TEDx chapters attract growing followings in Hong Kong

Fired up by the US TED conferences, local spin-offs are drawing increasing followings, especially among young people, writes Bernice Chan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 February, 2014, 10:22am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 February, 2014, 10:22am

TEDxKowloon, the first TEDx event on this year's calendar, is in its third iteration. And as Eve Chan Wai-yu, a founding curator, can testify, staging such confabs requires hard work with little financial gain.

But Chan and her co-organisers are gratified to have seen attendance at the only TEDx salon to be conducted in Cantonese swell from an initial 200 in 2012, to 780 last year. They are working towards another gathering in April.

"I see what is happening in society; Hong Kong is losing things we used to have, like freedom and space, and I feel like I have to do something," says Chan, a former marketing director for news site, The House News.

"Organising events for TEDxKowloon is what gives me strength. Volunteers come and go, but I believe it's important to do this to bring about change," Chan says.

This city does not lack forums for clever people to share their insights. Organisations like the Asia Society, universities, and professional groups regularly host talks featuring visiting experts and knowledgeable residents. But it's still hard to beat the reach of the TEDx series, especially among young people.

Independently organised spin-offs from the successful TED ideas conferences in the US, TEDx talks have caught on here in a big way. The city has hosted more than 20 events since the first TEDxHong Kong was held in 2010.

Fired up by the intellectual smorgasbord of the TED presentations on YouTube, fans soon organised their own, mostly using English.

Some were student-led events, and many were one-off talks - TEDxHappy Valley, Pearl River, and even an American International School version. But a handful, including the Kowloon event, show signs of longevity.

Although the venue and speakers have yet to be finalised, Chan and her team have set "Conscious Citizen" as this year's theme, exploring how individuals can make an impact on their community.

The Kowloon talks put greater focus on local problems of poverty, homelessness and the elderly, Chan says.

"People complain a lot in Hong Kong, and there is so much negativity. Through TEDxKowloon we can try to do something," she says. "Unless you are in government or a lawmaker, you cannot affect policy changes. You can protest - and it can be effective to a certain extent - but there is no real change.

"TEDxKowloon is about sharing stories about what is happening in Hong Kong and getting people to be more aware of the issues. We hope to get people with similar interests to do things together - I don't mean as a political group, but to bring together people who are ready to make a change, or have change on their minds."

Oscar Lo Chin-wai, 37, is an advertising marketing manager who has attended every TEDxKowloon salon with his wife. He finds the events meaningful.

"It's more about Hong Kong lifestyle and identity, and when the discussion is in Cantonese, it seems more down-to-earth and that appeals more to me," he says. "The topics may not be mainstream, but they are local, and the speakers give different aspects for us to consider."

But TEDx talks are not just focused on the speakers. Gino Yu, an associate professor at Polytechnic University, and the initiator of the first TEDxHongKong, says they are also about the attendees.

"The speakers provide a context, but it's really about who's in the audience. Who's in the audience is more important than who's on stage," Yu says.

"People don't just go to listen to the speakers. They go to be inspired by others. So when you're in the audience, it's like, 'Oh my God. Everyone sitting around me is some amazing person who's working on their passion.'

"Their success comes not from climbing the ladder, but from breaking the mould and carving their own path. So that will inspire you," Yu says.

Shelly Govila, a final-year operations management student at the University of Science and Technology, epitomises that spirit. She served as emcee at the first TEDxHKUST in 2011 and enjoyed the energy so much she joined the organising committee the following year.

The HKUST talks try to inspire students to follow their dreams or interests, instead of choosing traditional career paths, such as like a lawyer, a banker or a doctor, she says.

"HKUST students are smart and innovative, academically and otherwise. Yet sometimes they lack inspiration and the will to dream big, to dream outside the box, be unique and follow their passions. That is what we at TEDxHKUST help them with," says the 21-year-old from India.

The sight of participants' excited faces makes the effort that she and other organisers put into setting up TEDx event worthwhile, Govila says.

