Interview with Dr Allan Zeman

Dr Allan Zeman, Chairman of the WKCDA’s Performing Arts Committee, recently sat down to offer his views on performing arts in Hong Kong and his aspirations for West Kowloon Cultural District.

Allan ZemanWearing black from head to toe, it seems that Dr Allan Zeman, Chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority’s Performing Arts Committee, has dressed appropriately. He’s been interviewing applicants for the Authority’s senior positions. The successful applicants will be the people leading the Authority’s efforts to turn the West Kowloon Cultural District—and Hong Kong—into a global hotbed for the performing arts. With a serious task like this on his hands, it helps to appear all business.

Of course, Dr Zeman is very well known for his fun side as well. Gregarious, engaging and easy with a smile, he’s called the “Father of Lan Kwai Fong” for developing what is now probably Hong Kong’s best-known dining and nightlife area, starting back in the early ‘80s. He also currently serves as Chairman of the Ocean Park Corporation, where he is largely credited with driving the record-setting performances of this aquatic attraction in recent years. His track record of success with such businesses made him an obvious choice to help lead the development of one of the most ambitious culture, tourism- and lifestyle-related projects in Hong Kong’s history.

When asked about his vision for the WKCD, he says simply, "We want to build the best cultural facility in the world—to create something that the world will talk about. By providing world-class venues, and then supporting them with great shows and programs that captivate Hong Kongers and visitors, we’ll be able to put this city on the shortlist of must-visit places for performing arts in the world.  Most importantly, the WKCD should be a cultural district for the people of Hong Kong."

Striking a Chord with Hong Kong

wkcdFor the past several months the Authority has been focused on getting off to the best start possible through the Stage 1 PE Exercise, which saw thousands of people give their opinions on the WKCD. During this three-month exeericse, the Conceptual Plan Consultants—internationally renowned architects Foster & Partners Ltd., Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and Rocco Design Architects Ltd.—participated in a series of forums and focus group meetings and are expected to incorporate the views of the public and key stakeholders into their proposals, which will then be unveiled during the Stage 2 PE Exercise.

“It was important to attract as many people as possible to give their opinions about the WKCD”, Dr Zeman says. “We need to hear from those who will be attending shows as well as those who are up on stage. The WKCD is something for the people, and it should be BY the people too.”

Questions and issues related to performing arts venues and programming were some of the most frequently addressed subjects, and local performing arts groups discussed these subjects at length during specially tailored small-group meetings. “Feedback from the local performing arts groups has been crucial”, says Dr Zeman. “These are the people who live and breathe the performing arts every day, and we need their passion to make sure the WKCD is everything it can be. We have to know their dreams, their requirements, their concerns—everything. Otherwise, we might not be hitting the right buttons.”

The Talent to Succeed

The WKCD is coming along at a crucial time for Hong Kong’s arts and cultural scene. Over the past few years more international-calibre shows have been coming to the city than ever, from classical music and jazz to opera and theatre. Annual events such as the Hong Kong Arts Festival (for which Dr Zeman has also served on the Board) are featuring bigger names—and seeing bigger demand as a result. Popular acts are becoming a much more frequent sighting too; appearances by the likes of Green Day, the Killers and Bob Dylan demonstrate that Hong Kong is growing in stature as a “must-play” city in Asia. A dedicated arts and cultural district like the WKCD would only help bring more and more performances to Hong Kong, facilitating the growth of arts appreciation as well as opportunities for exchange.

Local arts and talents are just as big a consideration. Cantonese opera, for example, has been an active topic of conversation throughout the development of the district. “If Cantonese opera is going to survive and thrive, it needs to attract new fans, develop performers and be a cultural ambassador for Hong Kong to the world”, Dr Zeman says. “The WKCD can play a key role in this.”

An enthusiast of “anything cultural and creative”, Dr Zeman is an art collector who also enjoys opera, symphony performances and modern music. “Culture moulds personality and enhances thought processes. We live in a beautiful world!” he says. And because he has spent time producing Hollywood films and television shows, he understands the practicalities and pitfalls of turning such projects into reality, which gives him great respect for those who commit themselves to careers in the arts.

“In the end, the question becomes: Is the WKCD helping our local arts scene flourish? It’s wonderful to get the best international talent coming to Hong Kong, but that sort of excitement needs to spill over into the local scene too. Hong Kong’s performing arts need to be self-perpetuating and able to draw locals and tourists on its own merits. When that happens, we’ll know the WKCD is a success.”