also saw the launching of a series campaigns opposing the demolition of such popular sites as the Star Ferry and Queen’s piers, Wedding Card Street as part of government-backed redevelopment projects, which in part prepared the way for Hong Kong’s localist and pro-independence movements.

The LCSD now picks its way through the heritage minefield with great caution. For the most part, it still looks to highlight Hong Kong’s distinctive character, but it is clearly wary of anything that could suggest a future apart from the rest of China, hence the sensitivity over football fans booing China’s national anthem at LCSD-run stadiums, or the department’s decision in 2016 to remove the word “National” from the biography of an actor who had graduated from Taipei National University of the Arts.

When Li is asked how Hong Kong becoming a more politicised and divided city has affected the LCSD’s work, she pauses before answering. “The sentiments of Hong Kong people come and go quite quickly,” she says. Issues that look important one day can seem a lot less relevant shortly after, and Hong Kong’s relations with the mainland and the rest of the world all are changing fast.

Perhaps her department is slightly sheltered. “As far as the cultural side is concerned nothing is immune from politics,” she says. “But culture and sports are by and large less political than some other areas such as education or constitutional relations.

“There are some universal values which we respect. Sometimes if we’re not careful with these things, if we do not safeguard them jealously, sometimes they will just disappear. We always know that there is a fine line, there is always something we have to respect and cherish. Visual arts [and] culture thrive in an embracing, diverse environment, based on respect, based on trust – these are things which we have to respect.”

But isn’t the atmosphere changing? Since Xi Jinping became China’s paramount leader six years ago, Chinese officials have increasingly stressed the role the media and culture should play in supporting the Communist Party and its vision of China’s development. Will this imperative spread to Hong Kong?

“No,” says Li. “I’ve been with the government since 1988, since before the handover, and after the handover, until now, and I can tell you from my own experience one country two systems is really practicing well. We don’t see any sort of Party dominance over Hong Kong.”

No extra pressure in the last year or two? “I don’t think so,” she says. Perhaps that is because the LCSD’s responsibilities are principally operational. “Enshrined in the Basic Law are things which protect Hong Kong from external influences, including influences from across the border.”

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Shatin Town Hall – Photo by Zolima CityMag

The way the LCSD manages to handle such a breadth of activities is because of its no-frills efficiency. It offers an astonishing number and variety of arts, sports and leisure programmes. It combines meeting local leisure and recreation needs with leveraging Hong Kong’s reputation to attract top class shows and exhibitions from around the world. And all at a cost of around HK$1,000 per person per year, or just over HK$20 a week. For anyone who uses any of its facilities with any kind of frequency, that’s a bargain.

Over time, the LCSD has taken on a bigger role in highlighting the city’s Cantonese aspects. Now it is preparing to help more of Hong Kong’s arts groups in search of new audiences in other parts of China. Its hardware, as Li likes to call it, is set for a major upgrade.

None of this looks likely to shake things up. Nor should it. “My job is about keeping people happy and healthy. On both the leisure side and the cultural side,” says Li. Of course, it is possible to imagine an LCSD that took a few more risks. But should that be its mandate? For now, taking good care of the cultural pluralism Hong Kong has long enjoyed is perhaps a higher priority.

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