Chief Secretary Carrie Lam has revealed that the idea for the controversial Hong Kong Palace Museum was formed during an event in Beijing in September 2015, when she was at a special meeting of the Legislative Council answering fiery questions from lawmakers.

She said Shan Jixiang, the director of Beijing’s Palace Museum, asked her whether there would be a piece of land at West Kowloon to build a museum related to the former imperial palace, after Shan praised Hong Kong’s museum curating skills.

“It was a good idea but at the time I thought it was a wild idea,” she said. “But anyhow, my personal character is that I always want to do things for Hong Kong, I discussed that with a core group of colleagues.”

Carrie Lam. Photo: LegCo/Stand News.

“I am an official who likes to take initiative. For the past three decades, I have been a proactive official, I wished to do things for Hong Kong,” said Lam.

Lam, also the chairperson of the Board of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, said the plan was an “obvious choice” for West Kowloon as its vision was to build an international cultural hub. She restated that the piece of land was “free” as the Board has already decided to drop the plan for a Mega Performance Venue there, before the Palace Museum idea came into being.

Respect the relics 

“It is fine to criticise me or smear me. But please do not belittle the value of Palace Museum’s relics,” Lam said.

The museum will be supported by a HK$3.5 billion donation from the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Lam said she first asked the Jockey Club in December 2015, and it was agreed by its board of directors in October 2016.

Carrie Lam. File Photo: GovHK.

The project did not conduct any public consultation before the surprise announcement at the end of last month. A postgraduate student lodged an application for a judicial review on Thursday to challenge such practice, stating that the law requires the Authority to hold a public engagement exercise.

The Authority announced a public consultation on Thursday on the design and operation of the proposed museum. At the Friday meeting, Lam said the new consultation was “planned in advance” but dismissed the need for a consultation prior to signing an agreement with Beijing.

“If I cannot arrange the capital and land, how can I, or the government, make a suggestion to the central government?” she said. “It is impossible to borrow Palace Museum relics if we don’t have the capital and land.”

Project secrecy 

The confidential process was kept secret from her administrative assistant and press secretary, her top ranking staff members.

Kenneth Leung. Photo: LegCo/Stand News.

Pro-democracy lawmakers still questioned why the project must be conducted in secrecy before its announcement.

Claudia Mo Man-ching criticised the project as “the most shady one in your decades-long career as a civil servant. This is very disappointing.”

Kenneth Leung Kai-cheong questioned why Rocco Yim Sen-kee was named as the architect of the project without any consultation, as there were many other qualified local architects available in Hong Kong. Lam said it may have cost a lot of time to find an architect for the project through a normal process and admitted it was a special case.

“Based on the experience in the past few years for West Kowloon, many friends in the architectural sector told us that they wished some projects could be completed by local architects,” she said. “For local architects, I wish to hear from Mr Leung about ‘the many local architects’ who have designed a large museum – I hope Mr Leung can share with me.”

Leung replied that he will give her some names.

Eddie Chu. Photo: LegCo/Stand News.

Eddie Chu Hoi-dick questioned whether the donation from the Jockey Club was in exchange for a decision by the Chief Executive in Council last year to increase horse racing days, a 50-year land lease extension for the Sha Tin Racecourse, and a Gold Bauhinia Star honour for CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges.

Chu demanded records of communication between the government and the Jockey Club. “We don’t want the Jockey Club to pay this money – if there is an exchange. The budget should be approved by the Legislative Council.”

Lam said: “I must clearly state that what Mr Chu just said is all baseless. This is his imagination and an attempt at smearing.”

Lam is tipped to be running for the chief executive position. A Sing Tao Daily front page report on Friday said she may resign next Thursday. But Lam refused to respond to the report saying it was not the right occasion to answer such questions at the special meeting.

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.