MB April | Made in Macau Hopefully

Lots of potential and bottlenecks define the current state of the cultural and creative industries of Macau, according to James Chu, one of the leading advocates in the field. Speaking to Macau Business, the chairman of the Macau Designers Association and co-ordinator of the Macau Art Garden, claims that if decision-makers remain indifferent to integrating the sector into the city’s economic plan, it is condemned. In the big scheme of things, he argues, the first aspect to redress is placing the industry under the authority of the Economy portfolio

By Sheyla Zandonai 

You sit on the board of several associations and consultancies – Macau Design Centre, Macau Art Garden, Shidu Art Consultants. How do you evaluate the development of the cultural and creative industries in Macau over the last five years? 

James Chu – The topic started with [Edmund] Ho Hau-wah more than ten years ago and continued with [Fernando] Chui Sai On and Alexis Tam, and the previous Secretary [for Social Affairs and Culture] Cheong U. In the beginning, we were always in touch with Cheong U, including for the [Macau] Design Centre, which he approved. More than seven years ago, when they launched the cultural industries advisory committee, of which I used to be one of the members, a lot of things were started. But I think that in the last five years, we have really seen some progress.  

With the support of the Cultural Industries Fund, it finally started to kick off, at least financially. At the same time – due not only to the promotion by the government but also publicity to the general public through different media – a lot of people know what the cultural industry is about. Five years ago people didn’t understand what we were doing. I have to say that even a lot of high officials lacked understanding.  

So, we’ve spent a lot of time helping them understand what we are doing, not only through the people in Macau, but also influence from the nearby region, especially Hong Kong, Taiwan, Shanghai, Beijing. Now a lot of people know what the cultural industry is about, although it has become a widespread term that they use sometimes [which] we feel is not professional enough.   

The industry has a commercial purpose. Is this how you separate cultural and creative industries from art proper?  

J.C. – Some very ‘pure’ artists just want to do his or her work for exhibition. There are some artists really developing here, with their own interests and artistic developments, but not everything will sell. This comes back to the cultural industry. It needs a system. Before we had the system, we only had artists, amateur artists, most of them.  

Nowadays, if you are still an amateur artist, at least you have a way, a structure, a system to help you sell and reach the market, to find a place, through exhibitions, through our clients’ needs, through our experience to bring you to an art fair, outside of Macau, through our network to co-operate with big enterprises. Again, this is the most important, the support side of design art itself, how the cultural industry can function and help artists.  

This need to implement an operation capable of connecting different threads is what you call the ‘system’. Which fields does it link?  

J.C. – All the dirty work! Given my professional background, I work more closely with design and art, but I did have experience with moviemakers, especially advertising. Other than that, there are so many fields in the cultural industries, such as writing, publishing, new media, fashion design, architecture, and so on.  

The visual arts, which include painting, photography, sculpture, and all kinds of design – advertising, website and new media design – have been quite well received by the general public because they’ve been marketed for a long time. There is only a problem about value, because we have too many competitors in the nearby region. We have only a few thousand designers and artists, but in Hong Kong there are 8,000, in Shenzhen there are some 240,000!   

The work that is being produced by local, visual creative artists is underestimated in terms of price. The quality might be the same as that from a Hong Kong artist or designer, or even better, but the price differences are quite big. We’re still struggling on this point. We have to make ourselves more famous outside of Macau.  

Government-market design 

What strategies have you been deploying to make yourselves more famous outside of Macau? 

J.C. – We try very hard and this involves a lot of resources. For example, we established our gallery in Beijing – ‘798’ – in 2008. But in the end we had to close it [July 2014] because the government no longer supported us. The government is very funny. It doesn’t give you funding annually, but by exhibition. They don’t support the rent, or the admin. They can only do it project by project, so it’s hard to survive.  

We did quite well and were quite famous in Mainland China through Beijing. We were even selected once in a ranking of the hundred best galleries in China by Art Bazaar, ranking 66. That doesn’t mean much. But, of course, it helps us to promote a lot.  

Yet it still didn’t pay the rent . . .  

J.C. – Yes. The key problem is that we sold a lot, in terms of quantity, but the price was still very low. Usually, from other experiences, if you have one or two famous artists, and can sell three or four artworks a year, you can come out level. The average price we’re talking about should be some RMB500,000, which is a very common practice in China. You don’t have to sell 50 artworks a year. You only have to sell three or four at this amount to come out level, or you can become more famous and make some profit.  

