The inception of a Cultural Centre

Inaugurated with a full month of celebratory festival in November 1989, the Hong Kong Cultural Centre marks its significances as the cultural and architectural landmark of the city’s most prosperous development period at the end of the 20th century. The project span over two decades in its making, from early proposals of a new museum in 1965 and the Kowloon Civic Centre in 1969, growing into the grand project of 6 hectares that consist of a Planetarium, two Auditoria, an Art Museum and a public garden. This article looks at when and how the Hong Kong Cultural Centre is conceived, to trace the key moments and events that influenced the project. The making of a major public project does not start from the architect’s drawing board, instead, it is the result of negotiation between various forces that reflects larger social context. As such, the Hong Kong Cultural Centre is not only a physical landmark (built by the architect) but it reveals the formation of the city’s cultural landscape and its particular identity.

(The City Needs Culture) The proposal of a new Museum and Civic Centre

At the Legislative Council meeting in March 1965, the Director of Urban Service, Hon. K.S Kinghorn, raised the concern of inadequate space for the City Museum and Art Gallery, and a new premise outside of the City Hall would be needed as recommended by the Museum & Art Gallery Select Committee of the Urban Council (LegCo, 1965, p.35/211). It is followed by a report on Museum and Art Gallery Service published in September 1965, to delineate the museum’s role and to review current cultural service at the City Hall, resulting in a proposed schedule of accommodation for a new museum. The report emphasised the museum’s educational purpose and its role in serving the larger public but not “to provide intellectual pastimes for an eccentric minority” (report, para.3), which was in accord with the discourse at that time about the purpose of public museum, particularly in Britain. Illustrated in the report, the provision of museum service at the City Hall was far below standard for a city of 3.5 million, in comparison with other European countries where the museum-population ratio was at least 1:100,000. Moreover, the number of visitors received by the current City Museum and Art Gallery in the first three years of its operation (Mar 1962-1965) has been promising, which indicated the current premise will reach its capacity in the coming years. These data has built up the argument of the need to increase accommodation for Museum and Art Gallery in the city.

The case was made to address the city’s social needs and the Museum’s role as both a recreational and educational centre, which should be viewed in similar context as the need for schools, libraries and parks (report, para.64/65). The report proposed to expand the current 12,400 sf City Hall premise to 73,000 sf, in order to accommodate the demand of storage and work area in addition to display space to archive professional level. The guiding principle of the proposed museum was to serve as many residents in the territory as possible, therefore accessibility from both Kowloon and Hong Kong became an important criterion. There were in fact two site options, one close to the City Hall at the former Naval Dockyard in Central, and the other in Kowloon at the to-be-demolished KCR terminal. The Central site was soon dismissed as it was then zoned for commercial and residential development, while the Kowloon site seems appropriate with the development at Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront.  

In parallel to the discussion of the new museum at the M&AG Select Committee, the Urban Council also recognised the need for a new Civic Centre in Kowloon with similar function to that of the City Hall. It was first proposed to the Government in 1968, and a schedule of accommodation was developed in October 1971 to be included in the Public Works Programme of 1972/73. In comparison with the City Hall’s 1,500-seat concert hall and 450-seat theatre, the new Civic Centre was conceived with a 3,000-seat auditorium and a 20,000-sf exhibition hall, as well as other facilities such as lecture halls, rehearsal rooms, conference rooms and restaurants (Urban Council, 1974 Feb). The Civic Centre proposal focused on the provision of urban amenity for the growing population instead of the formulation of a comprehensive cultural policy, however, the separate proposals of the new museum and the civic centre was integrated to become the future plan that has a dominant role in the city’s cultural development. In context of Hong Kong’s rapid growth after WWII, the colonial government began to pay more attention to the civic life in the territory, with two key conditions – the development of Tsim Sha Tsui and the reorganisation of the Urban Council – as the crucial context that lead to the development of this grand project of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

TST Development Plan – commercial interest in cultural development

The southern tip of the Kowloon peninsula was a cargo and transit hub in the early colonial days, where wharfs and shipyards occupied the harbour front and military outposts settled on the small hills in the peninsula. Since the 1950s population in Kowloon has increased drastically due to the influx of migrant from mainland China, and the Government began to plan in early 1960s for redevelopment of the waterfront district of Tsim Sha Tsui. As the Whitfield barracks moved out and the KCR train terminal to be relocated to the newly reclaimed land in Hung Hom, a district land use plan was announced in 1965 to zone majority of the land in the area from industrial to commercial use, with substantial public open space and a promenade along the waterfront. The proposal of a Kowloon Civic Centre was raised around the same time with an original plan to be at the podium of the future terminal in Hung Hom. Since then, Tsim Sha Tsui has gradually transformed from an industrial and transportation hub into a commercial and tourism district, marked by the opening of Ocean Terminal that integrates a shopping arcade with cruise terminal, hotels development proliferated in the area and accounted for half of the hotel capacity in the whole city (Choi, 2019).

