Chinese whispers

by Keith Clarke

When Graham Sheffield got on a plane to Hong Kong to become chief executive of the mulitimillion-dollar West Kowloon Cultural District, he blithely dubbed it “the job of a lifetime.” He had enjoyed a good innings as music director at London’s Southbank Center, formed a dream team with Sir John Tusa to revolutionize the Barbican Center, and was widely tipped for Tusa’s top job. When that went instead to Sir Nicholas Kenyon, he licked his wounds for a while, then along came Hong Kong. But within months, he was retracing his steps. The job of a lifetime was undoable, as it turned out. He was not the first to think so.

Now the Kowlooners have found another brave soul to take on the challenge. Step forward Michael Lynch, former chief executive at the Southbank Center. Poisoned chalice it might be, but if anyone knows how to grasp it, Lynch is the man. Before arriving in London, he had run the Sydney Opera House, bringing it through some difficult years. The Southbank Center, struggling with an on-off redevelopment program that had been dragging on for years, was also seen as a tricky job. At his first meet-the-press session, Lynch got some advice from a reporter from The Australian: “Blimey, mate – if you can pull this off they’ll have you running the railways!”

But pull it off he did, with a combination of gritty determination and easy charm. At the press session he was disarmingly direct. He acknowledged that there had been industrial unrest and job losses at Sydney Opera House, but said that staff relations had been left cordial. Then came the clever bit: he offered to give us the phone number of the union chief so we could check it out for ourselves.

How well the no-nonsense approach will go down in Hong Kong remains to be seen. Sparks may fly when Chinese Whispers meets Cut the Crap.

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