The West Kowloon Cultural District is out of the spotlight – for the right reasons. No more blistering headlines and agitated LegCo members. Since Duncan Pescod took over, the authority seems to be back on track. HT looks at the hows and whys of WKCD’s recovery.
The barrage of criticism directed at the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) since its inception was relentless. Attacks on the authority over its unstable leadership and budget overruns were legion in media and LegCo alike. A rotating cast of international superstars from the art world at the helm didn’t seem to help stem the tide of negativity over missed deadlines. Of this time, WKCD Board member Allan Zeman (盛智文) said, “LegCo would have you up and have you for breakfast.”
There was no exception when Duncan Pescod took over the role of Chief Operating Officer of the Western Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) Authority in October 2014. However, that criticism had a different flavour and marked a turning point for the project.
The chosen one
Mr Pescod himself was not immune from harsh words from inside and outside LegCo on appointment. Critics suggested that he was neither ‘local’ enough nor ‘arty’ enough. However, even this criticism was muted. The Democratic Party’s Emily Lau (劉慧卿), never at a loss for colourful excoriating language, could only muster a mild “puzzling” to describe the appointment. Alan Leong (梁家傑) of Civic Party said the appointment was “extremely unsuitable”, raising concerns about having a former bureaucrat leading the project.
Speaking to HT, Mr Zeman says the board had made the right decision by bringing in the former Permanent Secretary for Transport and Housing (Housing).
“In order to navigate through the complicated Hong Kong system, you need someone who really understands how to do it,” Mr Zeman says. “Duncan’s done this his whole life. He knows everybody and can open a lot of doors.” And for now, Mr Zeman believes “the important thing is to get this thing built.”
With William Chan (陳惠明) from Kerry Properties recently appointed to replace Mr Pescod as COO, Mr Zeman believes this will allow the latter to concentrate even more on the cultural side, calling Mr Chan “a really great construction guy.”
Since the October 2014 appointment, the project seems to have faded off critics’ radar and is back on the right track. Mr Pescod, however, refuses to take credit for recent success, saying that he is just standing on the shoulders of people who went before him.
The new CEO’s office is located on-site, a three-storey temporary construction site building. It stands in clear contrast to the fancy WKCD offices on Canton Road. The message it sends is of a hands-on manager with his eye on the massive construction projects on the go. He seems to have little time for the spotlight or picking fights.
“Many of the projects are already underway when I came in. My job is to make sure these projects deliver. You don’t do that through megaphone diplomacy; you do that quietly in rooms where you can put the facts and figures down. Those conversations will continue,” Mr Pescod says.
These conversations inevitable include dealing with the Government and lawmakers. As Mr Pescod admitted himself, his position is bound to be political, but he knows where the boundaries of his mandate lies.
“I have long standing relationship with the LegCo – more than 30 years. You explain to the lawmakers what you are doing, you listen to their concerns and respond to these concerns. There is no difference being in the Government or outside of it.” Mr Pescod says, “As for the Government, they have to be leading on this. It’s their project and we are the custodians of it. As far as we are concerned, our job is to deliver what the community needs and wants.”
That being said, Mr Pescod acknowledges that, despite their efforts, it has been a lot trickier to get the general public to understand what WKCD is really about. He sees a sort of preconceived view among the sceptics who will find something to complain about even though the preconceptions don’t fit into reality.
“But that’s a Hong Kong issue,” he jokes, recalling complaints about noise levels from residents literally on the other side of the Harbour during last year’s Clockenflap [Ed note: awesome].
With such a large, multi-dimensional project with global standard aspirations, there is much to debate, from construction and economic impact, to arts to human resource management. Mr Pescod has to deal with it all – and takes the the long view on it all, including community engagement.
“I find it really frustrating that a certain sector of the local community just don’t seem to be prepared to give us the opportunity to show what we are doing. Potentially, the project will bring enormous economic benefit, job opportunities, opening up the creative sector for more people but also providing entertainment and recreational opportunities,” Mr Pescod says. “We want to welcome in people to do what they want. It’s that philosophy I’m trying to get across.”
“You have 40 hectares of land in the heart of Hong Kong, you want to do the best you can with the site. If you look at Brisbane, for example, large pre-set projects are really effective because you can get the clustering value, but it takes time. Brisbane started [the South Brisbane project] during the World Expo 88, and it’s still being developed. It doesn’t happen overnight. I think people have tended to forget that WKCD is also a series of different projects. Individually they are substantial, but collectively they are enormous,” he stresses.
If the physical space takes time to develop, the same can be true for people, answering questions about personnel turnover and quibbles over local vs international leadership.
