Goodbye Gaffe

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For some reason, Hong Kong’s outgoing British Consul-General Stephen Bradley couldn’t resist playing the charmless expat when he gave a valedictory speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club last week. All that’s asked of you on these occasions is that you tell a few anecdotes, propose the odd toast and give a vote of thanks to the place that, let’s face it, has looked after you pretty well these past several years. But instead, Bradley began to point out Hong Kong’s shortcomings as a center of culture. His shameful argument is that because Hong Kong doesn’t have—as London does—5 professional symphony orchestras, 17 national museums and galleries, 24 universities and colleges, 36 Michelin starred restaurants and 147 theaters, with 76 plays showing per day etcetera (and he declaimed all these figures in his speech), then somehow we don’t stack up as a world city.
He makes London sound like some highbrow haven, doesn’t he? Funny, because the last time I looked it was a dreary wasteland of burger bars, collapsing infrastructure and crime-ridden housing estates, inhabited by chain-smoking, Stella-chugging, tracksuit-clad halfwits more interested in watching Top Gear or hard porn than attending a performance by the London Philharmonic. But we won’t press the point.
In any case, what is the purpose of picking on an easy target like Hong Kong, when it comes to culture? Why does virtually every resident Westerner feel compelled to do it? Here are the facts: London has been a magnet of wealth for two millennia: why shouldn’t it have all those universities and orchestras? (In fact, if you do the math, is the establishment of one orchestra per four centuries really that impressive?). Municipal Hong Kong has a history of just 170 years, and for nearly all of that time most of its people were more concerned with paying the rent on a squatter shack and putting a bowl of rice on the table instead of buying season tickets to the opera. Despite that—and despite the fact that during 156 years of colonization our culture and our language took a back seat to those of our colonizer—we have made creditable efforts to provide the kinds of Western-style performing ensembles, arts venues and galleries that expats want. They may not be up to London’s standards, but what are the standards of Cantonese opera or erhu recitals in London? Pretty risible, Stephen, I can assure you.

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