A stage they're going through
Heather Ma Ho-kiu has always enjoyed drawing and artistic pursuits, and enrolling at the Academy for Performing Arts (APA) seemed a natural step after she completed secondary school. But it wasn't until after completing a group project in the middle of her first year that the scenic art major realised how right the course was for her.
'There were about 14 students in our group. We had to write the script for a drama and produce it, but ended up having huge quarrels. I was responsible for designing the set, but nobody was giving any direction. I was really put off. And yet, we managed to complete the production, and it was well received. The experience made me realise that I really wanted to study arts,' the 20-year-old recalls.
APA has long provided a career path for artistically inclined school leavers who aren't interested in academia, like Ma, who spent a year at the Hong Kong Art School before enrolling in her degree programme.
Yet the academy is an anomaly in Hong Kong. Although the 26-year-old institution has had degree-awarding status since 1992, it is still funded by the Home Affairs Bureau instead of the University Grants Committee, which supports the city's eight major tertiary institutions.
A UGC review last year, recommending that the academy be placed under its auspices to facilitate co-operation with the universities, hints at possible changes in the future. For now, though, its key shift has been to turn all its degree courses into four-year programmes from next year.
APA director Professor Kevin Thompson says despite many parents' obsession with ensuring their children have university educations, whether the academy comes under the UGC has little bearing on its standing. The school is unique in Asia as a tertiary institution specialising in theatre and entertainment arts, film and television, as well as traditional Chinese theatre, and has gained an international reputation for its courses on lighting.
As Thompson sees it, the existing set-up under the Home Affairs Bureau gives the APA greater flexibility in deployment of resources such as space, and there is no need to change the status quo.
'We are a mature institution these days, and we have the power to run our own undergraduate degrees. It may be that, at some point, it would make sense to come under UGC. We have a completely open mind on that,' he says.
A former principal of both Birmingham Conservatoire and Dartington College of Arts (now merged with University College Falmouth) in Britain, Thompson views the APA as a conservatory and takes pride in its title of academy.
'That is what we are. It is a value-laden term. It certainly reflects the particular experience and training that we offer here.
'If you look at the Paris Conservatoire, or the Juilliard School, they are universities in their own right.' Like those institutions, the APA positions itself internationally.
The academy draws students from the mainland, Malaysia, Taiwan and Japan.
'There is no one quite like us in the region. Some of our students have been given scholarships to study in the US and different parts of Europe,' says Thompson.
He cites graduates such as Rachel Cheung Wai-ching, who won a scholarship to study at Yale after coming second in the Alessandro Casagrande International Piano Competition in Terni, Italy, in 2008. She was also named Young Artist 2009 by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council.
But as much as Thompson would like to see a greater mix of students at the APA, the accomplished trumpet player says it faces many constraints, not least because the academy has reached the 20 per cent cap that the government has set for enrolling students from abroad.
'I want really good students. It does not matter where they come from as long as they are of the right calibre,' he says.
Hong Kong also faces competition for gifted students from cities within the region such as Sydney, which is 'very strong in theatre and music'.
Another constraint is limited scholarships. 'Recently, two brilliant boy musicians from Macau were given huge scholarships in the US with pianos and everything paid for. We don't have those resources. We need to build on our endowment.'
Language is perhaps another issue, with some departments teaching primarily in Cantonese.
Recalling a Swiss student who joined one of her classes last year, Ma says teachers and students struggled to accommodate the lessons in English. 'Not all faculties are set up to teach in English. It is also not easy for some students to communicate in it, either,' says Ma.
From next year, however, APA students will enjoy greater exposure under a broader curriculum that offers more electives, including new language courses offering French and Italian, and courses such as 'English Through Humour', along with more liberal arts courses, such as 'Canon Reading', 'History of Erotica', and 'Walking Into Cultural Hong Kong'. The idea is to stimulate better interaction between students and practitioners of different arts.
'The uniqueness of studying here is, you can interact with people from different fields, young dancers, musicians, TV artists, and see their performances,' says Mozart Tsang Hin-yat, a second-year piano major.
Zhang Guodong, a talented ballet student from Zhejiang province, says his training in Hong Kong has been an eye-opener.
'In Hong Kong, we are guided and inspired by teachers, unlike on the mainland, which is still bound by rules and rigidity. I have discovered that I can do other things as well as dancing.'
Zhang showcased some of those talents in May, when he and two fellow students performed a work that he choreographed as part of a cultural exchange event in Italy.
The experience has encouraged him to branch out into choreography and seek freelance work in Hong Kong before he graduates next year.
Roy Ko Chin-ming, a film editing graduate who has been doing freelance work for corporations and advertising agencies, says his studies have opened doors for him. 'It would be difficult to enter the field if it weren't for connections or referrals by our teachers and schoolmates,' he says.
Thompson says graduates often go through bridging years in the early stages of their career, drawing their income from various sources such as teaching, playing and working in publishing.
'That is the way the world over. Recently in New York, I asked the head of the Juilliard School how quickly his students made it into the New York Philharmonic. He said it can take around 10 to 15 years.'
That's why the support and guidance of mentors is so important, he says. One example is support through organisations such as the APA Alumni Association, which is headed by prominent actor Anthony Wong Chau-sang.
'I love to offer mentors for graduates as we can. Some of the most forward-thinking academies around the world are actually looking after their graduates in their bridging years,' Thompson says.
'I think we have to do that, as well as trying to make sure that kindergartens start-off arts training.'