THE BLOG
11/01/2012 04:54 pm ET | Updated Jan 01, 2013

A Shift in the World's Cultural Capital?

For much of my lifetime, New York City has long been the world's beacon of culture and diversity. Billions of people from all corners of the earth look to New York as the center of creativity, collaboration, and opportunity. From my desk in Hong Kong, I have witnessed countless young artists and musicians set their eyes to the Big Apple in search of inspiration and innovation.

Yet a funny thing has happened in recent years. With the United States in a prolonged recession, and Wall Street's status as an infallible financial center shaken, the question is whether New York will continue its cultural dominance, or whether changing tides will see more cultural influence emanating from the East.

In many ways, Hong Kong has epitomized the changes in global arts and culture. Hong Kong has historically been a city without a fixed identity. We are Chinese in heritage, but have a long tradition of hewing to Western behaviors and standards. Fifteen years ago, the world held its breath as the one-time British colony reverted back to China. The process of reintegrating has been one of intense global speculation and scrutiny; and yet our workers, artists, and the general public at large are still working to establish a sense of nationality that is uniquely Chinese and also adapted to the world.

Besides the well-publicized demonstrations over education independence, and political rights, this tension can most keenly be felt in Hong Kong's artist scene. Our musicians are busy forming their own identity and stepping out of the shadow of mainland China to represent the unique identity of their city.

Cultural adaptation is the most unique and powerful facet of Hong Kong art. As a city, we have been accustomed to forging our own path and finding our own way. In Hong Kong, this unique convergence comes forth in narrative, is pronounced in theater, and most vividly comes alive in composition. In music, one can hear Hong Kong composers reflecting a fusion of Eastern and Western ideals; striking all chords but not fully identifying with either.

Today, classical music is vibrant and prospering in Hong Kong unlike anywhere else in the world: Hong Kong has among the world's highest per capita number of young people studying classical music, and accounts for one-seventh of the entire global population taking prestigious Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music exams each year (90,000 out of 630,000 from more than 90 countries in the world).

Yet at its core, Hong Kong's culture still cannot exist without the unique traditions emanating from the rest of the world, most importantly New York. Besides its deep cultural traditions, Hong Kong is also known for its symmetry with the West and its penchant for pushing forth new boundaries to narrow the differences between East and West. As one of the world's leading global cities, Hong Kong represents a convergence of interests and values, of innovation and ideas; of tastes and traditions.

With 36% of its population immigrants, New York is the epicenter of embracing cultural diversity as a means to fostering a city identity. In New York, the bridge extends beyond Asia to its African cousins and Latin neighbors. With the largest ethnic Chinese population outside of Asia, it's a city of vast convergences, far-flung roots, and deep diversity.

As a celebration of the power of cross-cultural collaboration between East and West, the Manhattan Hong Kong Music Festival, the largest festival of Hong Kong musicians to visit and perform in New York City, will debut in New York this week, 15 years after the reversion of Hong Kong to Beijing. This festival will showcase that the former British Colony is still working to assert its identity and make the case that not everything is made in mainland China.

Hong Kong's finest classical musicians have been hand-picked to perform side-by-side with the Manhattan School of Music's musicians, performing a blend of original compositions by Hong Kong composers, traditional Chinese pieces, and unique interpretations of Western compositions.

Underpinning the music and the pageantry of this festival is the truly unique history and cultural identity of Hong Kong, asserted through compositions that blend Eastern and Western traditions -- a dramatically different musical scene from either mainland China or the West.

This extraordinary week-long festival represents a modern fusion of distinct cultures and an openness for international collaboration. While Hong Kong's cultural identity is ready to emerge from the shadow of mainland China, its growth will not eclipse New York's. Rather, there is a unique potential for the two to interweave with one other to produce a stronger and more vibrant global arts and culture scene that can inspire the world for centuries to come.

Johnny M. Poon is professor and Head of the Department of Music at Hong Kong Baptist University. He is the Artistic Director of the Manhattan Hong Kong Music Festival, the largest collaboration between Hong Kong and New York musicians.