Hong Kong shipping scion Hing Chao champions Chinese culture

From helping save nomadic culture in China's northeast to preserving Hong Kong's tangible and intangible heritage, Chao, a martial arts fanatic, is fighting on multiple fronts

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 October, 2015, 7:51am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 October, 2015, 7:51am

Ironically, it was Hing Chao's time studying in the West that played a hand in his many projects aimed at preserving and promoting traditional Chinese culture. "I was born in Hong Kong, but went to the UK to study, spending my teenage and university years in England. However, my mother thought that my personality had become thoroughly anglicised, which she saw as a problem, so I was sent to Beijing," says Chao, organiser of the ongoing Hong Kong Culture Festival.

Sitting at a giant conference table in his Wan Chai office - he works for his family-run shipping firm, the Wah Kwong Group - Chao says that after graduating in philosophy from the University of Durham he spent a year in Beijing, including travels to Inner Mongolia that planted the seeds of a love affair with the cultures of ethnic minorities in the far northeast of China - "the indigenous marginalised peoples in Manchuria … the hunters and gatherers".

In 2004, he established the Orochen Foundation, a non-profit charity aimed at preserving the culture, language and identity of minority groups in northeast China, focusing mainly on intangible cultural heritage, aspects that include song, music, dance, drama and festivals, aspects that can be recorded but cannot be touched or stored in physical form.

And his passion for cultural preservation also extends to Hong Kong, where Chao is a major supporter of heritage conservation and martial arts. "Hong Kong didn't pay much attention to historical buildings until 1997, when the change of sovereignty was a marker for how Hong Kong people looked at ourselves and our past."

Chao says the turning point came after the demolition of Queen's Pier in 2008, which created an uproar among conservationists, and sparked protests in the city that included then-legislator Law Chi-kwong swimming in Victoria Harbour and a hunger strike by three students at the pier. Other protestors camped at the site.

Chao says the backlash took the government by surprise. "The public outcry was highly unexpected," says Chao, who also refers to the 78-year-old King Yin Lei mansion on Stubbs Road, Mid-Levels, as another milestone for heritage conservation. In 2008 the building was spared from the wrecking ball after public pressure forced the government to intervene.

As for his favourite heritage building in Hong Kong, Chao says he has many, but a standout is the Blue House in Wan Chai that reflects his love for both heritage buildings and martial arts. "The Blue House is close to me personally," Chao says of the grade one historic building on Stone Nullah Lane that was part of a HK$100 million plan by the Housing Society and the Urban Renewal Authority to preserve nine Chinese-style buildings in the district.

In the 1950s, the distinctive blue building housed a martial arts school run by Lam Cho. "I'm a practising martial artist, so I'm mindful of the history of trans-martial arts in Hong Kong."

To say Chao loves martial arts is something of an understatement. Obsession is more apt. He has studied several styles of southern Chinese martial arts, holds a second dan black belt in Shotokan-style karate, is a qualified kick-boxing instructor and founder of the Journal of Chinese Martial Studies, the first English-language research periodical focused on the study of Chinese martial arts culture and indigenous sports. In 2008, he co-founded the International Guoshu Association, the only non-profit organisation dedicated to the research and reconstruction of Chinese sports and classical martial arts (he's also the association's chief executive).

In 2013, Chao co-authored Hung Kuen Fundamentals: Fok Fu Kuen with Lam Chun-fai, the highest authority in hung kuen, a type of kung fu discipline. He says the book aims to keep alive a 300-year-old martial arts style that focuses on deep, low stances and strong hand techniques.

But it is Chao's latest project - the Hong Kong Culture Festival, which started last month and runs until October 18 - that could leave the deepest imprint on the city's cultural fabric.

"This festival is about promoting and sustaining local intangible cultural heritage through activities centred on martial arts, lion dance, Hakka unicorn dance, contemporary ink wash, Cantonese opera, Taoist music and other local traditions … it's an integrated platform for the traditional culture of Hong Kong."

It is a platform that is desperately needed if the city is to restore the traditions that were diluted by its colonial past, he says. "While it added another layer of culture to the city, colonialism also diluted local traditions. Hong Kong is deeply anchored in British colonial history … all our institutions are modelled after the British, including our schools, the legal system and the public service. For this reason, traditional culture has existed on the periphery, it was never properly institutionalised.

"Go to any school and you'll see that the disciplines of maths and science are all modelled after the West. The physical education, too - there is basketball, athletics, rugby. But where are the martial arts? Chinese culture has a certain space in the Hong Kong education system, but it's not an important space."

He says the city's rapid development and modernisation has also resulted in the loss of the old communities.

"The city's social fabric has become fragmented and because of this displacement and transformation, a lot of traditional customs were removed. We need to construct a new platform - a new showcase for people to understand what Hong Kong heritage is."

For more details about the Hong Kong Culture Festival, go to hkculturefestival.com or call 2559 9436