Published: 22:17, May 7, 2024
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Cultural fusion in HKSAR a positive example to the world
By David Cottam

Hong Kong is often described as the city where East meets West. Its geographical location, colorful international heritage, and financial and business role as the West’s gateway to the Chinese mainland have combined to create a vibrant fusion of Eastern and Western cultures.

This was at the heart of the city’s cultural celebrations throughout March. First, there were the dual attractions of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and the 52nd Hong Kong Arts Festival, the latter featuring leading international artists participating in all genres of the performing arts. These included an eclectic mix of Western, Cantonese and Peking Operas; classical music, jazz, movies, theater and dance; and the renowned La Scala Ballet company being a particular highlight.

The festival was immediately followed by the inaugural Hong Kong International Cultural Summit, which took place at the West Kowloon Cultural District from March 24-26. Its purpose was to promote international cultural exchanges by bringing together leaders of arts and cultural institutions from around the world in a celebration of Hong Kong’s unique East-meets-West status. The landmark event marked the start of Hong Kong Art Week 2024, the biggest of its kind in the Asia-Pacific region. This featured a wide range of art and photography exhibitions, as well as street art and cabaret performances. Prominent among the attractions was the largest international art fair in Hong Kong, Art Basel. Located at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, this featured 243 international galleries, presenting a remarkable diversity of modern and contemporary works by established and emerging artists. Contemporary art was also on display in Art Central, showcasing new talent from some of Asia’s most innovative galleries alongside more-established artists from around the world.

The vibrancy of Hong Kong as a center for the arts is also firmly rooted in its East-meets-West street culture, which characterizes the city. In addition to the organized events of Art Week, delegates from the summit will have been able to witness firsthand the fusion of East and West by experiencing the everyday sights, sounds, smells and tastes on the streets. Not least is the international nature of Hong Kong’s cuisine with its rich combination of flavors from across the world. Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Thai and Western foods compete for culinary attention, to be enjoyed individually, or, as they so often are, combined in the city’s remarkable fusion food. Reflecting this, one of Hong Kong’s biggest supermarket chains has even been rebranded as Fusion.

Promoting international cultural exchanges, understanding and appreciation are of critical importance, both in enriching people’s lives and in creating a more tolerant, resilient and peaceful planet. In this context, the fusion of Eastern and Western cultures in Hong Kong, as celebrated this March, is a positive example to the world

East and West are also in juxtaposition in Hong Kong’s architecture and everyday sights and sounds. Spectacular high-rise towers dominate the skyline, but the modernity of this is tempered by old colonial buildings, such as the Old Supreme Court Building and St John’s Cathedral, along with a sprinkling of ancient Chinese temples. Street signs in both English and Chinese characters jostle for attention. The harbor is the home for ocean liners and container ships, but also for junks and the evocative Star Ferry. Cantonese, Mandarin, English, Tagalog, and many other languages form the constant soundtrack to the city, and taxi drivers are as likely to entertain their passengers with Western pop music as with Cantopop, or even Cantonese Opera. Festivals mark just about every Western and Asian celebration. Christmas, New Year and Easter holidays are matched by those for Lunar New Year, the Mid-Autumn Festival with its ubiquitous mooncakes, Buddha’s Birthday, the Dragon Boat Festival, and the ancient Ching Ming Festival, honoring family ancestors.

Focusing on culture, both high and low, rather than business or politics is key to understanding people from around the world. This is true now in Hong Kong and has been true throughout history. Indeed, international cultural connections have played a vital role not just in enriching individual lives but in driving historical change. For example, the cultural legacy of the ancient Greek and Roman world is still with us today. Greek architecture, philosophy and concepts such as democracy and meritocracy have been exported worldwide, as have been features of the Roman Empire, including their tripartite division of government, civil law, language, architecture and engineering. Similarly, China, often referred to as the birthplace of civilization, has bequeathed to the world philosophies such as Confucianism and Taoism, poetry, literature, a system of writing, medicine, technological innovations such as paper, gunpowder, silk and acupuncture, as well as a unique 3,500 years of recorded written history. The Islamic world has been equally influential, its Muslim medieval legacy including major advances in astronomy, navigation, geography, irrigation, zoology and mathematics, in addition of course to its magnificent art and architecture.

Elements of these Greek, Roman, Chinese, Muslim and other cultures were spread globally by a combination of conquest, trade and travel, often leading to a rich fusion of cultural influences. The most significant example of this was the European Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries. This drew heavily on the advanced Muslim civilization of the Moors in North Africa, which itself was heavily influenced by ancient world civilizations. In turn, the Renaissance led directly to the Age of Exploration, in which European culture, enriched by its fusion with Moorish and ancient influences, was reexported to Asia and Africa, as well as to the Americas and Australasia. The pioneering European seafarers, traders, adventurers and colonizers would likely have been oblivious that the technological, scientific and navigational skills that facilitated their voyages had their origins in the fusion of Muslim and ancient civilizations.

It is ironic that the powerful British, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch and other European empires that evolved from the Age of Exploration, and which demonstrated such imperial arrogance, entitlement and cultural superiority, were so indebted to the more advanced older cultures of other lands, some of which they were now turning into colonies or, within China, European “spheres of influence”. Without the Moors’ geographical, navigational and astronomical expertise, or China’s invention of gunpowder, or Rome’s example of imperial expansion, or even, sadly, the model of slavery, so prevalent in the ancient and Islamic worlds, the history of European imperialism may never have existed.

Despite the negativity we now associate with imperialism, it’s clear that international cultural connections have played a key role in enriching, developing and strengthening different civilizations. There is, however, a dark side that we also need to remember. The other side of the coin to cultural enrichment is that of cultural intolerance, the violation of others’ cultural heritage, and attempts to eradicate cultural diversity. Too often in history, this has formed the battlefield between competing empires, countries or religions. Classic examples are the destruction of Muslim buildings and Christian buildings and artifacts during the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries; the destruction of Catholic shrines, artwork and stained glass windows during the 16th and 17th century Reformation; the belittling of indigenous cultures by European colonists in North America, South America, and Australasia; and more recently, the destruction of ancient historical sites and treasures in Afghanistan. The violation of cultural heritage and the persecution of different cultural, ethnic or religious groups is still a threat whenever international or national conflicts occur.

The international media have a role to play here. Too often, they focus their attention on the divisive world of politics, intrigue and imagined international enemies. The West’s current anti-China obsession is but one example of this. It’s surely time to shift the focus to a more positive mindset. Promoting international cultural exchanges, understanding and appreciation are of critical importance, both in enriching people’s lives and in creating a more tolerant, resilient and peaceful planet. In this context, the fusion of Eastern and Western cultures in Hong Kong, as celebrated this March, is a positive example to the world.

The author is a British historian and former principal of Sha Tin College, an international secondary school in Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.