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Creative industries in flux: A critical investigation into cultural and creative workers in Hong Kong

What is it like to work in the creative industries in Hong Kong, that is one of the city’s key emerging sectors? In light of the sustained public interest in the creative industries over the past 15 years, new Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s proposal to set up a Culture Bureau, and often less sanguine reports of creative labour conditions locally and abroad, these raise the question that is working in Hong Kong’s creative industries as promising or gloomy as it may seem? And importantly, what are creative workers’ actual experiences?

Since June 2016, we have been working on an ethnographic research on the seemingly booming cultural and creative industries in Hong Kong. Central to this project is the aim to inform government’s and industry’s response with workers’ experiences and conditions and to theorise new forms of precariousness and resistance within the creative workforce. Subsidised by the Central Policy Unit, this 18-month Public Policy Research offers a timely analysis of the realistic working conditions in Hong Kong’s creative industries.

Ethnographic approach
Focusing on three sectors – public relations and advertising, television, and print media – we have conducted interviews and field visits with over 50 practitioners of different profiles, for a more comprehensive exploration of creative labour conditions. The interviews have revealed workers’ subjective experiences and formal aspects of work, while on-site observations in workspaces like offices, production studios, smoking areas, restaurants, and recruitment events have helped contextualise their narratives and advance our understanding of their dynamics in- and outside the office. We also photographed and video-taped the interviews and observations for more in-depth analysis, upon informants’ consent.

A glimpse of what work is like at a 4As media agency

Workers all plugged in and clicking away at a local TV station’s office in Chai Wan

Workers all plugged in and clicking away at a local TV station’s office in Chai Wan

Editorial content and advertisements for the next magazine issue are paginated and pinned for further discussion

Editorial content and advertisements for the next magazine issue are paginated and pinned for further discussion

Young Kam Fan Award winners, Assistant Art Directors at a global advertising agency, shared their experience with students who are interested in joining the field at a university seminar

Young Kam Fan Award winners, Assistant Art Directors at a global advertising agency, shared their experience with students who are interested in joining the field at a university seminar

Chief Creative Officer at a multinational advertising agency shared her view on why junior workers now face more difficulties when compared to her “good old days”

Chief Creative Officer at a multinational advertising agency shared her view on why junior workers now face more difficulties when compared to her “good old days”

Managing Director of a multinational PR agency shared her views on organisational initiatives to support employees with different needs

Managing Director of a multinational PR agency shared her views on organisational initiatives to support employees with different needs

Short documentary
For an overview of the study, we chose and edited eight video segments of workers of different industries and backgrounds in a short thematic documentary.

Public Policy Forum

The preliminary analysis was presented to the public on 31 March in the Public Policy Forum, co-convened by the Faculty of Social Sciences and Department of Sociology, bringing together researchers, practitioners, and students to reflect on the role of public policies in the wellbeing and development of the creative industries and workers in Hong Kong and abroad.

Particularly we are grateful to discussants Dr Chow Yiu Fai (Hong Kong Baptist University), Professor Anthony Fung (Chinese University of Hong Kong), Dr Sylvia J Martin (University of Hong Kong), and keynote speaker Professor David Hesmondhalgh (University of Leeds) for the dialogues and provocations on policies and research of different creative sectors. The feedback from the audience was also very valuable to our analysis, which will be shared with industry practitioners, academics, the government and the general public in the future.

Through its humanistic approach, we hope this study of creative labour has accomplished more than offering outsiders a glimpse of workers’ professional lives, but through listening and observation given workers (especially those non-unionised) a means to channel and make their voices heard in the conversation, alongside public and corporate rhetorics in Hong Kong.

Globally renowned creative industry scholar Professor Hesmondhalgh delivering his keynote “Creative Industries and the Problem of Creative Labour in Public Policy” to the audience

Globally renowned creative industry scholar Professor Hesmondhalgh delivering his keynote “Creative Industries and the Problem of Creative Labour in Public Policy” to the audience

Discussion panel sharing their respective creative labour research findings

Discussion panel sharing their respective creative labour research findings

Group photo at the forum (from left to right): Professor Anthony Fung, Dr Anne Peirson-Smith, Dr Travis Kong (Associate Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences, HKU), Professor David Hesmondhalgh (keynote speaker), Professor John Burns (Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences, HKU), Dr Tommy Tse, Dr Chow Yiu Fai, and Dr Sylvia Martin

Group photo at the forum (from left to right): Professor Anthony Fung, Dr Anne Peirson-Smith, Dr Travis Kong (Associate Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences, HKU), Professor David Hesmondhalgh (keynote speaker), Professor John Burns (Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences, HKU), Dr Tommy Tse, Dr Chow Yiu Fai, and Dr Sylvia Martin

This study is co-conducted with Dr Anne Peirson-Smith (City University of Hong Kong), Grey Liu, Joey Chan (research assistants), Vanessa Ma and Sice Wu (documentary editors).

This research project (Project Number: 2015.A8.035.16A) is funded by the Public Policy Research Funding Scheme from the Central Policy Unit of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government, and is partly funded through “Good Work, Bad Life? Demystifying the Glamour of Creative Labor in Advertising Industry” (Project code: 201511159032) by the HKU Seed Funding Programme for Basic Research.