By Alexas Wing Yee NG, Wai Ling Ng and Fitz Suen

A crowd of 10 young fashionistas was spotted posing for Instagrammable photos against the backdrop of the walls of an industrial-chic-styled building. Next to them was a newly opened bookstore specialising in Asian literature, art and independently published zines, where a young author was introducing her new book on the lives of the post-’90s generation to fewer than five people. A staff member of the bookstore told the audience to sit closer to the author to make the scene look less embarrassing. Taking selfies seemed more appealing to most people than any serious discussion of literature.

Visitors taking photographs at The Mills.

It was a scene spotted from our second visit to The Mills in Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong’s latest cultural hotspot. The site was developed by Nan Fung Group, one of the city’s leading property developers. Announced in 2015, the HK$700-million plan was to turn the 60-something-year-old defunct Nan Fung Textile Mill Factory into an arts and cultural destination. Designed to preserve the history of Hong Kong’s role as a regional centre for the textile industry during the 1960s while exploring future creativity and innovation, it is home to business incubator Fabrica, CHAT (Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile) and a retail zone.

This revitalisation project, Hong Kong’s largest, has a noble intention. But whether the audience is equipped to appreciate the efforts is another question. What we noticed at the inaugural exhibition — Unfolding: Fabric of Our Life — during the grand opening, was that most visitors had their backs to the artwork because they were posing for photos, and those who wanted to see the artwork either were distracted by the crowd or were not able to get close.

A week after the opening of CHAT saw a smaller crowd of all ages roaming around the building. They were happily taking selfies in the spacious atrium while others were queuing for popular Taiwanese drinks at the other end of the hall. Many of them were window-shopping, browsing the designer lifestyle products that were priced above the average for goods typically sold in Tsuen Wan district.

Even though The Mills offers guided tours, giving visitors a detailed explanation of the site’s stories, they were not popular on the day of our visit.

Cultural experiences are intangible, but the crowd drawn to these new attractions focuses on tangible enjoyment only. Anything beyond that could be too far from their comfort zone. With resources poured in to preserve and revitalise Hong Kong’s history, what more can and should be done to make the most of it? We need to encourage an audience that understands the importance of our city’s history and heritage, giving them tools to help them better appreciate the intrinsic value of culture.

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