A Guangdong-Hongkong Creative Cultural Community  

Transcribed and translated from a Chinese speech byChan Koon-chung  



I was born in Shanghai, but have no memories of the place. Indeed my earliest memories begin in Hong Kong. I lived in Hong Kong since I was a child, and all the way into my adulthood. I have always felt close to Cantonese culture, thanks to my domestic helper, who came from Panyu, and also to the old black and white Cantonese films.


Today’s topic is the cultural imaginary of the Pearl River Delta.


First let me give you an analogy. It will help us understand the cultural relationship between important cities on this Delta: Guangzhou and Hong Kong.


In the 19th Century, Shanghai was like today’s Shenzhen. It had no cultural identity of its own. At that time Shanghai was a part of the Wu dialect cultural zone, yet the centre of that cultural zone was in Suzhou. Although the Shanghainese dialect was already widely spoken, the Shanghai novel A Chronicle of Flowers in the Sea was written in standard Wu dialect. That says so much about the situation.


In the 1870s, the early years of the Guangzu period, foreign trade had taken place in Shanghai for twenty years. Suddenly anything from Beijing was considered trendy in Shanghai. Commodities from Beijing and Beijing fashion became very popular. It was brought about by the success of a form of xiqu (Chinese opera). Sixty years after the Hui opera troupes entered Beijing to play in celebration of the Emperor’s birthday, a new form had been formed. It had been playing for a little more than two decades by the 1870s. People called it erhuang, xipi, pihuang, or even luantan, literally the “vulgar” opera. There was no unified way to call it in Beijing. Musically it was a mixture of kun opera and other regional innovations. Its orchestra included the strings, wind instruments and a percussion section. In Shanghai it was referred to as Beijing [Peking] opera. Shanghai people fell in love with it. Even when high-class prostitutes looked for lovers, they went for Beijing opera players as their first choice. Beijing opera troupes became more popular than kun opera troupes from Suzhou, the majority of which excelled in singing accompanied by the string section. Musically, Shanghai people now preferred erhuang tunes used in Beijng opera to the arias of Suzhou story-telling, which had previously been loved by the Shanghai people for a great many years. 


Some American scholars looked at this as Shanghai’s cultural challenge for Suzhou.


That was a process in which Shanghai, without its own cultural identity to start with, absorbed elements from the regional Wu culture, Beijing culture of the political centre of Qing Dynasty and the imported foreign cultures, and created something for itself. It was a process of negotiation, competition, transformation and acculturation. Shanghai made use of all these cultural elements and gave birth to its own brand of cultural hybridity.


There was a key issue: Shanghai did not have its own culture at the beginning. But once it became an economic centre, things changed. It has developed into something much more than a major city of cultural consumption. By the early 20th Century, Shanghai had become the place where almost all cultural entities had to go through for further development and dissemination, because Shanghai was the city in which books, newspapers, magazines, films and music were produced. Shanghai’s economy had taken off, its cultural identity became well-defined. It became the cultural centre of the nation.


Shanghai’s and Beijing’s status of being the national cultural centre was changing all the time. The development of Beijing opera is the best demonstration of this:

In the few years immediately after Emperor Tongzhi’s death, xiqu performance was banned by the Court. The only thing for Beijing opera players to do was to move to the concession zones in other port cities to make a living. Shanghai became the main market for Beijing opera. In the last years of Qing Dynasty, players in Beijing complaint that “good artists can barely made a living; those who are not as good cannot make ends meet.” Therefore many of them looked upon Shanghai as the other centre outside the capital. They believed that “only when one has made it in Shanghai, he has really made it.” Mei Lanfang reminisced in his memoir Forty Years on Stage, “My first performance in Shanghai was the most important turn I have made in my entire stage career … Everything was making advancement in the Shanghai theatres. They were already making their way to a new direction in the theatre.” After he went back to Beijing, he pioneered “modern plays in ancient costumes”, which created “a new shock wave in Beijing opera” (as described by Ouyang Yuqian). Obviously, there was some tension between this new trend and the traditional practice. It was also in Shanghai when this innovation of Mei was first recognised as a distinctive “Mei School”.