In this case, a landmark cultural architecture at the waterfront seemed to suit the future prospect of the area. In 1973 July, the Kowloon Civic Centre project was officially re-titled as “Tsim Sha Tsui Cultural Complex” with a site confirmed at the KCR site, and elevated to category B (that allows for the initiation of planning and design) in the 1974/75 Public Works Program. The project was initially conceived as three components: Building A with two auditoria that seats 2,500 and 1,000, conference and rehearsal rooms, two restaurants, a planetarium and public garden; Building B as a low-rise museum building of 43,000 sf; and Building C as an art gallery of 35,000 sf. (Urban Council 1973 Oct 19), which reflects the previous recommendation by the M&AG Select Committee. It was described by the newspaper Hong Kong Standard (1974 Sep 5) at the time as “the most ambitious building project in Hong Kong’s history” . The Cultural Complex project was publicly announced in the 1974 Urban Council Annual Report, followed by a public display of the proposal and model in Dec 1974.

1973 Urban Council reform – opportunity for the grand project

The Urban Council grew from its former role as the Sanitary Board in the 60/70s, to a broader spectrum of responsibilities regarding issues of civic life, including that of recreation and cultural affairs. The Council (or more precisely its chairman) was the key proponent to the development of the Cultural Centre, especially since its reorganisation in 1973 that gains a higher autonomy in operation and decision making. It was part of a larger scheme in the city’s overall political reform, which has increased the number of publicly-elected Council members and allows the Council an independent budget to be gained from the rates (property tax). Under the leadership of Mr. O. Sales as the first chairman, the Urban Council seized this opportunity to push forward the agenda to build public projects, in particular of the Cultural Centre at the prime location. Mr. Sales has been an advocate in the city’s cultural development and the Civic Centre project since his previous role as unofficial member of the Urban Council, where he described in a later interview his ambition to change the impression of Hong Kong as a “cultural desert” and to put it on the map of the Asian Cultural scene.

In fact, there was never a comprehensive Cultural Policy in Hong Kong, and the argument for cultural services by the Urban Council to the Government has always been associated with economic benefit, such as to increase competitiveness to attract business and tourist. In contrast to the British and European counterpart in their visionary cultural policy, the needs of the territory’s citizen was mentioned in various government documents but rather lightly, with focus on recreation and leisure aspect instead of the cultivation of a democratic civil society through culture. For example, there was a large exhibition hall component in the original plan of the Kowloon Civic Centre, which was planned to fulfil the need of businesses for trade shows and commercial event. (The idea was later abandoned as addressed in the other Public Works Project of the Hung Hom indoor stadium.)

Rendering of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre 1974 proposal

This has revealed a particular character of cultural matters in Hong Kong, in which the core value of culture in society was rarely discussed, but mostly in proxy to economics benefit or commercial value. Besides the building of cultural infrastructure (hardware), the Urban Council in the 1970s also supported the establishment of organisations from the Hong Kong Arts Festival to professional arts group, such as the Hong Kong Repertory and Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. A formal cultural scene in the city was in formation, and all these effort came together as the development of the Cultural Centre came into reality.


  • The Urban Council. Report on Museum and Art Gallery Services. Hong Kong., 1965.
  • The Legislative Council. Minutes of Meeting, March 1965.
  • The Urban Council, Cultural Complex sub-committee. Minutes of Meeting, Feb 1974.
  • The Town Planning Board, Development of Tsim Sha Tsui District: Proposals on Future Land Use, Communication Patterns., 10 December 1965, HKRS70-4-94
  • Choi Si Hang, The History, Development of City and Collective Memory of Tsim Sha Tsui Seafront 《尖沙咀海濱︰歷史、城市發展及大眾集體記憶》). Hong Kong., 2019.

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