It is therefore astonishing to learn that the Hong Kong government is considering giving HK$7.8 million (US$997,000) to the organiser for installing these balloons, thinking they will attract tourists and promote the city as an arts and cultural hub.

Neither objective will be achieved by these floating emojis.

While I was at Statue Square, I saw a dozen or so people and a lukewarm response to the balloon. Later, I saw tourists interviewed on TV saying they would not make a special trip just to see the balloons because “It’s just a balloon”. Don’t criticise the tourists; I wouldn’t either.

Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu launches the Chubby Hearts Hong Kong art installation by fashion designer Anya Hindmarch at Statue Square Gardens in Central on February 14. Photo: Sam Tsang
These balloons are clearly made for social media. It is apparently how events are supposed to be promoted. A big data analysis company claimed the project by a UK-based designer gained huge traction on major social media platforms. But these balloons did not make the top Hong Kong searches on Google Trends on any day from February 14-18.

Given there is nothing really special about the installation, and the capricious nature of social media, these balloons hardly contribute to making Hong Kong an arts and cultural hub. What they have revealed instead is where the government has gone wrong.

What makes a city an arts and cultural hub? The officials seem to believe that by bringing arts and cultural experiences from elsewhere, such as by flying some balloons from Britain here, inviting Lionel Messi to play football in the city or showcasing international collections at Hong Kong’s Art Basel, we’ll somehow be an arts and cultural hub.
They so wished Taylor Swift would perform here, believing it could greatly elevate Hong Kong’s status. But just these activities would only really make Hong Kong a fringe city for other hubs.


A Messi affair in Hong Kong

A Messi affair in Hong Kong

The government takes a utilitarian view of arts and culture, and uses these events as a marketing tool to draw tourists and boost economic growth. This shortsighted approach will lead to a narrowed arts and cultural space, with people chasing fads, running after a few “mega” choices provided by businessmen.

Building a true arts and cultural hub requires self-understanding and long-term nurturing. It needs to be built from the bottom up and with Hong Kong’s unique characteristics. We are very far from it.

The Arts Development Council has recently pulled funding support for the Hong Kong Federation of Drama Societies’ annual awards show while the Education Bureau has blocked a venue from being used by a drama group. Such examples have a chilling effect on all creative workers in Hong Kong.

What Hong Kong needs to be a truly world-class cultural hub

There are also those whose artistic interests never get properly developed. For instance, last year the Post published a story about people who take nude pictures in public places. One said he just wanted to show the beauty of the nude human form against the surrounding environment.

This suggests he had a desire for artistic expression and that he wanted to find beauty in life. It is a non-utilitarian exploration of the human spirit. This is where the arts start and flourish. Unfortunately, his desire was not channelled into the right place.

Both career creative workers and aspiring artists could use some help from the government. But first, our officials must recognise the genuine artistic aspirations of the public, balance the need for economic development, and provide the space needed for art creation and appreciation.

Such efforts may not be measurable in social media terms, but they will transform Hong Kong into a true arts and cultural hub.

April Zhang is the founder of MSL Master and the author of the Mandarin Express textbook series and the Chinese Reading and Writing textbook series