Hong Kong may be first and foremost a business town, with celebrated tycoons and entrepreneurs, but the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) is trying to redress the balance a little by conferring honorary degrees on the great and the good of the performing arts world.

“It puts us up on a different pedestal, paying tribute to those contributing to the arts,” says Professor Adrian Walter, director of the HKAPA, on the eve of the 2014 Honorary Awards Ceremony.

“People may excel in their own field of art. But what we are constantly looking for is their sustained contributions to the performing arts in the community,” he says, “which may or may not directly benefit the academy.”

The HKAPA began conferring honorary fellowships in 1993 and the more prestigious honorary doctorates in 2006. To date, 98 fellowships (to artists such as actor Chow Yun-fat and pianist Lang Lang) and 27 doctorates (to the likes of casino tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-sun and film director Zhang Yimou) have been awarded. Four more in each category will be conferred on Tuesday, at a ceremony at the academy’s Lyric Theatre.

Collecting fellowships will be Cantonese opera/film star Pearl Chan Po-chu, Canto-pop lyricist Cheng Kok-kong, businesswoman Pansy Ho Chiu-king and Richard Pontzious, founder and music director of the Asian Youth Orchestra. This year’s honorary doctorate-designates, meanwhile, are film guru Raymond Chow Man-wai, veteran opera producer Lo King-man, theatrical expert Fredric Mao Chun-fai and film director Johnnie To Kei-fung; all profiled below.

The practice of conferring honorary degrees, according to Walter, former head of music at the Australian National University, is universal.

The process starts with nominations from local art groups and the broad HKAPA community. A committee, headed by William Leung Wing-cheung, the HKAPA Council chairman, examines the supporting materials then debates the merits of each nominee, before each member casts a vote on the final candidates.

“The process lasts for several months, allowing adequate time for the members to go over the materials on the nominees. It is a vigorous process, and all of us are strongly aware that this is a publicly funded institution,” says Walter.

“Something I have found during my two years in Hong Kong is that most of the art practitioners here are very generous in giving back to the next generations,” he says. “They are absolutely passionate to give back, to build the cultural identity of the city, and that’s exactly where the honorary degree plays a role.”

He calls Hong Kong a city of contrasts.

“It’s got an amazing depth of the Eastern traditional cultures next to the Western. Then it’s got an amazing focus on business but then it also has amazing passion for cultural identity. The transitional period from being a British colony to being an SAR under the Chinese perhaps heightens one’s awareness about the identity.”

Our city may be small, he adds, but it provides “a fertile and continuously creative, stimulating space for artists to work in”. Given its limitations, though, it is difficult for young practitioners to sustain their pursuit on a long-term basis, says Walter.

“That’s where the recipients make a difference, by giving something incredibly important; hope of what can be achieved in the art industries.

If we don’t pay tribute to these people, who’s going to do it?” OC

 

THE OLD CHINESE saying regarding the elements necessary for success suggests one needs to be “at the right time in the right place and with the right people” – and that is how Lo King-man, director general of Musica Viva Hong Kong and erstwhile director of the HKAPA, summarises his success over half a century in the arts and academia.

Well, almost. “I am sure about the time and place, but the right people?” asks Lo, who is most famous for his Western opera productions – 180 in total, a record in Greater China.

His interest in the performing arts started when he was 14, and a “greenhorn” horn player. The lack of musicians in Hong Kong at the time provided him with the opportunity to learn and play with the Sino-British Orchestra, the predecessor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

“The orchestra offered me a position and arranged a Welsh serviceman from Shek Kong barracks to teach me the horn technique. So I was the only Chinese in the horn section and I was there for the next 14 years,” he says, sitting in an HKAPA conference room.

“But what really changed my entire life was the sudden realisation by the British colonial government of the need for bilingual professionals in Hong Kong. That opened up a bright future for me and my classmates – one of them was former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang – at the English department of the University of Hong Kong,” he recalls.

Lo graduated in 1962, the year City Hall, Hong Kong’s first professional performing venue, was inaugurated, and he lost no time in staging his first public production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare.

Hong Kong had no company to produce opera at the new venue, which gave Lo all the opportunity he needed to apply what he had learned from an 18-month internship in Italy.

“When I studied in Rome and Perugia, it was a time of high unemployment in Italy. Uncertainty loomed large among my local classmates, although they still enjoyed their espressos and cappuccinos. I was sure then that my future career lay in Hong Kong,” he says.

