Cantonese TED: Giving voice to a good idea

The TED ideas exchanges have spawned a raft of local chapters. Now there's one just for Chinese speakers, writes Elaine Yau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 11:02am

You can't keep a good idea down. That may be why TED, the thought-provoking talk fest that began in Silicon Valley, has generated hundreds of spin-offs around the world since it introduced a licensing system in 2009 for independently organised events called TEDx. In Hong Kong, its mission to tap the power of ideas to change the world has inspired some 17 chapters, including TEDx Victoria Harbour. The latest iteration is the upcoming TEDx Kowloon.

The first to be conducted in entirely in Cantonese, it reflects organisers' aims to give the event a uniquely local identity - and attract a new set of attendees who may be less comfortable with English.

"We want to stage an event that revolves around the stories of local people. As the talks are conducted in Cantonese, locals who do not speak English can enjoy them. I want them to be inspired by TED talks, as I was," says translator Janet Lui Miu-man.

Lui is among the Kowloon event's 10 organisers, along with marketing executive Maxwell Ye Guming. All are fervent followers of TED Talks, which can be viewed online on YouTube, as well as on its own site. Many talks are transcribed or translated into more than 40 languages by volunteers.

"I am a super TED fan," says Shanghai-born Ye, who studied at City University. Of presentations by luminaries including biologist Richard Dawkins and Google's Sergey Brin, his favourite was by Ken Robinson, a professor of education at the University of Warwick, on how formal schooling kills creativity.

"A product of the formal education system myself, I understand how it churns out students who just want to work for investment banks and other lucrative industries," Ye says.

Eager to promote out-of-the-box thinking and solutions, Ye and fellow organiser Eve Chan Wai-yu have put up HK$100,000 of their own funds to stage the event on Saturday.

Headlining the list of speakers are former Hong Kong Observatory director Lam Chiu-ying and Simon Chu Fook-keung, chairman of the Hong Kong Archives Society, both ardent advocates for heritage and environmental conservation.

Fierce debate over the proposed development of northeast New Territories has pushed conservation issues to the fore, Ye says. "Hong Kong has been mired in all kinds of rows lately, including the national education debacle. The public is beginning to wonder whether our city, a well-endowed place straddling East and West, has lost its magic and is declining."

"All the speakers have a story to tell," he adds. "With these stories, we want to remind the public that Hong Kong is still a blessed place with lots of passionate people."

Cho Kai-kai, who runs the Mapopo Community Farm in Fanling, hopes to get the audience thinking about the value of alternative living in a built-up metropolis like Hong Kong.

"I will give a talk with a young Fanling villager. Although she is not an indigenous resident, she and her family have lived there for three generations. Is Hong Kong developing itself at the expense of sustainable farming?"

Chu will examine how civil servants lost six million files from the government archives during the relocation of government headquarters, and Lam will discuss how Hong Kong's geographical location has shielded it from natural disasters.

The Kowloon presentations come at a time of consolition for TEDx chapters in Hong Kong.

The many talks that were staged in a burst of enthusiasm have led to a chaotic scene, says Athena Lam Yuen-ching, an organiser with TEDxYouth@HongKong.

"The events in Hong Kong clashed severely, with nearly all held from August to December, and nothing from January to June. They should be more spread out."

Organisers were all volunteers, and quite a few have burned out after the activity of the past two years, says Dr Gino Yu, director of digital entertainment and game development at Polytechnic University, who launched TEDx Hong Kong in 2010. Most stopped after staging a one-day event.

Faced with poor co-ordination among mushrooming TEDx events around the world, Yu says, regional organisers are starting to liaise more successfully; representatives from Asia gathered last year for a retreat.

While there may be some confusion, Lam says each TEDx event in Hong Kong has its own characteristics. For instance, TEDx Wan Chai has focused mainly on issues of social responsibility because founder Paul Aungwin works on philanthropic projects in developing countries. The oldest of the Hong Kong conferences, TEDx HongKong, is distinctly international in scope, while TEDxYouth@ HongKong is the sole bilingual event, featuring Chinese and English speakers, and bilingual material.

Despite being all talk, Yu reckons TEDx can make a big difference. "TEDx brings together people who are serious and concerned about social issues, and lets them share ideas. It has an important role to play especially [when people are at loggerheads over issues] like the Occupy Central movement."

Organisers are having to raise their game, as TED in the US began to tighten licensing criteria following a speedy rise in TEDx chapters around the world in 2010. Although the licence is free, chapters must now present a proposal spelling out their vision, the ideas to be covered and what they want to achieve from the talks, Ye explains.

"When we applied for TEDxKowloon, we had many exchanges with TED. It wanted to make sure we would make good use of the licence. Before, you could organise an event any time after you got a licence. Now, events can only be staged six months after that. TED wants to ensure you have plenty of time to organise a decent event. And if you don't stage anything within a year, the licence will be revoked."

Ye and his team are keen to maintain the TED Talks' reputation for succinct, lively delivery, although detractors such as American academic Nassim Nicholas Taleb have criticised the conferences for reducing scientists and thinkers to "low-level entertainers".

"We want to keep to the TED tradition as videos of the presentations will be sent with English subtitles to They gather clips sent in from chapters around the world and select the best to load onto their website for the global audience," Ye says. "We want to bring stories of Hongkongers to the world."

The Kowloon team has offered guests a few ideas to improve their presentation, and speakers such as Lam Chiu-ying have embraced the concepts.

"Most talks are just speakers giving a speech at a lectern. But the Chinese word for giving a speech captures the essence of giving talks. In Chinese, the character meaning 'performing' precedes the one for 'talking'. All talks should be a performance, with each speaker showing a unique style," he says.

Lam is keen to share his ideas with the world. Although he was shy as a young man, Lam says his work obliged him to do a lot of public speaking and he has come to enjoy it. "TED Talks, with its world-famous brand and internet access, can reach countless people. I want more people to listen to what I say. Through TED, the positive energy [I convey] grows exponentially," Lam says.

The brand got a big boost here in April when a guest on TVB hit reality show Bride Wannabes said women who watched TED videos were sexy. It prompted thousands of women to tap the free TED app, making it one of the week's top five app downloads.

TEDxKowloon 2012, HK$350, Sat, Oct 20, 10am-2.30pm, Hotel Icon, 17 Science Museum Road, Tsim Sha Tsui . For details, visit