Hong Kong NGOs have been invited to submit proposals to operate and maintain a historic listed building, which has been home to arts and cultural venue Fringe Club for 40 years.

In a 35-page project brief issued on Monday, the the Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau said the potential operator should safeguard national security. The term “national security” appears 22 times in the document.

The Fringe Club
The Fringe Club, founded in 1983, has used the premises located in f No. 2 Lower Albert Road, as its venue for 40 years. Photo: The Fringe Club.

The bureau also said that whoever runs the arts space should be able to terminate contracts with anyone they engage if their contractors acted “contrary to the interest of national security.”

“The objectives are to build a sustainable ecosystem for the arts, culture and creative industries to thrive so as to strengthen our role as an East-meets-West centre for international cultural exchange as positioned by the Central People’s Government in
the 14th Five-Year Plan,” the bureau said.

The venue is located in the South Block of No. 2 Lower Albert Road, Central, and spans 1,700 square metres, including the basement, the ground floor, the first floor, and the roof. The North Block of the building currently hosts Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC).

Fringe club exhibition
An exhibition in the Fringe Club. Photo: The Fringe Club.

For decades, the Fringe Club offered rent-free space for artists to perform or exhibit.

“Performers and artists can show their work without having to go through [a] selection process,” the club said on its website. “Over the years, by pursuing this policy of open access, the Fringe Club has come to be identified with freedom of expression.”

The government announced in April that it had renewed the club’s lease for one year and would call for proposals “to identify the most suitable non-profit-making operator of the premises currently occupied by the Fringe Club after the current lease.”

The new lease will last for three years, starting as early as April 2024. Before 2022, the Fringe Club’s lease lasted for five years.

Fringe Club performance
A live music performance in the Fringe Club. Photo: the Fringe Club.

Anson Chan Yiu-cheung, a businessman and the acting chairman of the club, told Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao earlier this month that the Fringe Club had sought to renew a three-year lease with the government.

Chan said he had reached out to the Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau numerous times since 2022, and was told that as it was a new agency that was established on July 1 that year – when the current administration took over – it planned to open calls for tender for the historic building to understand more about the market.

Chan added that he expected competition for the tender to be fierce, as he knew around 20 groups that had expressed an interest in applying for the bid.

In November 2022, the government offered a three-year lease to the FCC, after the group’s seven-year contract came to an end. National security clauses were added to the press club’s lease.

The abandoned site

Built in the late 19th century, the historic building was once a cold storage warehouse and later a dairy shop and then the headquarters of the Dairy Farm retail firm. The company moved out in the 1970s and the building was abandoned.

The fringe club
The Fringe Club located in Central. Photo: the Fringe Club.

According to the Fringe Club website, the club acquired a key to the abandoned site in 1983 and oversaw renovations to the building. The first lease was signed with the government in 1989.

In 2001, the Fringe Club won the government’s first-ever Hong Kong Heritage Award, and the historic building was declared Grade-1 heritage in 2009.

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Irene Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press and has an interest in covering political and social change. She has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Fudan University and a master’s degree in social work from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.