“For this job, we want the best. And if our local guys can compete, brilliant. But if they can’t compete now, think about coming in at a slightly lower level and building up your capacity. You got to learn how to crawl before you learn how to walk,” he explains. “It’s not like a shopping mall where you spent two years building it and it’s done. For museums, you expect it to stand and expand for many years to come. It is normal for people to come and go. So I don’t see why the public is so concerned about our personnel changes.”
Art and politics
Criticisms about art acquisitions come with the territory as well. As a government sponsored project, some questioned the resistance to buying artwork from the Occupy Central movement.
Mr Pescod: “We were trying to explain to them why you don’t buy art in that context. Firstly, taken away from the context, does it really mean anything? Secondly, what is the value of the art? Thirdly, who owns it? Fourthly, how do you interpret it, is it a cultural art or history stuff? We wanted to tease out some of those issues in a way that helps us and also helps the community.” Mr Pescod says, “We are a museum, not a private collector. As a museum, I’m sure we will acquire stuff like that in due course. So how to present it when put on exhibitions really matters. If we haven’t had that conversation, we are not doing our jobs.”
And WKCD is having the conversation. The M+ Matter event, M+ Matters: Confronting Activist Art and Design from a Museological Perspective, invited curators and Umbrella activists for a major public event (held on March 21) to discuss exactly those issues. Invitees included Sampson Wong (黃宇軒), Convener of the Umbrella Movement Visual Archives & Research Collectives and Anne Pasternak, Director, Brooklyn Museum. Ms Pasternak was once warned not to broadcast Occupy Wall Street because she might lose donors. She also presided over Agitprop, an examination of art and activism, so could speak with some authority on the topic of museums, art and protest activism.
Other controversial local issues have been aired under WKCD auspices. “For example, we have had a publicly staged, open tug-of-war of which the rope was made of pages of the Basic Law woven together. But these are artistic expressions, and whether they are appropriate in the context of our mandate is the only basis from which we make the decisions,” Mr Pescod adds.
His enthusiasm for the arts since getting the job hasn’t been questioned. While his office reveals that he is no interior decorator, it does contain an eclectic collection ranging from Tin Tin artwork to a magnificent standing Chinese screen and even indigenous artwork from Canada’s west coast and Australia’s outback.
Construction: What you don’t see
Meanwhile, construction continues apace. It’s been so long that some may be forgiven for forgetting that the WKCD will have a physical presence, actual buildings, rising above the green grass. But the ribbon cutting ceremonies are on the visible horizon.
The M+ Pavilion will be completed this year. The main park will be opening in 2017/18 in phases. The Xiqu (Chinese opera) Centre will be revealed in 2018. Some external factors are slowing some parts of the construction down, namely the Guangzhou–Shenzhen–Hong Kong Express Rail Link delays. Some parts of the development of the WKCD ultimately depend on the development of the controversial high-speed rail project,
“We are unfortunately forced to take the two [locational] extremes, the Canton Road and the harbour end. Until we get the middle section back from the railway development we can’t do very much except the planning and preparatory works.” Mr Pescod says, “But that’s out of my control. In some ways, it’s a good thing because I can then focus my resources on the areas where we can actually do something, instead of being distracted by having to do everything at once.”
More problematic is that fact that much of the district has an huge underground component, drawing comparisons with Disneyland’s famous underground networks.
“We are building this whole district on a basement. A lot of the problematic areas are going to be hidden under the ground. The roads, the networks, the district cooling systems and so on. All the things people will see will be the podium and everything that goes above it. But actually, the biggest challenge is how do you design a basement for buildings that may not be built for 15 or 20 years,” he says.
“That’s not a problem for Disney, which also have huge basement projects, because they knew exactly what’s going above it…Our problem is that we have to build a district of 40 hectares and 1.5 kilometres long with everything [pre-existing infrastructure] under the basement. We are building it at one end, we are building it at the other end. But the basement still has to go in. We haven’t even designed the middle bit in terms of what we are going to put in there. All the problems there are going to come out in due course.”
For now, Duncan Pescod seems to have silenced critics by focusing on getting the construction back on track while the arts people get on with the job. His boss, the WKCD Board, includes members like Allan Zeman, who claim Mr Pescod’s appointment was “the best thing that’s happened to the WKCD.”
It’s hard to see how one could do much better than that.
Mr Duncan Pescod spent 32 years serving the Hong Kong Administration before joining the WKCD. Relevant past experience includes serving the former Home Affairs Branch, the Lands Department, the former Urban Services Department, the former City and New Territories Administration, the Tourism Commission, and the Efficiency Unit.
He was Special Representative for Hong Kong Economic and Trade Affairs to the European Communities from 2006 to 2008 and Permanent Secretary for Transport and Housing (Housing) and Director of Housing from 2010 to 2014.