The city’s artistic workforce in the 1960s was tiny, Lo recalls, and there was always a demand for players. A 20-year-old violinist, for example, would have had no problem finding a place in the Hong Kong Philharmonic – something that would be highly unlikely today.

In 1968, Lo staged his first full opera, L’Elisir d’Amore, by Gaetano Donizetti, with Italiantrained soprano Ella Kiang singing the title role.

Lo and Kiang pooled their own money to pay for the production – but that would not have been enough without the aid of the “right person”.

“Darwin Chen, then manager of City Hall, looked at my work with vision, and charged me just a few dollars as venue fee for my opera production,” says Lo.

Fortune smiled brighter in the 1970s, when the Urban Council became financially independent and was able to draw up its own cultural development road map.

“Darwin tried several times to entice me to join him at the Cultural Office, under the Urban Council. But I stayed with my administrative work at HKU and, after 1973, at the Hong Kong Polytechnic, where I later became its deputy director, before I joined the APA in 1993 as director,” he says.

Lo stayed true to his first love, though. In 1977, he collaborated with Kiang again on Madama Butterfly, with the new professional Hong Kong Philharmonic under German conductor Hans Gunter Mommer. From then on, Lo’s opera productions have become an annual event.

In 2008, four years after retiring from the HKAPA, Lo founded Musica Viva, which presents operas and classical concerts.

“I am pleased to say my productions offer a platform for many APA graduates to apply their expertise; singers, orchestra players and stage designers alike,” he says.

“When I was the director at the APA, one of my principles was to treat everyone the same.

Oftentimes, my wife and I had lunch in the student canteen, like everybody else. There, I watched [pianists] Colleen Lee, Rachel Cheung and [conductor] Lio Kuok-man grow,” he recalls.

“Compared with my younger days, working in virtually a virgin land, the young generation have fewer opportunities now. It’s not just in the arts, but other fields as well, such as work and housing.

But I am confident in Hong Kong’s vitality, within which young artists will find space to develop their pursuit,” he says.

Lo is 76, but, he says, “opera producers tend to live long”, suggesting we may well be treated to one of his productions when the West Kowloon Cultural District finally opens for business. OC

 

“THE AWARD CAME as a surprise. Honestly, I don’t feel it is anything special,” says theatre veteran Fredric Mao Chun-fai, of the honorary doctorate he will receive on Tuesday.

“I think it’s not so much about me, personally, but more about the things I have done in theatrical arts since I called Hong Kong home in 1985,” he adds, in an interview at the HKAPA campus.

It was a “big decision”, the 67- year-old Broadway veteran says about quitting a successful career in the United States to return to work at the new HKAPA. But the rewards were lifelong.

“I owe my career to Hong Kong. When I was 19 and a student at Baptist College, I got to see the outside world as the Hong Kong representative in the Far East Leaders Project, in a visit to the US. That trip inspired me with ideals and arts for life,” he recalls.

“When I returned, after working in the States for some 10 years, Hong Kong was quite alien to me. But it was the students that made all the difference. They – Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Cheung Tat-ming, Alice Lau Nga-lai, etc – were quite young. I coached them during their entire time at the APA, and we became very close. Their diligence and subsequent achievements have had an enormous impact on me, instilling in me a sense of responsibility and, most of all, a sense of belonging to Hong Kong.”

Mao often says, “I am Hong Kong”, during briefing sessions with visitors.

“I think I have the typical mix. My parents are mainland immigrants, father from Shanghai and mother from Guangdong, and I was born in Shanghai, growing up in Hong Kong, studying abroad and coming back to live and work. That’s why I feel I have a mission to build something together with my students or ex-students, including those working backstage,” he says.

In 2001, Mao left the HKAPA to work as artistic director of the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre.

“I wanted to spearhead productions with a professional company to bring something new to the theatre industry in Hong Kong,” he says. But his plans faltered when he was diagnosed with cancer. In late 2002 he had his stomach removed.

Then came the severe acute respiratory syndrome, in 2003.

“The government commissioned me for a mega show to boost the city’s morale. So we gathered together three professional companies, us – the Hong Kong Repertory – plus Hong Kong Dance and the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, in a joint production of a musical that we named Sweet & Sour Hong Kong. I was undergoing chemotherapy at the time and the composer, Joseph Koo, and lyricist, James Wong, wearing masks, came to my home to work out the production,” he recalls.

The work, limited to two initial runs, became an instant classic.

