Performing arts in Hong Kong

Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation celebrates 25 years of exploration and organic growth in visual and performing arts

The foundation organises about 100 projects every year. Founder Lindsey McAlister talks about her favourite shows, how things have grown over the past 25 years and how she maintains private and corporate sponsorship

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 10:47am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 6:28pm

“I think you miss out on a lot of opportunities if you have a very fixed idea of where you are going to be in a certain period of time,” says Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation (YAF) founder Lindsey McAlister.

“The wonderful thing about YAF is that we have been able to sort of meander into things that seem interesting to explore, and find out if they’ll work.”

Next Thursday at The Peninsula hotel, YAF (formerly known as the Hong Kong Youth Arts Festival) will celebrate 25 years of “meandering” through an extraordinary range of visual and performing arts projects.

A gala dinner at The Peninsula is being held to thank its friends and sponsors. Nothing that YAF has achieved, McAlister stresses, would have been possible without them.

Her list of long-term supporters includes the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Standard Chartered Bank, the Kadoorie Foundation, and Swire Properties, the last of which supplies McAlister and her creative and administrative team with office and studio space in Quarry Bay.

YAF is now a Hong Kong institution, but its offices do not have the atmosphere of one. And despite the letters OBE and JP after her name there’s nothing institutional about McAlister.

Her energy and enthusiasm, after 25 years in the job she carved out for herself, are undiminished.

“Everything I do is very organic,” she says. “I’m not a strategist at all. I make decisions very much on how I feel about something. Which drives my board insane because they’re all businesspeople and they’d like me to have a bit more vision of the future.”

In fact YAF does plan about a year and a half ahead, but with what McAlister calls “wiggle room” to seize opportunities as they arise.

Now a lot of our projects aren’t just with young people – we’re doing cross generational programmes, we’re doing a lot more community projects
Lindsey McAlister, founder of Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation

The foundation runs over 100 mostly youth oriented community arts projects per year. These range from ambitious stage productions such as last year’s Melodia, which McAlister created in collaboration with Cirque du Soleil’s Violaine Corradi and Rose Winebrenner, to intimate private concerts by small groups of young musicians who perform in the homes of housebound elderly people. The Standard Chartered Arts in the Park youth arts festival and puppet parade each November is a well-established annual event.

“If something has legs, we’ll repeat it,” says McAlister, citing as an example Arts in the Park, which has been going since 1993. It began as a small event in Southorn Playground in Wan Chai and grew over the years with different sponsors. And when Standard Chartered took the event over in 2001, it made a big difference, she says.

“They were quite keen on making the event more iconic, so we started thinking about parades – something that goes out into the streets. With their help and their funding we were able to make the event so much bigger, with more than 180,000 people attending in the past couple of years,” says McAlister.

“But if 25 years ago I’d sat down and said ‘In 25 years time I want this event to be like this’, it would have been just too daunting. It has just very organically grown into this massive thing.”

The Peninsula dinner aside, YAF is not staging any special events to mark the anniversary, but McAlister says it’s business as usual, which is to say very busy indeed.

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“Now a lot of our projects aren’t just with young people – we’re doing cross generational programmes, we’re doing a lot more community projects. Youth is the common denominator for everything we do, but we also have the young people mixing and matching with other generations. We work with over 800,000 members of the community every year,” she says.

The thing for me is the transformation of the young people that we work with. Through doing this sort of work you see lives changing
Lindsey McAlister

Running from May 24 to June 20 at H6 Conet in Central is the stART Up Community Arts Project that aims to build bridges through the arts between the young and the elderly. The year-old project has already generated music, film, photography and other visual artworks, and a radio play.

The HK Urban Canvas Project, inaugurated in 2016, has brightened up storefront metal shutters in Wan Chai, Sheung Wan, Sai Ying Pun, Mong Kok, Yau Ma Tei and Sham Shui Po, and spawned art education events, cultural tours, exhibitions, and even a mobile app that allows the curious to view the shutter paintings – rolled up and invisible during business hours – on a screen.

Stage productions, particularly musicals, have always been a major part of the YAF remit, and a rare example of an all adult YAF project is Cube Culture, written by McAlister with music by Nick Harvey and presented as part of the Swire Properties Project After 6 initiative.

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Fame is going to be our big show in November,” says McAlister. “We did it about 12 years ago and this is the new improved version. We had about 600 kids come and audition for that, and the quality was insanely good. Every year it gets better and better. More skill, more technique. It’s so difficult to choose 60 out of 600. But we try to encourage the kids who don’t get in to join other programmes.”

One remarkable aspect of the YAF story is that throughout its history the foundation has operated entirely without the support of public funds.

“It has all been corporate and private sponsorship, which is very unusual for an arts foundation – not just in Hong Kong, but globally,” says McAlister.

“When we have visitors from other countries one of the main questions they ask is ‘How do you get corporates involved?’ Every year you have to go out and ask the same partners, and try to find new partners, and it’s a lot of work.

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“But what has happened over the years is that one year of funding has turned into a three-year commitment, which is now turning into a five-year commitment. Some of the sponsors we’ve been working with for over 20 years – longer than most marriages.”

Despite all YAF’s growth and diversification, what hasn’t changed, she says, is its mission, the relevance of which she believes is timeless.

“The mission has stayed exactly the same. To provide young people from different backgrounds and different cultures speaking different languages and with different abilities with high-quality, free-of- charge, non-competitive arts opportunities.”

Over the years, she says, there have been many highlights – Melodia among them, and also 2011’s Spring Awakening, a well received production of a show about teenage sexuality, which was one of very few YAF projects over the years for which she knew corporate sponsorship would not be forthcoming.

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Fundamentally though, she adds, it’s the people rather than the projects that keep her engaged.

“The thing for me is the transformation of the young people that we work with. Through doing this sort of work you see lives changing.”

And does she see herself doing another 25 years of YAF?

“Yes. Why not? Bring it on.”