In 1927, the Central Government of the Chinese Republic was established in Nanjing. Beijing (literally the North Capital) was renamed Beiping (literally the “pacified” northern city). Some records of the time describe Beijing as “a city in decline. Its prosperity is no more to be seen. The number of performance has dropped. The only way for famous artists to make money was to go on tour. A tour to Tianjin can bring an income enough for them to live on for half a year. A tour to Shanghai brings an income to last them for a whole year.”


Surely, with such an overwhelming popularity, Beijing opera was also taking root in Shanghai. Shanghai people were developing their own Beijing opera. At first they were called the Southern School and did not receive as much respect. Then talents emerged. A good example was Zhou Xinfang. He merged Chinese and Western theatrical techniques in his performances, and built these on the conventions established by old masters. This resulted in a hybrid form of total theatre, often identified as the Zhou School of Shanghai style of Beijing opera. This was particularly popular among the common folks and young intellectuals.


Since 1949, the Central Government has been stationed in Beijing. The national cultural centre followed political powers and moved back to Beijing, and so did the centre of Beijing opera. Some critics observe that since the 1950s, Shanghai styles of Beijing opera have declined and Shanghai troupes have been playing in styles increasingly similar to Beijing styles. But this is yet another issue.


What does the story of Shanghai and Beijing opera tell us? I would like to draw your attention to three facts and a personal opinion of mine: 1. Cultural centres are mobile rather than fixed. 2. Cultural identity is not already formed and stable. It is constantly in the process of constructing and merging with foreign elements. It is changing all the time. It needs to be re-imagined and re-defined all the time. It is true for Shanghai culture. It is also true for Beijing culture. 3. The status of being the cultural centre and the cultural identity of a place are both affected by its political and economic power. Economic centres are often centres of cultural consumption. Often they are also centres of cultural production and dissemination. My personal opinion is: Outstanding talents such as Mei Lanfang and Zhou Xinfang facilitate historical developments of certain phenomena.


These three facts and one personal opinion are indeed applicable to Hong Kong. Guangzhou is an important historic city. It started trading with the West since the 16th Century. It was already a sophisticated major city in southern China long before Hong Kong was developed. Hong Kong was not taken seriously by some British colonials even after it was ceded to Britain. But not long after that, in 1876 it was said among Chinese critics that since the rise of Hong Kong, four important Chinese cities had declined. It was followed by the comment that since the rise of Shanghai, Hong Kong had declined. There was a report in an English newspaper that the British merchants in Shanghai felt superior to the British merchants in Hong Kong. British firms in Hong Kong started new companies in Shanghai and focused on their business there. I do not think that Hong Kong had taken over Shanghai in terms of their economic status before 1949. Chinese culture in Hong Kong has already been closely related to Guangdong culture. The three major streams of Guangdong culture, namely Guangzhou (Canton), Chao-San (Chaozhou and Hoklo) and Hakka, have infiltrated deeply into the daily life of Hong Kong. Cantonese opera called themselves Guangzhou-Hongkong troupes, identifying themselves with these two cities in the south and north of the Pearl River Delta. The imaginary of a common cultural community of Guangzhou and Hong Kong was going very strongly in the last Century during the early Republic years. Possibly Guangzhou was still ahead of Hong Kong, since it was the stronger partner in terms of Cantonese culture. During the war with Japan, Hong Kong became the gathering point of the literati and cultural workers. But it only lasted for a short time with the beginning of the Pacific War.


Changes began to take place after 1949. The imaginary of a common cultural community of Guangzhou and Hong Kong did not disappear altogether, but it was much less prominent. Gradually Hong Kong developed into a regional economic centre, as well as a centre for cultural production. Even Cantonese opera and the Lingnan School of Chinese painting found sanctuary in Hong Kong and Macao. For example, Gao Jianfu, one of the most important masters of the Lingnan School, migrated to Macao in 1949 before he died there in 1951.