Performed in Cantonese, it would become the only non-mainland work featured at the Seventh China Arts Festival, in Zhejiang province, in 2004. In 2007, it was again staged in Hong Kong, at the Coliseum, in the presence of then president Hu Jintao, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty.

“After the performance, mainland officials invited us to take the work to Beijing and perform at the new National Centre for the Performing Arts,” he says. “It was quite an honour as that was part of the festival for the 2008 Olympics.”

Due to the logistics that would have been involved, however, the honour went instead to another of Mao’s blockbusters, Empress Dowager Cixi and Princess Deling.

“It is a Beijing story written by Madam He Jiping and performed in Mandarin. We got the honour of casting the gracious veteran actress Lisa Lu Yan as dowager, but she wouldn’t do it unless I played the role of Emperor Guangxu, and I did,” says Mao, laughing.

The play, based on a popular story yet presented with modern theatrical techniques, was a critical success in Beijing and, in 2010, the China National Peking Opera commissioned Mao to direct a full Peking opera version of the play.

“That clearly shows we Hong Kong people have something significant to offer even in elite art forms like Peking opera.

The success lies in the script, which Madam He wrote in Hong Kong, a place where the East-West cultural mix allows openness and freedom from convention,” he says.

Mao, who in his younger days studied Peking opera, singing for eight years under the late master Pau Yau-tip, believes people in Hong Kong have cultural openness in their DNA, a strength they should play up. To that end, he will return to the HKAPA to lead the School of Chinese Opera this autumn.

“So I take this honorary degree as more than a recognition of my previous work, but also as a boost to the mission I hope to carry out in my new capacity,” says the man without a stomach but with a big heart. OC

 

“I WAS BORN and grew up here. I am a real Hong Kong boy and proud to be one,” says Raymond Chow Man-wai, who produced more than 600 films before retiring in 2007, screening everyone from Bruce Lee to the Ninja Turtles.

“Whether one is aware of it or not, Hong Kong is a free place,” says the 87-year-old, in the clubhouse of his Cox’s Road residence. “You can learn anything you like and apply it according to your interests, without interference. It’s not just about space, but also an environment protected by the rule of law that allows a dream to come true through learning and hard work.”

Born into a Hakka family, Chow was the seventh of 18 siblings. His father, who worked in banking, was a busy man, leaving his children with the freedom to roam.

“I often went to watch movies at the Lee Theatre, which was close to our home in Tai Hang,” says Chow.

“That’s how my interest in films originated.”

After his father died, in 1940, his mother moved to Shanghai with those of the children who were her own, the eldest of the five being Chow, who was then named George, after the British king. Settling in the British Concession, the 13-year-old had to start anew, which included learning English with a Shanghainese accent at St John’s secondary school.

“I had to repeat Form Two for two years because I could hardly understand what the teacher said. So during class I read a lot of Chinese martial-art novels, and that helped my writing skills,” he says.

It was while at school in Shanghai that Chow began calling himself Raymond, a name derived from two characters from a Chinese phrase that outlines an academic’s goals.

After the war, Chow majored in journalism at St John’s University.

“My mentor there was Wu Jiatang, chief editor of the English Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury. He introduced me to the Hong Kong Standard when I returned home in 1949.

“I worked there for four years and met Felicia, my wife for the next 58 years,” says Chow, with a broad smile.

It was also through Wu that Chow was introduced to film guru Run Run Shaw, in 1958.

“Shaw was looking for someone to handle publicity and public relations. For 12 years, we got along very well, and talked about everything beyond film production. Naturally, he was not happy when I decided to leave, in 1970,” Chow says.

The new Golden Harvest group, which Chow founded with partners in 1970, was given a major boost when martial-arts legend Bruce Lee walked through the door.

“[Lee] was very impulsive. Once he liked something, he would fall for it,” Chow says. “He returned to Hong Kong after a setback in America. He went to Shaw first but ended up empty-handed. The big boss would not give way [and employ Lee], and [Lee] would not look up to those smaller [companies] who would employ him. So he was stuck.”

No one who has seen Lee’s mid-air kick in the variety television show Enjoy Yourself Tonight is likely to forget it.

Even more than 40 years later, Chow speaks with emotion about that scene.

“That’s real kung fu. My intuition told me this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So I tried to make contact with Lee the next morning, only to be told that he had already boarded a plane for the US. I had to phone him and express my interest,” says Chow.

On how he tamed the “dragon”, Chow says: “Bruce was in fact quite a gullible person. Once he felt threatened, he would be very repulsive.

