Art of the possible

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am


Jeremy Wong Chiu-nam, 36, trained as an architect but his dream has always been to become a film director. So he saved up to take two years off to attend the Master of Fine Arts in Film Production programme at the Academy for Performing Arts.

'The first year is a bit of everything,' Wong says. 'The course gives a bigger picture of what the film industry is, and how it operates in real life. Guest lecturers give us a clear idea of what is going on in the film industry.'

In the second year, Wong and his classmates have to produce a 90-minute film, with each student taking on a different role.

'I want to be a film director,' he says. 'But it's not that easy. But now the market is expanding in the China region so there may be more opportunities. I could become an assistant director in a company and follow the director's role. Alternatively, I could write my own scripts.'

Film production is just one course available at postgraduate level to students who would like to work in the creative industries, which cover a wide remit: design, architecture, animation, fashion and textiles, drama and comparative literature, to name but a few. But while universities have increased opportunities in these fields, the question is whether those courses set the students up to be industry professionals.

At Polytechnic University, there are two full-time master's courses related to fashion. The more creative one is the Master of Arts in Fashion and Textile Design, a full-time, one-year course that also involves external projects to prepare students for working in the industry.

'A lot of companies approach us,' says Raymond Au Wai-man, associate head of PolyU's Institute of Textiles and Clothing. 'But it's a question of timing, as we need to run the rest of the course as well. We've had Sony, which wanted the students to create a uniform; the Hong Kong Jockey Club; last year we had a firm from Germany, a chain store called QS, working with us.'

Having such co-operation is a great way for students to get exposure to the actual industry, the professor says, but it is not a free lunch for the companies. 'We oversee the design brief,' he says. 'The companies also have to be willing to give back. We do projects with small prizes, with maybe the top prize being the student taking a trip to the firm's headquarters.'

At the University of Hong Kong, an MA in Literary and Cultural Studies is giving postgraduate students including teachers, journalists and cultural managers 'the chance to step back from what they are doing and look at it in a wider context', says Mirana May Szeto, assistant professor in comparative literature.

'It's a pretty tough, two-year [part-time] programme, very intense. It trains ways of thinking,' she says. 'With the kind of analytical and critical training we provide, you'll be able to see problems from different perspectives. We attract people who already have professional experience and it helps them to either advance in their career or move into another one.'

She says cultural industries are a new and unexplored area locally, with a market that is still narrow.

The government has made a conscious effort in recent years to build up creative industries, but there's still some way to go. The concept for and design of the West Kowloon Cultural District has had its share of controversy and false starts, but has engendered discussion on what investment and development of the creative industries in the city entail. Academics feel there aren't enough cultural leaders to really make those areas burgeon.

Which is why HKU is also running a course in cultural leadership that does not supply students with a postgraduate qualification but is aimed at those who have had tertiary education and have been in the workforce.

Daniel Chua Kwan-liang, head of HKU's School of Humanities, says the Advanced Cultural Leadership Programme is an intensive course to re-energise cultural leaders and create a network of like-minded people who will then stimulate cultural development within the city and elsewhere.

'The course takes place over a year, with four residential modules for people with busy lives,' he says. 'West Kowloon has raised a lot of interest about where Hong Kong is and I think Hong Kong is seeing some cultural awakening.'

At Lingnan University, chair professor of visual studies Mette Hjort says the advantage of a small institute is that courses for both Master and Doctor of Philosophy degrees can be tailor-made to fit the individual.

'We have two students currently who are doing PhDs in film studies,' she says. 'Both of them are practising filmmakers who will continue working in the industry. One of them, Cheung Tit-leung, is researching film festivals in Asia and will complete his PhD this year. Sheetal Agarwal is an Indian award-winning documentary filmmaker who is looking at how documentaries haven't taken up all that's available in new technology.' Meanwhile, MPhil student Hung Sheng is exploring ink painting in the city. 'It's part of a very concerted effort to get students to study Hong Kong art,' Hjort says. 'If we want to train people to staff galleries and museums and the West Kowloon Cultural District, it's to produce people who have made a research contribution to Hong Kong's art history.'

Wing Sze is an established playwright studying for a Master of Fine Arts in Drama at the arts academy. 'I've been writing for 10 years,' she says. 'But I never learned how to be a playwright. I previously studied acting at the academy, so all my plays were written from the actors' point of view. I thought if I wanted to continue to write, then I want to know about the structure, the aesthetics from the playwright's perspective.'

Stephen Chan Ching-kiu, academic dean of arts and professor of cultural studies at Lingnan, says: 'Many local universities are providing cultural industry programmes but there needs to be more room for innovative programmes that adopt a cross-disciplinary approach.' He suggests a merging of business and art, as has been happening on the mainland, which 'has identified cultural development and construction as a long-term plan'. He says Hong Kong is lagging in promoting heritage and museum studies, and the market is still limited.