Selling stocks and real estate can be easier than selling a ticket to a Shakespeare drama in a financially driven city like Hong Kong. Let's face it, Hongkongers would rather spend time watching a comedy or attending a stock market outlook seminar than listening to the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HKPO) play Mozart. So, in a city where the dollar rules, Swire Properties director and general manager Stephan Spurr stands out as a rare species. Known at Swire as the 'culture minister,' for the past 18 years he has been the driving force behind the company's involvement in music, drama and the arts. The Cambridge history graduate is the key figure in the youth drama group Shakespeare4all, of which Swire is a founding patron. The programme produces plays by the Bard for local school students aimed at enhancing their English fluency. Over the past three years, he has directed Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew. His latest directorial work is Julius Caesar with a twist. To be performed on October 3 and 4, this version is set in Bali in 1900. Spurr went to the Indonesian tourist island a few months ago to shop for costumes for the drama. Teaching drama in a city where parents want their children to be accountants or lawyers rather than actors or artists is certainly hard work. Last month, when I visited him at St Bonaventure College at Diamond Hill, he was coaching 80 local students in the school hall from 9am to 5pm. Occasionally, through a translator, he needed to ask the children, aged six to 15, to be quiet as he patiently trained the main characters to memorise their lines. Later, he took personal leave for over two weeks to get the actors ready. 'I think it is rare in Hong Kong's accelerated lifestyle to be able to give over two weeks to concentrated rehearsal,' said Spurr. 'But it enables everyone to make a real commitment. Otherwise what is the point? I have no time for people who put in a half-hearted effort, whether adults or children ... so they understand early on that we are all working together to produce something exceptional.' Earlier in February, I met Spurr at the Sai Wan Ho Civic Centre where he had just directed another group of students who performed in George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan. Just 10 minutes before the play began, he was running around the venue with his shirt sopping in sweat. 'Have you just finished a marathon?' I asked. 'Much more exhausting than that,' he replied. Spurr said he had lost 18 pounds during the first two weeks of directing Julius Caesar. The 50-something executive lives and breathes the arts. He has served on the board of the HKPO, The Absolutely Fabulous Theatre Connection, and Hong Kong Youth Art Foundation. He discounts a common belief in Hong Kong that art is something that should take second place. 'It is important for children to have exposure and direct involvement in culture,' he said. 'It broadens their minds, deepens their sensitivity and makes life [better for them]. In the end, I am convinced organising participative activities that inspire young people to aspire for excellence is what it is all about - Shakespeare after all has its challenges.' The father of a university-aged daughter, Spurr said drama aimed to set the bar high for children. 'Open up the possibilities of group interaction, team playing and the accountability of personal performance,' he said. 'The idea is to introduce children to the creative stimulation of a great work of art and the sort of artistic vigour which is required to carry it out.' Despite the effort he puts into drama, directing students is only his part-time job. His real job is to direct Swire's Island East, eight million square feet of Grade A offices and one million square feet of retail space surrounding Taikoo Shing, the former Taikoo Dockyard. When Spurr joined Swire from Hongkong Land in the early 1990s, Island East was no more than a cluster of old industrial blocks. Because of its cost advantage, Island East slowly became a hub of information technology and advertising and marketing firms. Now it houses more than 60,000 workers, as many as the number of residents in Taikoo Shing itself. Spurr has brought his love of art to his job by actively promoting performing and visual arts in the commercial hub. In 2000, Swire brought the first samba street dancers from Brazil to the city. It also put up a blockbuster dinosaur exhibition at Cityplaza in 2005 that attracted 6.2 million people. Last year, Swire opened the doors of its 20,000 square foot cultural venue ArtisTree at Taikoo Place. Open to the public for free, ArtisTree kicked off with a Victoria and Albert Museum retrospective exhibition by fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. For 10 years, Swire Properties has organised Friday Fest for jazz and other music performers. From next month, it will launch a free music concert at lunch time every Thursday at an outdoor park adjoining its commercial buildings, 'Call it our competitive edge,' said Spurr. 'All this philanthropic effort reinforces the social bond which we share with our office workers, residents and the community at large. But it also reinforces the point that by making the arts barrier-free, they have become - as they should be - a part of our everyday existence and accessible to anyone who cares.' For the second year, Swire Properties' parent Swire Pacific will offer in November free concerts dubbed 'Symphony under the Stars' at the Happy Valley Racecourse featuring the HKPO. Swire pledged HK$36 million to a three-year sponsorship of the concerts in 2005 and renewed the sponsorship last year for another three years with a higher but undisclosed sponsorship amount. We gather that the single largest corporate sponsorship of arts in Hong Kong all started with a call from the orchestra asking Swire to become a diamond sponsor for about HK$70,000. However, the firm responded with a much more generous offer and a marketing suggestion - to make the concerts accessible to everyone. 'One of the risks faced by 21st century corporate philanthropists is actually from their own marketing gurus. The arts - high, middle, low brow - have become segmented by them and those cultural preferences are placed, perhaps too neatly and unfairly, into pigeon holes,' said Spurr, who insists on buying his own tickets to HKPO concerts. 'The arts are supposed to cover a broad spectrum of activities that actually unite the world with entertainment and all the crossovers between them.' That is lucky for Spurr, who certainly knows how to mix art and music with the supposedly boring property business.