Perhaps I treated him with honesty and genuine friendship from the outset. Once there was a mutual trust, we could talk about cooperation, and that’s how it happened.”

Lee’s sudden death in 1973 was a huge blow to Chow, who was the first to arrive on the scene after having received a phone call from Betty Ting Pei, at whose apartment Lee had died. But his foresight when it came to Hong Kong Canto-movies would do more than bail him out of a potential crisis. It ushered in a new era of movies made in and for Hong Kong.

“My instinct for Hong Kong movies came naturally, simply because I am a Cantonese-speaking local boy. With [comedian, scriptwriter and director] Michael Hui [Koonman], my intuition told me I should trust him and the Hong Kong spirit he represents,” he says.

Chow recalls Hui inviting him to the coffee shop at the Park Lane Hotel, to find inspiration by listening in to people’s conversations.

“He probably didn’t know I was a trained journalist. But I must say I was impressed with that visit, which opened me to a new experience I or Shaw would never have had by sitting in the office,” he says.

Hui’s movies, he adds, have often left the audience with a happy heart.

“This is what we need now. Perhaps there are people like Michael who have yet to put together movies like those he has done. But I am old, and have to leave it to the next generation.” OC

 

THE GLOW ON the purple satin academic gown in which Johnnie To Kei-fung, 59, will receive his honorary doctorate from the HKAPA is reflected on the director’s face as he pulls it on.

It is an award To has never dreamt of receiving, he says, despite having won multiple accolades locally and abroad, and an international following for his often bleak crime thrillers, which mirror Hong Kong’s sociopolitics.

“I didn’t even finish secondary school,” says To, as he lights a cigar in his Kwun Tong office.

The award is to honour To’s achievements over four decades in the Hong Kong film and television industries, as well as his efforts in supporting young talent through the Fresh Wave Short Film Competition, which he founded when he started chairing the Arts Development Council’s film and media arts group, in 2005.

“I once worked seven days in a row without sleeping,” says To, of his devotion to his craft. But more importantly for success, one needs to be at the right place at the right time, he says, and he found his place in Hong Kong in the 1970s, when the city was full of hope.

“It was the best of times,” says To, who joined TVB as a messenger in the early 70s and was promoted to producer and then director in just five years working under Wong Tin-lam. To says TVB was a school for creative rebels before he left in 1992, to pursue a career in film.

“There was no lack of opportunities and possibilities for us back then. If you had been born earlier, you wouldn’t have made it because of the war, no matter how talented you were. And if you were born later … honestly, I’m pessimistic about Hong Kong’s future. TVB’s dominance is pathetic enough for Hong Kong.”

To’s face darkens as he recalls a meeting, two years ago, at which two Leung Chun-ying supporters sat down with an alleged triad known as Shanghai Boy for a prechief executive election dinner.

Leung was later installed as chief executive and the infamous dinner led to suggestions of “black gold politics”, although nothing was ever proven.

“It proved what I thought was right,” though, says To, referring to his films Election (2005) and Election 2 (2006).

The movies – both of which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival – depict triad organisations in post-handover Hong Kong and the changes these groups have had to go through, says To. The stories evolve around the election of a gang leader who is controlled by a small group of powerful elders. In the second instalment, triads have to swear allegiance to China, abolish the election system and help maintain “harmony” in the city on behalf of the mainland authorities.

What was intended as an urban myth a decade ago no longer feels so far-fetched.

“Things are getting worse. [Triads] can’t make money in the same way as they did in the past. What can they do now? They can only turn a hegemony that was deemed illegal in the past into one that is lawful today,” he says.

Under such circumstances, it’s going to become harder to create movies, believes To, even for a veteran who has directed and produced more than 50 of them.

To says the mainland market has made filmmakers bend over backwards to satisfy censors, but, for him, doing so is a struggle. He has sold 80 per cent of Milkyway Image, the production company he co-founded with Wai Ka-fai, to a mainland entrepreneur and now chooses his films carefully. “When I do a project, I have to think twice now.

I don’t want our films to give [investors] or anyone any trouble,” he says.

Isn’t that self-censorship?

“To answer that question simply, yes,” To says, after a long pause. “Anything can be interpreted as posing a challenge to the Hong Kong or central governments.

“If I were going to make Election 3, it would be an even more powerful attack on the system, or maybe some people,” he says. “Maybe I will film it but won’t show it.”

The future might appear grim but To still has faith in the younger generations.

“I’m not an oracle. How things will become in 2017 [when the next chief executive will be appointed] remains unknown. But there must be change in the future.” VC