Hong Kong culture after 1949 was a hybrid entity merging different elements together. It was based on traditional Chinese culture, especially the indigenous Cantonese culture. It took in influences of the colonial English-language culture, contemporary national culture centering in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and also of world cultures. The influence of cross-national cultures that flooded in after WWII was particularly significant. A unique hybrid culture with distinctive Hong Kong characteristics emerged. Popular music in Hong Kong has developed its own unique style of arrangement, lyrics and delivery. Some are even accompanied by Chinese instruments. This hybrid music has achieved a very unique style and has gained the label of “cantopop”.


During the years of China’s economic reform and opening up, Hong Kong popular music, films and TV soap operas had dominated the region for a very long time. The programmes of TVB, a Hong Kong television channel, had engaged 90% of the television audience. But Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta have taken advantage of the economic reform and been strengthening their economic power as well as cultural production. Now Hong Kong TV programmes only engage about half of the audience over there. Although they still dominate reception, it is experiencing a long-term decline. A dual-centres scenario is resuming.


One can see that the status and relationship of Guangzhou and Hong Kong also need to be re-imagined and re-presented every now and then. We have come to such a time again, because there is now anxiety on both sides: the wonderful old story of Hong Kong has been told and finished without a new one ready to come in place; the story of Guangzhou being the pioneer of reform has also turned into cliché; Shenzhen even starts to ask who have abandoned them. Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Shenzhen are asking the same question: what is the next climax? One potential framework is the idea of a Region of Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao . Some people prefer to think about a Greater Pearl River Delta, some a Pan-Pearl River Delta. I propose to an entity call Guangdong-Hongkong- Macao. I will talk about the details for such a region in the rest of this paper.  


Pearl River Delta today is a continuous built-up region of cities and towns. One easily feels the impulse for the imaginary of a regional community. For the time being, Pearl River Delta has only inspired the imaginary of an economic zone, with certain implications on the possibility of some form of administrative coordination. A cultural imaginary for the region is yet to construct. Can a region have its own cultural identity to facilitate a cultural imaginary of its own? I think so. Silicon Valley in the U.S. is an example of this. It is a production region, and also the general name for a loosely coordinated administration zone. It has developed its own culture and inspired the imagination in people all over the world.


There is one point worth notice: if there is a central city in Silicon Valley, it should be San Francisco which is located at the northern tip of Silicon Valley. However strong the cultural identity of Silicon Valley is, there is no way it can overwhelm the distinctive identity of San Francisco. The two identities are distinct. There is a regional identity, and there is an identity of the city. The two co-exist on a long-term basis. When we talk about Pearl River Delta, it is not necessary to eliminate the cultural identities of Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Macao. When Pearl River Delta becomes the theme of the new story, Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Macao will still need to tell their own stories. Among these three places, Macao has already found out how to start its own new story, and how to develop the brand name of the city.


There is another similarity in the comparison. Apart from San Francisco, San Jose in the southern tip of Silicon Valley also claims to be the capitol city of Silicon Valley. Although San Jose is trying very hard to find its own cultural identity by building its own sports centres, theatres and museums, it still lags a long way behind San Francisco. Many people go to San Jose, but only to watch matches or to repair their cars. At best San Jose is a tourist city for carnivals.


Can an economic zone accommodate two or even more cultural cities? I do not think there is a definite yes or a definite no. Guangzhou and Hong Kong already share much of their cultural content in an intimate past. Now there are their own advantages to think about. The question is not whether these two cultural centres can co-exist, but in what way they complement each other.


If we change some of the signs and extend our imagination a bit, we might be able to think about Guangdong instead of Guangzhou as a part of the common community. Instead of talking about Guangzhou-Hongkong-Macao, we could be talking about Guangdong-Hongkong-Macao. This region is small than southern China, or Lingnan (south of the Ridges), or Pan-Pearl River Delta, or even the Guangdong-Guangxi Provinces. But it is bigger than the Greater Pearl River Delta. If in our mind we envelop Pearl River Delta with an even greater imaginary called Guangdong-Hongkong-Macao, we will gain extra room in our imagination, because this entity has a more profound cultural content, more intimate shared history, and existing administrative structures to support this imaginary.


