Burning issue: Don’t divert Hong Kong’s betting revenue from charity projects like the fire dragon dance

Cheering locals and tourists alike enjoy the spectacle of Tai Hang’s streets lit up by thousands of burning incense sticks during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

A Jockey Club off-course betting branch. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

In a ritual dating back to 1880, villagers of Tai Hang dance a 240-feet long fire dragon in every street so everyone is showered with good luck. In today’s language, it is a community building cultural practice – with spectators are packed in like sardines as the show becomes more and more famous.

But we should not take the fire dragon dance for granted.

Tai Hang, sitting between Jardine’s Lookout and Causeway Bay, was once home to a Hakka community and is now one of the most gentrified neighbourhoods in an increasingly wealthy city. Old tenement blocks and upmarket towers stand next to each other. Street food stalls, cosy cafes and trendy restaurants are intermingled.

In gentrified areas, richer people who move in displace long-term residents who cannot afford the increased rent. In the case of the fire dragon dance, when many established residents moved out, those left behind had difficulties raising enough money to keep the tradition going – even though the ceremony was listed as an intangible cultural heritage in 2011.

The fire dragon dance at Tai Hang, Hong Kong, on January 23, 2018. Photo: GovHK>

Had the Hong Kong Jockey Club not stepped in with a donation that year, Hong Kong may have lost this piece of its proud cultural heritage.

The club’s support did not stop at a donation. One year later it funded an educational programme. Over the years, hundreds of young people have had an opportunity to learn the fire dragon dance through the programme run by the Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage (CACHe).

Why am I revisiting old news?

A heated debate has broken out about whether the Jockey Club should pay a higher football betting levy to help ease the heavy burden on the city’s coffers after three years of Covid. In a recent proposal to Financial Secretary Paul Chan, the New People’s Party has suggested the government raise the duty from 50 per cent to 80 per cent. The move would raise an extra HK$6 billion, it said.

As an urbanist and chairperson of CACHe, I have witnessed the changing fortunes of intangible cultural heritage practices such as the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance and the Hungry Ghost Festival. “Intangible cultural heritage,” once an academic term, has become part of day-to-day language.

In late 2018, the government approved HK$300 million to launch the Intangible Cultural Heritage Funding Scheme, providing financial support to NGOs and practitioners of these practices. But the Jockey Club had stepped in almost a decade earlier to save the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance and other intangible cultural heritage.

The dragon boat festival at Tai O, on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island, on June 18, 2018. Photo: GovHK.

The NGO that I chair has been at the forefront in introducing the city’s cultural heritage to the general public. We have been receiving funding from the Jockey Club and, in recent years, the Government’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Office.

But the Jockey Club acts faster than the government because it has a charitable arm that works hand-in-hand with NGOs. Staff keep in close touch with their counterparts in civil society to identify needs, whether it is about social services, environmental protection or heritage conservation. This partnership will come up with new projects as soon as the government has the policy tools to fill the gaps.

Therefore I strongly disagree with the proposal to make the Jockey Club pay higher football betting duty. Profits from betting go to projects in which the market is not interested and which the government is not ready to support. Increasing betting duty will only hurt people and services that are gravely in need of funds.

The club, in fact, should be donating more to civil society, especially after three years of the ravages of Covid.

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