All things French
Perhaps Andrew Yuen was always destined to become involved in Le French May. From an early age, the chairman of the event's board of directors has been surrounded by French culture: the French family friends whose children spent holidays in Hong Kong with the Yuen children and vice versa, a French tutor who guided Yuen through the pitfalls of French grammar, and, later, friendship with Laurent Aublin, former French consul-general to Hong Kong and founder of the arts festival.
Yuen also has always had an affinity for the arts: there's his schooling at St Paul's Co-educational College in the Mid-Levels, which is known for its emphasis on the arts. 'I participated in a number of painting exhibitions when I was a teenager, and I also practised Chinese calligraphy,' Yuen says. He also sang and played the piano and guitar.
After high school, Yuen attended the University of California, Berkeley, putting aside his brushes and musical instruments to graduate in business administration. (He runs the family electronics business based in Kwai Chung.) But no sooner had he graduated than the influences of France and the arts converged, and he found himself in the enviable position of being 'aged 21, single and alone in Paris'. This gave him plenty of time to reignite his love for the visual and performing arts, visiting the cultural outposts of the city at the weekends while working for Peugeot's now-defunct bicycle division during the week.
'I fell in love with the country. It can take a lifetime to explore,' he says, reminiscing about Sundays at the Marche aux Puces in Paris, where 'petits verres de vin rouge' and French food fortified his forays into the capital. It was then that Yuen realised the arts should be at the heart of everyday life - a perspective that has strengthened over the years.
Association Cuturelle France-Hong Kong, the governing board that hosts Le French May, was set up with the aim of promoting cultural exchanges between France and Hong Kong and Macau, bringing different art forms to the public. 'It is with music, literature, art, drama and dance that we recount [our] history, and express our hopes for the future,' Yuen says.
Le French May serves to bridge this gap, he says. 'Since the first French May Festival in 1993, we have proved that even though people might not speak a single word of a common language or have a single shared experience, they can still be brought together by the musical notes of a song, or an image on canvas,' he says.
'I joined the board of Le French May as a director a few years back and took the chairmanship when our last chairman resigned.'
Today, Yuen sees 'tremendous' potential growth for the arts festival. There are two obvious examples: for one, the festival is a 'French season', no longer limited to the month of May, but starting, in fact, in April and ending in June; and the second, that organisers of the 20th edition have a budget three times larger than last year's.
It's not all guaranteed standing ovations. 'Every year, we face three major challenges: funding, venues and timing. We have to appeal to the generosity of our sponsors and try to secure the necessary funding to book the venues and finalise the programme in a timely manner. As a non-profit organisation, we depend on the subsidies of the French and local governments, as well as sponsorship from the commercial and private sectors.'
Yuen says the idea is to keep down ticket prices to make the festival accessible to more people. He says that while securing the right venues is a major problem in organising any arts festival in Hong Kong, the former Central Police Station's redevelopment into a cultural institution dedicated to contemporary art and the West Kowloon Cultural District have blazed a trail for the future.
'Our programme covers a wide range of artistic disciplines from visual to performing arts. Over the years, we have hosted more than 500 events, involving more than three million participants and audience members. We have brought in ... the works of Rodin and Chagall; ballet performances of Pietragalla and Preljocaj; concerts by the Orchestre National de Lille and Patricia Kaas; as well as a number of quality cinema retrospectives.'
This year's festival - which will offer more than 20 exhibitions, 50 performances, 50 screenings and other events - will focus on visual arts with an emphasis on contemporary creators. 'We are very fortunate to have the collection from the Musee Picasso in Paris [at the Heritage Museum in Sha Tin]. This is the biggest Picasso exhibition ever organised in Hong Kong, with 48 paintings and seven sculptures.
'There will also be exhibitions of the works of Nathalie Decoster and Jean-Michel Othoniel in various venues in Hong Kong and Macau,' says Yuen, as Macau comes under the jurisdiction of the French consulate in Hong Kong.
Which events will he be attending? 'Besides the Picasso exhibition, I am very much looking forward to the two very different performances of the Ballet de l'Opera National de Bordeaux. The company is considered part of French heritage with a history dating to Louis XIV [17th century]. I am also anxiously awaiting Anthony Egea's choreography for Urban Ballet, a marriage of hip hop with classical music and ballet movements. Bartabas' collaboration with Ko Murobushi, and the Compagnie Zingaro is another programme I won't be missing.'
Other interesting exhibitions include one on the history of cosmetics in the West; the works of couturier Yves Saint Laurent, and the pictures of Jerome Bonnet.
'There will be a wide range of both classical and contemporary music and dance performances, as well as a cinema retrospective focusing on two of the world's most cinematic cities, Paris and Hong Kong. We are also collaborating with Opera Hong Kong in staging Bizet's Carmen [with French and international artists],' he says.
'I think most Hong Kong people associate France with luxury goods ... the finer things in life. I did a little survey of colleagues in my office, and Louis Vuitton, red wine, romance, gourmet food, and arrogance were the replies I got.'
Clearly, notwithstanding their proven service to the Hong Kong public over the past two decades, how to add 'culture' to such a list remains the current, and future, work of Le French May organisers.
Le French May, Apr 12-Jun 23. For more details, go to frenchmay.com