Talented Hong Kong-based violinist has many bows to her string
Violinist Yao Jue considers herself to be Hongkonger after spending more time in city than her native Shanghai; she is also married to son of late Chinese negotiator Lu Ping
With her performance to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, Yao Jue set a record as the only violinist to play for three Chinese presidents in Hong Kong.
Though a member of the Shanghai People’s Political Consultative Conference, the Juilliard-educated violinist considers herself a Hongkonger after having lived here longer than in native Shanghai or as a student in the United States.
“Hong Kong is my home where I started my family and career. For that I am grateful and feel obliged to do something in return,” she says.
She was referring to her marriage to Lu Gong, son of the late director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Lu Ping, who was heavily involved in Hong Kong’s transition arrangements, and their wedding banquet in the city just a week after the 1997 handover.
As the city reflects on its past 20 years as a special administrative region, Yao, having picked up additional roles as a school principal, music director, arts institution board member and mother of two, has her own observations and advice for Hong Kong.
Mainland China’s phenomenal growth means the country is fast catching up economically with Hong Kong, but Yao continues to see the city’s strengths, such as the institutional mechanism in place for charities and arts bodies, which she has introduced to Shanghai over the years.
Furthermore, Hong Kong’s creative arts, art bodies and audiences, she says, are models for the mainland to emulate.
However, she thinks the West Kowloon cultural hub can benefit from a stronger vision and input from the arts community, and more opportunities should be opened to young musicians who deserve support to perform in professional groups.
Yao sees the restlessness apparent among youngsters in recent years as only part of the story. “I have met those who are very positive about Hong Kong’s future, and I hope everyone can see the full picture and look forward and not backwards.”
Based on her experience in the US in the 1980s when people looked down on poor Chinese, she comes to appreciate a powerful state which has changed the world’s perception of its people.
“Maybe Hong Kong people did not go through the same emotions from having nothing to something as we did. That’s perhaps the fundamental difference between us.”
How do you feel about Hong Kong after living here for 20 years?
I was born in Shanghai, but I am a Hongkonger now. I came here as a concert violinist. I matured here and grew in my career beyond just being a soloist. Hong Kong has given me many opportunities to learn and develop a vision. I founded my music school in 2001 with the help of local friends. I knew nothing about running a school at first, but I learned through practice and problem-solving, one step at a time. Over time, all these things I’ve learned connect with each other. That is the biggest reward of my years here.
How do you compare Hong Kong now and then?
I really don’t feel there is a major difference in terms of daily life. It’s very accessible everywhere, and I think that is a major strength of Hong Kong. I came here for the first time in 1984 to perform The Butterfly Lovers concerto with my father conducting. I was then a student at the Juilliard. So from New York to Hong Kong , I felt very comfortable here, and the audiences were very enthusiastic. The food was good too. It is a place very suitable for Chinese, especially for me, with the Western cultural tradition here.
With the rise of China in recent years, what strengths do you think Hong Kong still has?
Artists in Hong Kong are very creative. I think it has much to do with their upbringing, which gets them to dare to dream and think outside the box. That is the only way to bring about new original ideas, and I think that brings about great potential. Another strength is Hong Kong’s institutional mechanism, such as funding applications through the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, of which I was a council member [2005-2010]. I got to learn that it is very open to young people. There is also a lot of good work that brings arts and culture to the community such as low rental fees for venues that allow amateur groups to perform. The Hong Kong government plays a major role in keeping rents down. In China, the rents are 10 times higher. Ticket prices too are much higher. I reported these Hong Kong experiences to Shanghai and they were listening. Over the years, the Shanghai government has offered more subsidies for the arts. The Shanghai Opera has gone from a partial to a full subsidy and the Shanghai Ballet has its own home.
What advice would you give those involved in the West Kowloon Cultural District?
Now that they are building a cluster of venues, I think it is time to ask what will be there and who are the users. Instead of another round of consultation, we need decisions on the master plan and direction to map out a vision and content for the halls. The Xiqu Centre will get Cantonese opera. That’s settled. What about the future concert hall? I think it’s important to keep in mind our future hall should lead a trend and not follow just any concert hall. Otherwise it will be just one of the halls. We need to leave it to someone with vision who can build the hall with the latest technology that will take the hall forward so it will still be competitive in 10 years’ time.
Art nowadays is no longer a single but a multidirectional subject. If you do it in the old way, what you’ll get is another cultural centre and that’s pointless. The international stage aside, it should be a platform for local artists. In a nutshell, don’t be a follower, but build a hall that is a landmark to reflect our unique positioning as a city embracing Eastern and Western cultures. Perhaps the local performing arts community could form a forum or committee to discuss these issues from a user’s point of view.
How do you see the future of the performing arts in Hong Kong?
I think it has great potential. In the past five to six years, I noticed there were more and more young audiences at concerts and many were going with their parents. That is quite a sharp contrast with the West where audiences consist mainly of the silver-haired generation. I applaud the city’s music education and arts groups, especially the small and medium ones that are really flourishing. In recent years, there were more festivals and chamber music performances. That is something very different from the mainland where official sponsorship goes mainly to major orchestras. I think the Hong Kong government is doing an excellent job in supporting the arts. As Hong Kong has turned 20 as a special administrative region, it’s time for its own talents to blossom. I hope the government can see to that and provide more opportunities for local people befitting our own character and the times we live in.
Do you have a message for young people in Hong Kong?
I hope they will try to see the bigger picture and be forward-looking. They shouldn’t remain in the past but live today and plan for tomorrow. It’s important to stay positive and look for new opportunities. During my student days in America, when I was unsuccessful, I would not complain or find something to blame. That would not have done me any good. Instead I looked for solutions. It was then that I felt the importance of having the backing of my own country. That’s why I get emotional every time I hear the national anthem. Perhaps that’s what I grew up with during my formative years. I had only US$45 when I arrived in America, and we poor Chinese were looked down upon by others. With the country getting strong, I can walk with my head held high. That’s why I feel very proud to be Chinese. Maybe Hong Kong people did not go through the same emotions from having nothing to something as we did. That’s perhaps the fundamental difference between us.
Is that why you were excited when you shook hands with President Xi Jinping after the gala performance on June 30?
A lot of feelings went through my head at that moment. Hong Kong has a very special place in my heart, and its reunification with China means to me more than you can imagine. I played at the Hong Kong Coliseum on handover day in 1997 in the presence of President Jiang Zemin and gonggong [grandfather, referring to father-in-law Lu Ping]. There I was, 20 years later, after receiving so much from Hong Kong, performing and then greeting the state president, with gongong on my mind. Of course, I got emotional.
Which piece of classical music did your father-in-law like you to play for him?
Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, I think. The last time I played the piece in Shanghai he was in the audience. Afterwards he came backstage and said: “You did great!”
Which is your most unforgettable performance?
I played the Sibelius concerto in Havana [in Cuba] in the presence of Fidel Castro in 1991, but it was the orchestra players that really moved me. They were so poor that I brought eggs from the hotel and passed them on to them. They came in on their bikes but were on time and serious with their playing. My performance of The Butterfly Lovers concerto in Moscow was equally memorable, especially the audience who listened along with the music score.
What do you miss most from Shanghai?
Family. My father and my brother are there, and my other relatives too. The Yao family has always been close-knit, more so after my mother passed away in 2015.
What will you do after your second daughter follows her sister to study in the US?
I’d be freer then and could work on a violin teaching curriculum which I have always wanted to do. I also hope to explore with musicians from countries along the belt and road whose rich music tradition will surely hit a few interesting notes.