Fun is fair game once a year

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 March, 2006, 12:00am

WALK INTO WEST ISLAND School next Friday for its annual fair and you'd be forgiven for thinking you're on the set of the turbo-charged Jack Black School of Rock movie. For rock groups are set to shake the school to its foundations.

It's fair season for ESF secondary schools and West Island's follows King George V School's Karnival being held today. But even though the events can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for school projects in just a few hours, it's no easy feat to motivate teenagers to help organise and take part. This time round, West Island has managed to get them queueing up to join in.

'Teens think the School of Rock theme is cool - which for them is jumping for joy,' said Rob Rogers, well-known for his talents in magic and party-making, who's heading the committee getting this year's show on the road. 'Over the last few years, we felt the fair was getting away from what kids enjoy. Attendance was dropping. The kids were very so-what about it.

'So we wanted to give it a bit of a boost and started looking for a theme everyone could enjoy. Themes like sports and mardi gras are fine for adults but teens don't identify with them.'

West Island's evening fair is looking to exceed the $140,000 it raised last year. About 30 per cent went to tsunami relief charities while this year the focus will be on charities students are involved in helping. The rest goes to the PTA, to be spent on the school. Last year the majority went to fund the purchase of electronic whiteboards.

ESF and international school fairs can attract up to 3,000 people, flocking in to find everything from theatre shows, commercial stalls, raffles and auctions, to food, bars and children's games. Commercial stalls are a big draw, and with 40 to 60 stallholders paying up to $750 for a table, they're solid money earners for the schools' parent-teacher associations.

The fairs raise most of their income in raffles which usually feature long lists of extraordinary donations from parents and local companies. Flights to holiday havens such as Mauritius, helicopter rides to Macau for the weekend, laptops and electrical equipment are not uncommon.

Making all that happen smoothly is, in the words of one organiser, 'a gruesome task'.

Work can start up to a year in advance. With raffle licenses, fire and catering regulations to be negotiated with several government departments, parking for thousands to arrange with permission from police, sponsors and prizes to find, picking themes and organising specific events often take backseats until just a few months before the event.

'It's a major operation. There's so much to pull together, often at the last minute even if you're organised,' said Jean Hudson, who chair's the committee running KGV's Karnival. 'Fairs are becoming more professional and organisation is getting better. People expect more from them. Like most fairs, we're also trying to get out to a wider public. Fairs used to be very school-centred but schools are now very aware that they're a good showcase.'

KGV's fair, from 12pm to 5pm, has an Around the World theme to reflect its very diverse population. A large-scale art project will be a main focus. But it will also feature penalty shoot-outs and five-a-side football games, basketball and rugby, rock bands, dance and martial arts performances, a haunted house and inflatables, as well as games, a raffle, food and drink and commercial stalls.

Mrs Hudson said: 'We raised over $300,000 last year, and sent about 10 per cent to tsunami charities. Parents often forget the ESF budgets are not going to cover everything. There's this thinking that international schools don't need much outside money.'

Fairs rely heavily on volunteers. Parents are usually happy to commit to an hour or so helping on the day but getting them to join in with preparations weeks and months earlier is getting tougher.

'By far the hardest part of my job is getting the volunteers,' said Bronagh Jenkins, who chairs Island School's fair committee, which raised over $400,000 last year. 'The committees change frequently too. People see you coming when they've done it for one year. So you spend a lot of time bringing new people up to speed.'

Island School's fair happens on March 18 this year, from 11am to 4pm. Alongside the usual stalls, there's a raffle offering business class tickets to Beijing, three nights in the Mandarin Oriental in London and the chance to fire the Jardines Noon Day Gun.

Half the money raised goes to a PTA wish list, but at this school half also goes to the Nicola Myers and Kenneth McBride Memorial Fund for children in need. The two former pupils were murdered on Braemar Hill in 1985.

What's in the fairs doesn't vary significantly but there have been some necessary changes in recent years. 'The auction used to be our most significant money earner,' said Norman Martel, chairman of Sha Tin College's fair committee, 'But that's tended to tail away because there are fewer expat parents and the local population doesn't seem as keen.'

Sha Tin College, which raised about $500,000 last year, holds an annual Christmas fair in November. 'It's been going 17 years so we feel don't fix something that works. It's a good chance for parents to buy cards and gifts, and that's very popular,' Mr Martel said.

Last year more than 1,000 people attended the West Island fair. Open from 5-9pm, next Friday's event features not just the school's bands but others from around Hong Kong, including The Forgotons, Exit on Twelve (formerly EMP), Entracura, as well as DJs MC Goldmountain, Ricky Spin and Andy Comic.

In South Island School's case, there's been a decision in recent years to step up the effort to raise more money. As headmaster John Wray explains, the school did a fair until four years ago, when it was decided to switch to an adults-only ball at $700 a ticket, which this year will be held at the Hong Kong Football Club on May 27.

'We're raising money for a $6.5 million International Baccalaureate Centre and a Maths Learning Resource Centre and we decided a fair wasn't as lucrative as a dinner. So this year is our third ball. Last year, we raised $450,000 with it. We're looking for about 200 people to attend,' Mr Wray said.

'Essentially, we've taken fund-raising far more seriously than in the past because we've benefited from a major building project, and ESF only has limited funds.'

The evening's events include a film of a horse race that partygoers can bet on, live bands and a silent auction, which last year raised $6,000 in one bid alone.

Raising such large sums is becoming an increasingly professional affair. Committees centred around PTAs are the key to getting things organised. West Island has been lucky in persuading parent Rob Rogers, whose firm Events Management and Entertainment organises mostly corporate events, to spearhead this year's event.

What it takes to get the event up and running has been a surprise even to him. 'It takes an amazing amount of time to put these fairs together. From a distance, you think: 'Oh, we'll just have a few coffees.' But all school fairs have changed as money's got harder to bring in and it's taken more to motivate busier people.'

But Island School's Mrs Jenkins makes the point: 'The minute those gates open and the sun's shining and you're off, it's a tremendous feeling.'