A cultural community divided against itself

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 January, 2009, 12:00am

The original Dante Alighieri might have considered it a divine comedy. Because of an irreconcilable split within Hong Kong's Italian cultural community, two schools bearing his name are currently operating and claiming to be the legitimate version.

Italy has no government cultural institution in the city on a par with the British Council or Alliance Francaise, preferring to have one in Beijing instead. That is where Dante Alighieri, a non-profit cultural society, comes in.

For more than 100 years it has played a role in promoting Italian language and culture in many countries through schools and cultural events, often operating as the sole Italian cultural organisation.

Dante Alighieri has been in Hong Kong since 1954 and once had as its president Leo Tung-hai Lee, founder of the Tung Tai Group and a former member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

In October 2005, Dr Lee passed the presidency to barrister Thomas Lai, a devout lover of Italian opera, paintings and language. But Mr Lai says his relationship with former Italian consul general Gabriella Meneghello was not cordial and that this led to splits among board members and caused some teachers to quit the school rather than put up with the infighting.

The disagreement between Mr Lai, Ms Meneghello and other board members came to a head at the society's annual general meeting in January 2007, after which a new president, Bruno Feltracco, was elected with a new board.

Mr Lai refused to recognise the outcome of the annual general meeting, claiming it was illegal, and continued to operate his own branch in Central.

Mr Feltracco and vice-president Angelo Paratico parted ways with Mr Lai and started a new Dante Alighieri as a limited company in October 2007, using the same name as the society.

The new Dante Alighieri gained the official blessing of the head body in Rome, La Societa Dante Alighieri, as well as from the consul general in Hong Kong, Alessandro de Pedys.

'Having two schools is a nuisance; but I think one of them will not be very successful as he [Mr Lai] needs to be in touch with the headquarters of Dante in Rome to adapt his school's programmes accordingly, with the aim of helping students take the PLIDA [progetto lingua Italiana Dante Alighieri] exam,' said Mr de Pedys.

The new school has approval to offer the PLIDA, which is recognised by the Italian Foreign Affairs Ministry and many Italian universities as a measure of language proficiency. Mr Lai's school currently does not offer support for students taking the PLIDA.

Even so, Mr Lai's staff have been aggressive in 'poaching' students from the 'new' Dante Alighieri, matching its programmes and charging similar prices, the new body says.

Back in Rome, an official in charge of the foreign branches of Dante Alighieri said it was confusing for students in Hong Kong to have two schools both claiming the Dante imprimatur.

There are more than 400 Dante Alighieri branches globally, each operating independently, and their main source of revenue is generally student tuition and membership fees.

In Hong Kong, Mr de Pedys has helped the new branch get a small library from the Rome headquarters for its new, 400 sq ft office in Wan Chai. Teachers are also preparing to implement the PLIDA for interested students. It currently runs seven language classes per month.

'The first part [of our mission] has been completed, with our opening and endorsement gained from Rome and the consulate general,' said Mr Feltracco.

'Our next step is to improve the quality of our courses ... and organise cultural events such as Italian dramas and musicals for Hong Kong. Our hope for the school is for it to be the best place in Hong Kong to learn about Italy.'

The new body needed to find the right business model to make the school sustainable, said Mr Feltracco, who heads a company involved in brand management which advises Italian entrepreneurs looking for opportunities on the mainland.

Mr Feltracco said he had reached out to Mr Lai and suggested the two schools 'reintegrate'.

For his part, Mr Lai said he was not against the two bodies joining up, but that problems remained.

'I don't resist the idea of integration, but [they] need to do what the Romans do when in Rome.,' he said.

'For example, we're registered as a charity according to Hong Kong company law ... they are operating as a limited company. Ultimately my top priority is to operate the school well, and promote Italian culture in Hong Kong at the same time.'

But is Mr Lai ready to relinquish his presidency to achieve reintegration? For now, he said: 'I don't see anyone around who can take over the role. I will persist in my current position until I find the right successor.

'This society does more to disadvantage me; the benefit to me is zero ... But I used to get comments from people saying 'Thomas is a guy who loves Italy more than the Italians'. They call me maestro.

'I have thought about closing the school, but there is genuine demand for jobs from native teachers, and genuine demand from students for Italian.'