Unfortunately, in Beijing, even if we sold 30 or 40 pieces a year, the price was still about RMB10,000 to RMB20,000. It is not very high, but you need time. You cannot jump from this price to that price in one day. Especially in Macau, when you’re still selling at MOP10,000. How can you sell the same painting there at ten times the price here? People will know. If you want to sell at US$10,000 there, you can. But if your work comes back to Macau, it will remain at the same price. Then, in Macau people will not be able to afford it.   

People cannot afford it or those who can afford it are not buying what is being created here? Or are people buying local artists? 

J.C. – You’re right. They buy handbags and watches, three or four apartments, planes, and yachts. As for potential buyers, I meet a lot of them. They all know us. If they find us useful, they will find us. We have worked with a lot of different casinos and hotels. Of course, there are always people who are willing to collaborate, creating a win-win situation. But at the same time there will be different people who want to use the opportunity to gain some profit from these projects.  

If you work with them, they can use you to show the government they support local artists, how much they are purchasing, and so on. They also need us to help them invite higher officials to their property for cultural events, for networking. I once received an email from a big casino corporation, which they had accidentally forwarded to me. In the message, the local management asked the management from the United States to consider giving us approval or a big amount for the activities, so that they could use the figure to request the government here to give them more tables!  

“The government should separate pure art, education, activities to enrich cultural life, which I think should remain with the Cultural [Affairs] Bureau. But for business, even for the cultural industry, everything should be under the Economy [portfolio]. We would work much better” 

Corporate call 

Do you believe casino corporations are being co-operative, considering the amounts of money at stake? 

J.C. – We have been raising this question with the Chief Executive and the Secretary in many different consultations. If you really want the casinos to support local artists, it is not through organising exhibitions. It is just fireworks, no matter how much they pay. You need to do something more solid. We started asking the government at least eight or nine years ago to define a certain amount of money to purchase from local artists when a casino was built. If they had done so, the whole situation would be completely different.  

We also met with the CEOs of a few casinos and the government to tell them about the problem we’re facing. But they’re still not interested in resolving it because it isn’t their ‘issue.’ It is only our urgency. The problem we’re facing is that all these new hotels are done by architects, interior designers, and art consultancies in the United States, Australia, or second, third-hand projects through Hong Kong agencies. Then the agencies find us at the very last minute, give us a very low price, too many limitations, and we cannot do it. Unfortunately, the money goes to those designers and consultancies. We miss a lot of opportunities.  

You mention unexplored possibilities within the creative and cultural industries that could mature if the government required big corporations to engage more. Would that also imply training and courses? 

J.C. – I think of it in a different way. We know that there is a market, and we know this is a great opportunity. We don’t have to stay a non-profit making association or count on government subsidies forever. This is the dead-end we are facing every year, and there is no solution so far. The government just needs to help create a market, and people will start working and improving it themselves.   

For example, there is only one shop [in Macau] that can produce frames which are qualified enough by local industry standards. How come? Can you imagine how many frames we need in Macau every day? The business goes somewhere else. If you create these job opportunities, many people can benefit. But the government just asks you to fill up a form for the subsidy. How many hotels have been built? Imagine that there are only two paintings in each room, not to say the lobby or public areas. Do you know how many artists could benefit from this? And there are a lot of [ancillary] companies, like transportation, packaging, professional lighting. There’s a whole system that can improve.  

Are government subsidies provided via different schemes still helping, be it the Art Garden, the Design Centre or the Designers Association?  

J.C. – The Macau Designers Association has been established for more than 30 years. It is a non-profit making association representing the professional designers in Macau. Art For All (AFA) is an artists’ association that is trying to help artists organise and promote exhibitions and sell their work. But it’s also a non-profit making association. Whatever money you make you have to put back into the association for future development. Last year was AFA’s tenth anniversary.  

We’ve already proved it doesn’t work because the system is not complete and everyone that works for an association has to be a volunteer, like me. If you want this business to develop, you have to go a more corporate way. But under this government’s subsidy system we cannot. Every year, every month, the amount is different. The same happened in Beijing. While in one year we would receive one million, the following year they only gave us MOP30,000, without reason. What kind of stability can you have? 

“Five years ago, people didn’t understand what we were doing. I have to say that even a lot of high officials lacked understanding” 

Expansion curtailed  

How is the Macau Design Centre project evolving in this context?  

