SCMP Monday, July 16, 2001

SAR's version of cultural fusion


In a lush illustration of the way Eastern and Western cultures mix nowadays, we were treated on a recent Sunday to a front-page photograph of the "Three Tenors" - Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti - taking a bow on a gigantic stage in front of the gate to Beijing's Forbidden City while surrounded by women dressed in richly colourful Peking-opera costumes.
The venue was Chinese and 600-years old. The singing was European and part of a 400-year-old tradition. It was truly an East-meets-West moment.
We in Hong Kong are experienced with such moments - after all, East meets West here every day. We take great pride in that fact. Even so, not everyone gives much thought to what East means or to what West means or even to what "meet" implies.
To most Hong Kong people, East presumably signifies people of Chinese ethnicity and customs from the Chinese tradition. Similarly, West probably means people of Western European descent (and, in our context, of primarily Anglo-Saxon stock) and the traditions they share. But when it comes to "meet", the meaning is much less certain.
We should, at a minimum, have respect for cultures other than our own. We should also engage in cultural exchange and endeavour to have cultural fusion. But many Hong Kong residents - despite frequent contact with people of Indian, Nepalese or Pakistani background - have no knowledge of South Asian cultures. And some long-term, non-Chinese residents have not taken advantage of their presence in Hong Kong to learn about Chinese languages and culture.
We must do better than recite "East meets West" as a mantra.
The Culture and Heritage Commission, which I chair, is trying to do its part. In March, we published a consultation paper on cultural development. The consultation period expired at the end of last month. The document offers this vision: "It is our long-term goal to expand our global cultural vision on the foundation of Chinese culture, drawing on the essence of other cultures to develop Hong Kong into an international cultural metropolis known for its openness and pluralism."
Chinese culture as we know it today is the result of many centuries of evolution, during which Chinese traditions absorbed and integrated elements of foreign cultures.
During the Han dynasty (206 BC to AD 221), the city of Loulan in today's Xinjiang province served as a key trading post along the Silk Road, a gateway to and from China and focal point for Central Asian, Chinese, Indian and Persian cultures. This role was supplanted and amplified from the 5th century onwards by another major station on the Silk Road: Dunhuang in today's Gansu province, home to famous grottos. Though located at China's geographic periphery during their heydays, both cities played important roles in the development of Chinese culture.
The best-known example of Chinese culture being influenced by foreign culture is the 3rd-century introduction of Buddhism, via the Silk Road, and the religion's subsequent integration into Chinese society. There were also foreign influences in architecture, dance, music, painting and sculpture. A case in point is one of the most popular and essentially "Chinese" musical instruments, the huqin (or "barbarian fiddle"), a stringed instrument originating from Central Asia.
Several recent musical events in Hong Kong are worth noting. In March, American cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble performed using instruments from China, Europe and India. Also in March, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra gave a concert in which a huqin soloist played Moto Perpetuo ("Perpetual Motion"), written for the violin by Italian composer Niccolo Paganini. In April, the Hong Kong Philharmonic played Tap Dance Concerto, in which a local tap dancer played the solo using his nimble feet. Last month, the Hong Kong Sinfonietta performed a composition by Lo Wing-fai that similarly blended Chinese with Western.
Much like Loulan and Dunhuang in ancient times, Hong Kong is at the periphery of China, a gateway to and from the mainland, and an important international trade centre. We are well positioned to serve as an international cultural centre and to influence the cultural development of China as a whole.
If the recent Three Tenors concert symbolises China's attempt to get acquainted with the best of European culture and to learn from it, the four concerts in Hong Kong suggest a process of fusion is taking place here.
Each of these five concerts testifies to China's quest for nutrients for its ancient culture. They are harbingers of the kind of Chinese culture - of which Hong Kong's is a special component - that might emerge in the new century.
Chang Hsin-kang ( ) is president of the City University of Hong Kong.