Ability, not race, must take center stage

Editorial | 20 Oct 2017

It's all too easy to get over-dramatic these days. Look at the big fuss that celebrity artiste Liza Wang Ming-chuen is making over a recent appointment by the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.

The diva is howling that the naming of westerner Alison Friedman as artistic director of performing arts is a slap in the face of locals. However, her outburst has crossed the line.

It was on Wednesday last week when the authority announced Friedman - an American expatriate - had been chosen by the recruitment board.

As her title implies, she will oversee performing arts that covers a very wide spectrum. Xiqu - the traditional Chinese musical in which Wang has maintained a special interest during the second half of her artistic career - is one of the areas.

There are others including dance, theater, music and outdoor performance.

Meanwhile, headhunting is ongoing for the Xiqu director.

Understandably, Friedman's appointment was missed by the Hong Kong media, since it was made on the same day Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor delivered her policy address.

Wang didn't explain why she feels Friedman is unsuitable for the job. It would be alarming if her criticism was based merely on race or nationality rather than ability, as that has no place in the pluralistic society here.

Had Wang similarly fussed over Louis Yu Kwok-lit - Friedman's immediate boss - when the former chief executive of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council landed the job in 2010 to steer the planning and development of the performing arts facilities at the hub? I don't believe so.

For the record, Friedman is founder and creative director of Ping Pong Productions, a Beijing and US- registered cultural exchange organization whose objective is to bring China together with the world through the performing arts.

Her productions have toured more than 50 countries on five continents, including at Lincoln Center, Sydney Opera House, Sadler's Wells, The John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and China's National Center for the Performing Arts, among others.

She has been cited as an expert on China's arts industry by such media as The New York Times, and is one of few foreigners regularly consulted by the Chinese Ministry of Culture for her expertise in China's contemporary performing arts, with a focus on dance.

And by the way, she's also fluent in Putonghua, giving lectures and keynote addresses internationally in both English and Mandarin.

Now, I can't say for certain if Friedman will be up to expectations, since this can only be proven after she assumes the local post on Monday. But in giving her the benefit of the doubt, I would agree her track record as officially presented is impressive.

Wang criticized that in appointing an expatriate rather than a Xiqu expert to head Hong Kong's performing arts unit, the authority is pursuing a policy turning things upside down. That's grossly misleading.

The authority would have placed the cart before the horse if it had handed a job to someone based race rather than ability.

What's most crucial is having a fair and open recruitment procedure in place to select the most capable candidate.

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