‘Santa is my identity’: how a Hong Kong man lives and breathes the jolly Christmas role
He has entered worldwide competitions, is a member of a worldwide Santa congress, and has set up a local school training others to play character
Along the harbourfront in Tsim Sha Tsui, Johnny Wu Hung-shing, Hong Kong’s version of Santa Claus, is surrounded by smiles and happy faces. The 46-year-old plays the role well, breaking out into the trademark “Ho ho ho” bellowing laugh as people snap pictures and call out to him.
But a little boy, apparently frightened by Wu’s bright red and white outfit, appears anxious, tears welling up in his eyes.
“It’s all right. I get that a lot. We just need to give him some time to build trust,” Wu, who has been playing Santa for 19 year, tells the boy’s mother as he takes a step back while deftly twisting a balloon for the child.
Seconds later, Wu hands over his puppy-shaped creation to the child, who receives it as his face breaks in a big smile.
“Christmas culture in Hong Kong is very different to Scandinavia’s,” says Wu, who visits Northern Europe regularly for Santa competitions and meetings.
“There, children rush up to you and hug you really hard. Hong Kong Children are a little bit shy.
“But what satisfies me the most about being Santa is really simple – seeing the happy faces of kids.”
The father of two first played the role almost two decades ago at a Christmas party organised by his son’s kindergarten, and found that he was made for it.
“I played Santa for the kindergarten for two Christmases. One day, a parent asked if I was interested in working at some commercial events during the festival. I agreed. That is how it all started,” recalls Wu, a freelance photographer.
Wu says he really got serious about being the jolly old man after finishing as second runner-up representing Hong Kong at the Santa Claus Winter Games 2010 in Sweden.
The annual event, launched in 2003, is where Santas from all over the world compete against each other for the title of “Santa of the Year”. Their missions include collecting wish lists and interacting with children.
Wu’s passion for bringing joy to the world has made him a member of the World Santa Claus Congress, a professional forum launched in 1957 that has become a social meeting place for Santas from all over the world. Members are only approved after being endorsed by other Santas.
“In the past, I thought Santa was a fun job,” Wu says. “Nowadays, Santa is not my job. Santa is my identity.”
In 2013, Wu and another Hong Kong-based Santa, named Jimmy – whom Wu met at an international event – set up the Santa School Hong Kong, aimed at training wannabes and “professional” Santas. The school offers a one-year course teaching people the nuances of the role and how to entertain.
Wu,claims that there are lots of “unprofessional” Santas in Hong Kong, judging by the way they ring the bell, the way they dress and the how they laugh. “I’ve also seen some Santas wearing a fake beard made of paper,” Wu says, stroking his own flowing snow-white locks, which are fake but could pass for the real thing. “Some also don’t smile at all.”
The duo has so far trained six students, as according to Wu, not everyone is qualified to be Santa. “We tend to take people who really love children. We train them based on what they are good at and interested in. If they are good at magic, then we work on their magic skills.”
Wu says it is important for Santas to be professional as children trust them and believe that they bring happiness and joy. “I’ve come across children who confessed to me that they had peed on themselves. They didn’t even tell their parents,” he says, laughing.
Wu’s wife Catiline Leung Yuen-shan, an administrative assistant at a local dance school, has been supportive of her husband’s ‘second’ career.
“He really doesn’t care how much money he makes from being Santa. He only cares about how happy the children are.”