Why don’t we simply do our own things? What is the point of imagining a Guangdong-Hongkong-Macao community? One must bear in mind that the population of such a community is similar to the total population of the two Korea added up together, and larger than that of Britain, or France, or Germany. The GDP in this region is two and a half times of that of the Yangtze River Delta. As one single unit it is the Chinese region that has come closest to being a developed region. It is estimated that the average income per capita of Shenzhen will reach US$20,000 in 2020. This region now needs discourses and imaginations that go beyond the purely economic ones such as being the factory of the world, or representing shops at the front supported by manufacturing plants at the back, or having a boost in the GDP. At this stage, its production needs upgrading, the added value of its service industries needs to be raised. Moreover, its consumption pattern needs to change. More emphasis needs to be put on internal consumption of high-value good. The people demand their living standard to be improved. They are expected their rights to be fulfilled. This region is entering the stage of information economy, or even experience economy. It needs to develop human resources, social resources and cultural resources. In other words, the region has reached the stage of economic growth in which the singular economic thinking in the past is no longer enough. It needs much consideration on cultural value of the society. Creativity in the broad sense has to be put on the agenda in order to inspire new imaginations, or new visions, as in the title of this Guangzhou Triennale: the Imagination Beyond. We need to go beyond a singular economic imagination, to imagine beyond what is happening at present. Even for the economic imaginary of the region, we need to emphasise that this is a place where talents outside the region are welcomed, and that it is a friendly place for immigrants to create a career for themselves. Such imaginary is already proved valid in reality.


There are other “imaginations beyond” we should take seriously at this moment. Some of them are listed as follows:


1.     An imaginary of a common community of ecological sustainability: This region is not only the factory of the world. It does not only represent shops at the front supported by manufactory plants at the back. We are an ecological common community because pollution recognizes no borders.


2.     An imaginary of a highly livable common community: This should be a region where people settle happily. It should be a safe place to live in. Transportation should be well-organised and traffic smoothly flowing. The supply of high-quality local fresh produce should be reliable. No toxic vegetable or toxic fish is tolerated. There is no place for commodity piracy. There should be no low-quality architecture or unnecessary urban sprawling into the countryside.


3.     An imaginary of a harmonious and just civic common community: Social security, the rule of law and good administration should be ensured. Corruption and the gap between the rich and the poor should be narrowed down.


4.     An imaginary of a creative cultural common community: This is an insightful vision. It is also ambitious. This is to say that if Korea can do it, the region of Guangdong-Hongkong-Macao can do it on our own, without having to mobilize help from the entire country. The first task is to put into good organization the structure, policy and production chain of cultural creative industries of the three places. In time, this region will accomplished in its creative industries what Korea, Britain, France and Germany have achieved as nations. But there is one condition for this: Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao have to form a commonculturalcommunity.


There is already the precedent of economic zones. We should seek to create cultural zones before regional administration system emerges.


Once a region has established itself as a cultural centre, a unique local cultural identity will emerge from the process of exchange and transformation.


To end this paper, I will make a few more comments on creative industries: I have written elsewhere on the room for collaboration of the creative industries of Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao. I will not repeat myself here. In short, the three places complement each other considerably.


However, like many things in China, to accomplish them you need government policies to back you up. I stress that creative industries in Guangdong and Hong Kong can become huge. They can consolidate the internal market of the region itself. They can also take in the national market. After this, they can reach out to do export. But the critical point is in Guangdong. All depends on whether the system and policy in Guangdong follow the scientific rules of development. To ensure this, we need the long-term commitment of the Central Government in a practice that has already been proved to be working miracles: To designate Guangdong as the trial place and pioneer of creative industries by implementing special policies there. The Governments of Guangdong and Hong Kong should collaborate to persuade the Central Government to abolish border control for creative industries between Guangdong and Hong Kong, so that the two places can facilitate flow and establish a common community in terms of their creative enterprises, capital, human resources, production chain, contents and markets. In such a way, economies of scale can be achieved. When two strong players forge a partnership, they will become even more competitive in the market.


At the same time, talents among the cultural workers of the three places can open up another space in the imaginary of their own habitat. They can draw a new mental map and assume a new cultural identity that goes beyond what we see today. We might start eradicating the psychological barrier we feel for the other two places because of the geographical distance and administrative difference between us. In this way, we can really construct, in the midst of competition, exchange and transformation, a common community of creative culture between Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao.