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Hong Kong Festival of Asian Arts
An account by John Thompson  
  1991 : On the job in Turkestan 1         
Between 1980 and 1998, as Festival Editor and Artistic Consultant of the Hong Kong Festival of Asian Arts, I advised the Urban Council, Hong Kong's municipal government, on the selection and presentation of groups considered for the Festival of Asian Arts. After Hong Kong returned to Chinese control the Urban Council departments were merged into other Hong Kong government departments and the Festival of Asian Arts was discontinued.

My personal guideline with the festival was to try to develop a distinct identity, beginning with a coherent definition of Asian arts. In this regard, it was always my advice that the festival should focus on traditional arts originating in the Asian region, and contemporary arts with a significant input from people with training in these traditions. The aim was to show not only that the traditions are beautiful on their own, but that training in these traditions can also be relevant to developing new forms of contemporary expression.3

Defining "Asian arts" as arts with a significant input from people with training in an Asian tradition means distinguishing Asian arts from "Asian performances": performances by Asian people, or performances about Asia. This does not suggest that Asian arts defined in terms of training are more relevant to Asia or Asian people than Asian performances: countless Asian performances based purely on training in Western art traditions have effectively expressed Asian concerns. Nor is there any suggestion that an Asian whose artistic training is purely Western is thereby prevented from expressing Asian concerns in a distinctive manner.

However, the fact remains that year after year cultural establishments in much of Asia have put far more financial support into Western-based artistic traditions than they have into Asian-based ones. In this context I wanted to use whatever skills and influence I had to remind people that there is something distinctive about arts based in Asian training, and that for artistic, cultural, political, and financial reasons arts based in Asian traditions are also eminently worthy of support.

The separate list of past groups can be used as a reference to explore these concepts.

The Urban Council's stated aim in presenting the Festival of Asian Arts was to increase Hong Kong people's awareness and appreciation of the arts of this region. Originally the program was largely folkloric. The Urban Council invited regional governments to participate, and generally accepted their nominations. It provided transportation, accommodation and daily expenses, while the governments which nominated the groups paid whatever fees were necessary. Most sent government or amateur groups.

Beginning in 1996 all groups participating in the Festival had to be seen as "based in Asia". In other words performers living outside of Asia, of any nationality, who wanted to take part in the Festival had to make a cooperative effort with a group or groups based in Asia. I had a particular interest in such programs.

Festival publications were all in both Chinese and English. I first worked for the festival in 1980 as English editor. I had studied ethnomusicology for two years at the University of Michigan, and had the idea I could suggest "better" programs. My main argument was that we could save money by selecting smaller professional groups instead of getting the "free" large music and dance groups. In between festivals I traveled to visit performers and organizers in Asia. After two years of doing this I was not re-hired. I heard that my approach was too specialized.

In 1984 I came back again as editor with the understanding that I would be making suggestions about the program. This became my primary responsibility in 1986, at which time the festival, formerly annual, began alternating yearly with a Chinese arts festival.

The Asian region here meant east of Suez, the Bosphorus and the Urals, plus Australia. The emphasis was not on people living in the region, or belonging to the ethnic groups of the region, but on people trained in the artistic traditions of the region. Thus, for example, from Australia this would mean people with training in the traditions of either Aboriginal or Asian peoples.

Hong Kong is an urban place. The festival was biased towards groups whose performances were already adapted for the stage. For non-urban traditions the people needed someone who could adapt the arts for the stage. I also tried to make sure specialists were involved to assure accuracy. Many non-urbanized arts are better presented in film/video than live, and I regretted that we were never able to include more of that.

As Asia continues to grow economically there has been an increase of Westernization. At the same time, as countries become more economically developed and people have more leisure time, there often seems to be a renewed interest in traditions. Many see that Western arts, wonderful as they may be, do not have all the answers, especially in their own societies. As a result there is a renewed interest in local traditions.

At the same time, as Asia becomes more urbanized, unless people see their traditions as relevant to contemporary expression, these traditions are very much handicapped. During the 20th century in the West we have compartmentalized arts so that we have "classical" genres which are defined within relatively fixed parameters ("baroque music", "historically informed performance"), and open styles which are still developing ("contemporary dance"). Many artists in the open and popular genres were trained in "classical" traditions. There is no necessary conflict between the two in the West, nor should there be in the East.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. On the job: Festival travel, 1981-1998
In addition to official trips, I used my festival work as an excuse to meet performers and see performances as such places as the following:

  1. Asia: (geographically northeast to southwest)
    Japan (1986/90, '92/5)
    Korea (1985/6, '88, '90, '92/4)
    Mongolia (1993)
    China, Mainland (1990, '92/4)
    China, Taiwan (1988/90, '96)
    Philippines (1986)
    Indonesia (1982, '85, '87, '89, '92/3, '95)
    Vietnam (1993)
    Laos (1993)
    Cambodia (1993)
    Thailand (1982, '85/6, '88/9, '91/2)
    Malaysia (1982, '85, '87, '90, '95)
    Singapore (1982, '90, '97)
    Myanmar (1981, '82)
    Sri Lanka (l982, '86)
    Bangladesh (1981)
    India (1981/2, '85/6, '88/9, '92, '95)
    Nepal (1981, '86)
    Pakistan (1986, '89, '92)
    former USSR (1991): two trips of 4 weeks each. Included:
        Kazakhstan (Alma Aty)
        Tajikistan (Dushanbe, Panjakent)
        Turkmenistan (Ashkabad and environs)
        Uzbekistan (Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva)
    U.A.E. (1992)
    Qatar (1986)
    Bahrain (1986)
    Jordan (1985)
    Turkey (1988, '92)
    Israel (1985, '92, '95)

  2. Non-Asia (includes visiting experts and attending conferences)
    Australia (1984, '88, '93/4)
    United Kingdom (1981, '86, '89/90; '93; '97)
    France (1986, '89, '91/3, '95, '97)
    Germany (1986, '91, '93)
    Austria (1989)
    Canada (1985)

During this time I also visited my home in the US, usually once a year. Usually I did this using a round-the-world ticket that allowed me to visit scholars, organizers and performers in many places including New York.

2. New Festivals Office
After 1998 the Festivals Office became part of the Hong Kong Government's Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD).

3. Asian traditions in contemporary expression
Perhaps my favorite example of this was the 1996 program New Rhythms from the Modern Silk Road (details from 1996 Souvenir Programme).

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