The Union flags and Windsor royal features may be disappearing rapidly from Hong Kong's buildings and coinage, but other, subtler legacies of Britain's influence in the territory will prove more durable. One of these may be provided through a new scholarship scheme sponsored by the British Council, whereby young Hong Kong artists will be sent to study in Britain. Julie Kuok Pun-man, 23, is the recipient of the council's first arts scholarship - for music. The winners are selected by recommendation of Hong Kong's arts community, and in this case the staff of the Academy for Performing Arts. Kuok is one of Hong Kong's most promising young pianists: she is studying for a postgraduate diploma at the academy, following a four-year undergraduate course at Oberlin College, Ohio. The scholarship - worth $200,000 - will pay for another year's study at the Royal Academy of Music, London. She started playing when she was five years old, spotty and unhappy from a triple dose of measles, mumps and chickenpox. 'My mum bought me a toy keyboard. I sat in front of the TV listening to my favourite Chinese soap opera and worked out how to play the theme song back on the keyboard.' How long did it take her to get a real piano after that? 'About two days,' she laughed. 'I was playing day and night - nothing else to do, I suppose - and my mother was just grateful that I was absorbed by something. 'Neighbours came round and heard me, and I think they persuaded my mother to go ahead and arrange lessons.' Many years later, when Kuok decided to concentrate full-time on music studies, her mother regretted the choice of toy: perhaps Lego for engineering, or a doctor's uniform, might have prepared her youngest daughter for an easier life and career. 'My mother refused at first to let me study music, because she thought it might be difficult for me to earn a good living, but the other members of my family thought I should do what I want to do. I have two elder sisters, so as the youngest one I don't have much responsibility [to support my parents].' Her mother relented after seeing Kuok win competitions, including first prizes in the 1995 Hong Kong Open Piano Competition and the Oberlin Concerto Competition. 'She just knew, as I did, that you have to be top, otherwise you'd be better doing something else.' Was she ever scared about her chosen career? 'Well,' Kuok pondered. 'It doesn't scare me but sometimes I want to give up, the pressure is so high.' She admitted it was a relief to have the financial burden for her musical education lifted from the shoulders of her family, her support for so long. In her last year at Oberlin, she said, she almost had a mental breakdown because she was practising so much - often 10 hours a day, sometimes more. She had pushed herself for two reasons: 'There wasn't much to do in Oberlin, it was a pretty small town, so I practised a lot.' And 'I heard that some professional pianists, and particularly those who study in Shanghai, practise for 15 hours a day. So I thought that 'if I do that, then I might turn into something like them'. 'I tried, and got exhausted. I didn't realise that they were practising under the guidance of a good teacher who was prepared to sit with them all day, and into the night, every day. It is a matter of concentration.' In the past year, now back in Hong Kong, she has reduced practice to four or five hours a day and is much happier for it. She is looking forward to moving to London at the end of August, having been to England before, but only as a tourist. 'I am very excited by the performances by great masters that I will be able to attend,' she said, adding that the favourite concert of her life so far was a performance of Mozart by Murray Perahia in Cleveland, Ohio. The director of the British Council, Tom Buchanan, explained that the award ceremony had been brought forward by three months to coincide with last week's Academy Music Festival last week, of which a highlight was the visiting St Martin in the Fields orchestra led by Sir Neville Marriner. The scheme not simply benefits the individual students, he said, but increases dialogue and co-operation between local and British arts institutions. He said it was just the first of many scholarships in the arts - the total number depending on how much corporate sponsorship the council attracted. There are plans to associate with the Royal College of Art - director Christopher Frayling was in Hong Kong earlier this year for the British Council-sponsored Cities of the Future symposium - and with Warwick University, whose professor of arts education, Ken Robinson, was keynote speaker at the Arts in Education seminar in March. 'Scholarships seem to be coming back into fashion: in the 1970s they were automatically part of the British Council's agenda, then they tended to be dropped as people started moving to projects,' he said. Project-based funding was good for medicine or engineering, but seldom for artists, whose training needed to be individualised. This new programme presented scholarships with a difference, Mr Buchanan said: 'We are doing much more than giving people a cheque and saying: 'Good luck.' It is based on building relationships with institutions. We also work hard to make sure the teacher and student are right for each other.' And no longer is there an insistence that recipients return to their country of origin after finishing their course. 'It would be nice if Julie returned to Hong Kong but we won't insist on it. Musicians are getting internationalised much more quickly now, and we have to recognise the change.'