"Another reason for organising a TEDx event is the incredible team you get to work with. You become part of a community that believes in the power of ideas worth spreading.

"We form deep friendships, get to exhaust our intellectual curiosities by sharing our ideas, and gain some great team and leadership experience."

Henry Lui, a Year 10 student at Sha Tin College who attended the Happy Valley and Wan Chai events, thinks the talks appeal to young people as they are "a driving force for new ideas and new thinking".

The variety of speakers is another draw: "People from all walks of life get together to talk about their experiences."

Most of all, the TED association lends indubitable cachet: with speakers including Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page and educator Salman Khan, the US conference is seen an intellectual showcase for the digital age.

"I guess it's partly because of the name," says Alex Wong Ka-chun, an architecture student at the University of Hong Kong.

"In most secondary schools and universities, students are introduced to TED videos online, and we all know TED as the prestigious organisation it is. And the event also features many weighty speakers.

"Then again, many people aren't able to distinguish between TED and TEDx, thinking that they would all be like the super one they see on YouTube. I have some friends who volunteer just because everyone else is doing it. It kind of has, in itself, become a fad."

He, too, signed up to help at two upcoming TEDx events (Kowloon and HKU) so he could experience the stimulating presentations.

"I enjoy it when so many high-achieving speakers weigh in on issues such as environmental protection," says Wong, who attended the Wan Chai and Education salons last year. "There are social campaigns that need publicity, or social enterprises which need support."

"One of the most important messages [at TED-associated events] is to inspire people. The speakers have a lot of different ideas and experiences, while some touch on topics that no one has talked about before.

"That really appeals to young people because we want to hear about something new and creative."

Wong savours a sense of being in the know when he learns something before reading it in the news. "It feels like you're one step ahead of others, be it on politics or environmental protection," he says.

Tertiary students make up about one-tenth of people applying to volunteer at TEDxHongKong, the oldest and biggest of the local events. And although usually assigned to simple jobs such as ushering, they still get a lot out of the exposure, says co-organiser Ivy Shum Hay-wun.

Shum says that because TEDx often features young entrepreneurs and high-achievers, it makes sense for the youngsters to come and learn from them.

Shum, who runs the non-profit SME Creativity Centre, concedes some students sign up to raise their social profile.

"TEDx now boasts a very positive branding. Young people want to attend or volunteer, and then post about it," she says. "By putting it on their Facebook, for instance, it raises their social profile. So some don't mind working at the fringes, as long as they can get little involvement."

At the sharp end of the phenomenon, organisers have different motivations. Philanthropy adviser Paul Angwin, for instance, was inspired to start the Wan Chai edition in 2011 after attending the Pearl River Delta event.

At the time, the government had given each permanent resident a HK$6,000 rebate and he was keen to put the money into a community project, rather than buy an iPad.

The idea was to encourage corporate philanthropy at a grass-roots level. "I thought, it would be cool to have these [business] people in a room to start a charity or a social enterprise," he says.

Angwin tapped his contacts and was surprised by how much support he received because of the TED and TEDx brands. "When I reached out for sponsorship or help everyone said, 'Yes. What do you want? What do you need?'"

The Wan Chai salon has since taken a life of its own, he says, and it is now run by a small dedicated team.

"There are lots of details to take care of, but each person is responsible for one thing, and they feel like they are contributing. They meet great motivational speakers and put together an event. It's fun when people come together with a common vision."

Having a track record makes it easier for organisers to recruit professional groups for pro bono work, like getting a coaching company to rehearse each speaker to ensure a good presentation, he adds.

Worldwide, organising TEDx events has become a mini-industry and Hong Kong mirrors that trend as participants and student volunteers organise their own events. This explosion has brought a backlash of sorts; some detractors point to the uneven quality of events.

Still, TEDx veterans such as Shum appreciate the different efforts. "It's an open community. It's good to have different groups, similar to the way that you don't want one big government to manage everything," Shum says.

"This way, it can reach a wider demographic, and allow a greater variety of ideas to develop. This eventually benefits society."

Additional reporting by Chris Lau