Connecting Asia and the West5 min read . Updated: 05 Jun 2017, 01:59 AM IST
S. Alice Mong, executive director of the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, on curating dialogue with thought leaders to deepen understanding between Asia and the West
In the face of uncertainties created by an ever-changing US policy towards Asia, and the fallout from Brexit, many argue that Asian countries need to consider working more closely together to overcome their heavy reliance on Europe and the US.
The rising income inequality and unemployment in the West—combined with its politics, economics, and demographics—continue to cause political instability and social unrest domestically and globally.
And while Asia is not immune to these riptides, it remains a bright spot in 2017.
According to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) report published this month, the Asia-Pacific region continues to deliver a strong growth of 5.5%. As Asia emerges to become a global centre of economic gravity—and a source of decisive influence—the global order is already being reshaped.
However, Asia is not without its fair share of challenges.
Despite delivering impressive economic growth, Asian countries are struggling to deliver on social inclusion, improved livelihoods, and prosperity for all. Growing sectarian and ethnic strife is also destabilizing many nations. And, in the process, making the West, wary—once again—of the East.
The old debates of Asia and the West; Muslims and the rest, are ongoing, and indeed on the rise. At a time when the world is in urgent need for dialogue and understanding, there are few neutral spaces left to examine these fault lines; create bridges as well as a space for disagreement, and foreground collaboration and creative encounters.
Asia Society Hong Kong Center (ASHKC) is one such space. Here, Asians come to talk to other Asians, and to the West. About the past, the present, and the future.
“We curate candid conversations with the world’s foremost thought leaders to deepen understanding between Asia and the West," says S. Alice Mong, executive director of ASHKC. “Our speakers highlight issues that bind and divide, with a view to finding a collaborative path forward."
In the past year, the centre has held a series of debates on the tectonic economic and political events shaping the world.
These include a new era in US-China relations under the Trump presidency and the impact of Brexit on Asia. It has also highlighted important developments within Asia, including the North Korean missile tests, India’s demonetisation, and China’s leadership and transformation in clean energy, banking, and education.
Some of the speakers included former Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus; State Bank of India chairperson Arundhati Bhattacharya, Qiu Yong, president of Tsinghua University; Cherie Blair, chancellor of the Asian University for Women; Yuan Ming, dean, Yenching Academy, Peking University, and Robert Thurmond, chief executive of News Corp.
“At the ASHKC, our aim is to create a cutting-edge space for having timely, frank and lively debates about Asia and its evolving impact in shaping the world," says Mong. “I think we have largely succeeded in this goal."
The centre has indeed built a reputation for being a leading intellectual, cultural, and artistic hub in Hong Kong.
Under Mong’s leadership, the ASHKC has seen over 300,000 visitors attend almost 1,000 programmes in the past five years. These programmes include debates, concerts, film screenings, festivals, and photo and art exhibitions. The centre has also hosted more than 5,000 students from local schools and colleges at no charge.
Mong—who has been with the centre since August 2012—gives credit, in part, to her mentor, Ronnie Chan.
“Ronnie’s support has been invaluable in making Asia Society Hong Kong Center a world-class cultural and community centre," she says.
Chan, a co-chairman of Asia Society and chairman of ASHKC, is a real-estate mogul, and billionaire. He is the chairman of Hang Lung Group Ltd and its subsidiary Hang Lung Properties Ltd. Both are publicly listed companies in Hong Kong, dealing in real estate development, investment and management.
A local legend in Hong Kong, Chan is also one of the most admired leaders of Chinese origin globally. His family has donated $350 million to Harvard University and $20 million to the University of Southern California, his alma mater.
“Ronnie is generous, connected and greatly loved by our global community for his vision and leadership," says 54-year-old Mong, who is herself a highly regarded member of the Hong Kong community.
ASHKC is a part of the Asia Society, headquartered in New York, which was founded by John D. Rockefeller III. It has centres in Shanghai, Manila, Melbourne, Mumbai, and Seoul, as well as five in the US.
ASHKC has carved its own niche in Asia with the unique programming it curates under Mong’s leadership.
Events such as Asia Art Awards, Asia Society Talks at Arts Central and India By the Bay are just some of its programmes that have become the hallmark of Hong Kong’s annual calendar. They have the stamp of Mong’s leadership.
Prior to ASHKC, she worked for about a decade in the non-profit sector in the US. She served as executive director for the Committee of 100, a Chinese-American non-profit membership organization founded by architect I.M. Pei and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
While in New York, she was also the director of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) and helped transform it from a New York Chinatown institution to a leading national museum in the country. It is dedicated to preserving and presenting the history, heritage, culture and diverse experience of people of Chinese descent in the US.
Mong has striven to bring the same verve and passion to her role in ASHKC. One of her key mandates here is to bring India’s cultural dynamism to Hong Kong, a goal she has largely succeeded in, in a short span of time.
For the past three years, ASHKC has partnered with Teamwork Arts from India to bring the hugely popular India by the Bay festival to Hong Kong.
The festival brings an eclectic programme, fusing the classical and contemporary music, dance, theater, film and literature to showcase the key ingredients of Indian culture.
Some of the participants over the years included Shabana Azmi, William Dalrymple, Aditi Mangaldas, Mahesh Dattani, Lillete Dubey and Laila Tyebji.
Mong is also excited about doing more programming to spotlight India and China. “Both mainland China and Hong Kong have a shared, rich and deep history with India. We are keen to do more to uncover and showcase it," she says.
As part of this effort, Mong, last year, brought famed writer Amitava Ghosh, whose books touch deeply on this history.
His talks were a huge success, drawing the Indian and Chinese audience in large numbers. “The convergence and confluence of India and China’s past are yet not fully understood. But there is great interest. And, a deeper awareness of it will benefit not only the two countries but also the world at large," notes Mong.
Hong Kong is perhaps the right place to unearth this history of the two Asian giants, who are shaping the new global order of the 21st century. ASHKC plans to play a role.
“At Asia Society, we are focused on the rise of Asia through forging deeper connections between Asian nations, and between Asia and the West," says Mong.