J.C. – Macau Design Centre is a bit different because everything we try to do is based upon a time before the cultural industry fund was set up. We started proposing things not only by ourselves, but also with some so-called very important people in the government. Still no action. So we rented the space ourselves and kind of forced the government to do it. It was a start, and at that moment – because they were working to set up the cultural industry fund – we were optimistic because we thought it was going to come up very soon.   

But unfortunately it took one and a half years – beyond our expectations, out of their expectations too – because they also met a lot of problems with different departments, which asked them to revise and ask for opinions. We had to pay the rent and the admin expenses by ourselves. Only when Chui Sai On’s second term started did the fund finally come up. At that time, we signed a draft in December, prior to Chui’s second term.   

“I once received an email from a big casino corporation, which they had accidentally forwarded to me. In the message, the local management asked the management from the United States to consider giving us approval, so that they could use the figure to request the government here to give them more tables!” 

We were supposed to receive the funds starting January but they were delayed some seven months more, and we had to pay another seven months of rent and salaries. All together, we spent MOP4 million ourselves during those two years. Then they finally gave us sponsors in August, two years ago. In the first two years [starting 2015], they gave us MOP7 million and we just got approved for the second term, the coming two years, which started in August [2017], for about MOP9 million.  

In what regards the project for the second phase of the Macau Design Centre what is the proposal?   

J.C. – I think that we always go too fast. In the very beginning, when we suggested the project, people thought we were crazy. Only when we approached the opening did they visit the building and only then understood what we do. For the second phase, we found a building which used to be the university students’ hospital, right behind the Music School in [Avenida] Horta e Costa.  

It’s not a factory but a residency, with some twenty apartments, two to three rooms each. We suggested making it a little bit different than the current one. It’s called a design residency, a place to live and work. [The concept] is very common all around the world. But the government wouldn’t accept this concept. They didn’t give a reason, but obviously they don’t want to use government subsidies to [support] people living.  

But creative people always work 24 hours. They work in an apartment, in a factory or commercial building, but will always have a sofa-bed. So why don’t you let them sleep there, officially? So, the second phase is not happening. It’s too expensive to renovate ourselves. If we do it is as an investment we have to charge a high rent and for sure these are not the people who can afford it. If you want to keep it at a low rent, you have to have some degree of subsidy.  

Under the Economy portfolio 

What about seeking private funding or partnerships?  

J.C. – How many [gaming] tables do you want? I have a lot of tables, you see . . . Let’s talk a little a bit about this funding. Actually, the Macau Foundation can provide funding but it says we should go to the Cultural Industry Fund. We cannot go to two funds at the same time. So, there’s a lot of limitation. But we can actually do much better. It’s not a problem of not having the money. It’s a problem of people’s mindset. We are working very hard, but there’s no policy support. Because all these artistic policies still remain at subsidy level, which cannot help at all at industry level.  

The one that is in charge and has all the resources at industry level is IPIM [Macao Trade and Promotion Institute]. We’ve talked to them many times, but they won’t do anything because it’s not under Alexis Tam’s [authority]. We are suffering in the middle. They want to do something for us and they could do something for us. But they just can’t.  

So, the main problem is how the political structure is organised . . .  

J.C. – They [IPIM] have many things in which they could support us and in which we could get involved to get into the bigger market. I’m not talking about One Belt, One Road. This is in the moon. [IPIM] is something more down to earth. They have a lot of business connections, with enterprises, trade shows in Macau, Hong Kong, Mainland China. We could participate in a very subtle way [like] using our small enterprise name to try to develop. But they cannot step in, because our Secretary [Tam] is not the one who makes policy about commerce. So how can they help?  

The only way to proceed, therefore, is to expect or push for a change in the political framework? 

J.C. – I think there’s a lot of discussion about if the cultural industries should go to the economy portfolio, or stay in the cultural one. From my perspective I think it should stay there [Economy]. The government should separate pure art, education, activities to enrich cultural life, which I think should stay with the Cultural [Affairs] Bureau.  

But for business, even for the cultural industry, everything should be under the Economy [portfolio]. We would work much better with the Macau economic plan. There is a lot of planning in that field, a lot happening, there are opportunities, while [under Social Affairs and Culture] all they give you is some annual subsidy and you try to do everything yourself. It doesn’t work. How can we fight those big markets that already exist?