Hong Kong Ballet's Daisy Ho takes the leap for fundraiser

Despite having no formal training, the Hong Kong Ballet's chairwoman is performing at a society ball this week in an effort to secure sponsors. Fionnuala McHugh learns about Daisy Ho’s fundraising plans

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 June, 2013, 10:26am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 June, 2013, 10:33am

Once upon a time, in 1960s Hong Kong, there was a little girl called Daisy. She had an older sister, called Pansy, and a younger sister, called Maisy (and in the following decade, she’d have another sister, called Josie, and a brother, called Lawrence). Daisy liked ballet. When she was five, she began taking classes. After a while, her mother, being a good Hong Kong parent, told her to concentrate on her schoolwork. Which she did; even at that age, she was a focused little girl.

On Friday, Daisy Ho Chiu-fung will finally dance for her public. It’s unlikely that her parents – Stanley Ho Hung-sun, 91-year-old chairman of the Shun Tak Group, and Lucina Laam King-ying – will be present but the audience will consist of 300 members of Hong Kong high society.

She will not be performing a solo; the corps of this particular ballet will be the five members of the Ballet Ball’s gala committee, none of whom has had formal ballet training. The idea, which was Ho’s, is to solicit sponsorship.

Fundraising is much on Ho’s mind, and not just because she’s chairwoman of the Ballet Ball. On April 1, she became chairwoman of the Hong Kong Ballet, succeeding John Ying who had been chairman since March 2007.

Ho, who joined the board in 2008, is not just some tai-tai whiling away the hours. Her day job is deputy managing director and chief financial officer of Shun Tak Group. She and Maisy are also executive directors of Shun Tak Holdings, of which Pansy is managing director; it’s as if the three little Fossil girls in Ballet Shoes were recast in a corporate Hong Kong version of the novel.

Why take on more responsibility?

“It’s the passion,” says Ho, on the 39th floor of the Shun Tak Centre, where she’s wearing slippers in a room near her office, having hair and make-up done (at her suggestion and expense) for our photographer. She’s unselfconscious about being interviewed during the process; to her, it’s good use of valuable time. As a deliberately low-key member of a highly visible family, she’s doing this for one reason – marketing. She has a degree in the subject from the University of Southern California, as well as an MBA in Finance from the University of Toronto.

“I’d helped out in the Ballet Ball in 1990, when I came back from Toronto,” she says. “My sister Pansy was the ball chairman so that’s when I was first exposed to it. Actually, Pansy was one of the board governors. I’m more passionate about ballet than she is and she suggested to John that I join the board.”

It was Ying who nominated her as his replacement as chairman, and her election was unanimous. Ying’s tenure hadn’t been exactly smooth: the artistic director, John Meehan, cut short his five-year contract, star principal Faye Leung was sacked without notice and there was no Ballet Ball during the 2008/09 fiscal year, which meant that the company went from a surplus of HK$7.5 million to a deficit of HK$4.3 million.

He’s going out on a positive note – the last year/13 fiscal year attracted local audiences of more than 49,000, the highest ever – but the company has to widen its financial approach. That’s why Ho was brought in, and she knows it.

“I think with having been co-chairman of three or four Ballet Balls, they see I have the organisational skills. I always joke that to me it’s a project, it’s like I’m launching one of my property projects.”

Last year’s Ballet Ball made a net profit of HK$5.5 million. But it’s the Home Affairs Bureau that heavily subsidises the Hong Kong Ballet: government subvention for the 2011/12 fiscal year was HK$32.2 million and this year it’s HK$35.4 million.

We don’t mind being a laughing stock as long as we raise money
Daisy Ho, Chairwoman, HK Ballet

“I would say, in the past, government funding has been almost 80 to 90 per cent,” says Ho. “With box office tickets, you know ... depending on the production, we might make a loss.”

One of the problems (not confined to Hong Kong) is that audiences constantly want tutus and feathers but too much familiar froth will have dancers yawning their way to the exit.

“The more popular ballets are better received and most of our productions are classical,” agrees Ho. “But every ballet company needs its own performances. We have to keep the dancers challenged.”

The first time the Hong Kong Ballet introduced standing tickets for sold-out performances was in 2011 for, predictably enough, Swan Lake; but the second time was in April, for a newly commissioned work by local choreographer Yuri Ng Yue-lit, The Frog Prince – A Ballet Chinois. That sent out an encouraging signal. (It is Ng who has choreographed the gala committee’s performance this Friday. “Some members are saying they’d never realised ballet was such hard work,” says Ho. “This is more gratifying than telling me what they’ve raised – it’s rapport.”)

So this new season will begin on August 23 with, once more, Swan Lake; but the highlight will be the premiere of a specially commissioned work, Dream of the Red Chamber, choreographed by Wang Xinpeng, the artistic director of Dortmund Ballet, which opens on October 25. Despite the title, from the famous Qing dynasty novel, it’s a modern ballet “which requires interpretation from the audience”, says Ho.

What she has to focus her energies on, however, is the next few years. She has to try out schemes that raise money continuously, not on a single, socially select night of the season. “The Ballet Ball is not mass enough,” she agrees. “We need to involve different people. We do see support growing.”

Over the past three years, a sponsorship fund for dancers – whereby people can choose which dancer they wish to support and donate money for such essentials as pointes or physiotherapy – has raised about HK$4 million.

“Now we’re looking at creating a new scheme just for corporations,” she says. “I was just at a bankers’ lunch and I brought this up. By giving funds to us, they’re fulfilling their corporate social responsibility and it’s more meaningful. We can do an outreach programme to benefit underprivileged children or the elderly – we can provide the actual experience, the corporations can do the funding.”

She also needs to address the perennial problem of rootlessness. The Hong Kong Ballet rents space at the Cultural Centre, but twice a year they have to move out: they spend a month at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium and a month at the Kwai Tsing Theatre where a sprung floor has to be put down every day, and lifted every evening, for rehearsals. Like pretty much every Hong Kong performing group, they’re seeking a permanent home from the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.

“We’re hoping they’ll understand our situation,” she says. “But there are so many groups, they can’t commit to us. The government has to be fair, right? I wouldn’t say I’ll be in a much stronger position than my predecessors, but I’ll definitely push harder. The time for a decision is getting closer, but with my commercial mind, I’m prepared for the worst so I need a contingency plan. I’ll be coming up with a Plan B.”

Last summer, the Hong Kong Ballet took part in the prestigious, invitation-only Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in Massachusetts. In ballet terms, that was a large step up Jacob’s ladder, but becoming a top-tier touring company requires cash. Can she raise it?

“I’m pragmatic,” Ho says. “If I don’t see the potential, then I don’t have to do it.”

She might say the same about Friday night’s performance, for which she’s been toiling through three-hour rehearsals as well as, presumably, handling Shun Tak’s financial affairs.

“I’ve compartmented my time and energy accordingly,” she says, then gives a huge, unexpected grin. “We don’t mind being a laughing stock as long as we raise money.”