Hong Kong creative types in China find artistic freedom, openness to ideas in contrast to city’s conservatism

Artists who couldn’t make it in Hong Kong because of the city’s commercialism, high rents, small market and narrow-mindedness find a welcome in China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 September, 2018, 7:33am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 September, 2018, 10:18am

Former advertising executive Chiu Bing-hang had always wanted to be a professional singer. The Hong Kong native realised his dream in 2009 when he set up a Christian band, The Coming Rainbow, in Beijing with seven other musicians.

Going by the name Uncle Bing, and with a self-deprecating sense of humour, Chiu, 52, has since toured China with his band and performed for corporate sponsors at television stations.

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He recalls the favourable response the band received when they performed at a four-day music festival on the Wulan Butong grasslands in China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region in August. The local government organised the festival to promote tourism.

“The steppe is remote, with just roaming sheep and cattle … but during the night over 50,000 people came,” he says. “Although we are not a famous band, the audience was very enthusiastic.”

A Hong Kong salaryman giving up a promising business career to pursue an artistic dream is the kind of act that might raise eyebrows – if not derision – among family and friends. But Chiu’s relocation to China in the 1990s to work for advertising agencies J. Walter Thompson China and McCann not only made his unconventional quest possible, but also profitable. It came after a failed restaurant venture, in which he lost all his HK$2 million savings. He still has a share in one restaurant, where the band perform.

“Our band writes original Mandarin songs. There are no songs in Cantonese [the dialect spoken in Hong Kong]. We go on trips for gigs twice a month. We perform at the opening of theme parks and other commercial functions.

“We just signed an agreement with a Hangzhou company that wants to produce toys, photo albums and other souvenirs under our brand. The boss of the company is not a Christian himself, but is a fan of our songs.”

“There’s no way I could pursue a singing career in Hong Kong, where the entertainment and music industry is very commercial. But in China, due to its vast size, the market is more tolerant of [different kinds of musical acts],” Chiu says.

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Others may soon be singing the same tune as Chiu. Professionals in the cultural sector – playwrights, composers, actors, dancers, photographers and calligraphers – from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau have recently been permitted to apply for financial support from the China National Arts Fund.

Arts training programmes subsidised by the fund may accept Hong Kong applicants, and arts organisations in China are encouraged to cooperate with their Hong Kong counterparts to boost cultural exchange between the two places.

William Yip Shun-him, a drama director who graduated from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and set up the Theatre Noir troupe in the city in 2007, is a veteran of China-Hong Kong cultural collaborations. He decided to relocate to Beijing in 2011 after the troupe’s first play, With Love William Shakespeare, received an overwhelming response from audiences in China.

“We first staged the English version in Beijing in 2011. People from the Star Theatre in Beijing came to see the show and collaborated with us in producing a Chinese version. We did 150 performances of the Chinese version around China,” Yip says.

“There are many drama troupes in Hong Kong, but there is not a big enough audience. Our drama performances in Hong Kong can only manage a short run of a week and a half [after the premiere], but it’s not difficult to pull off a national run lasting up to two years in China.”

Yip, who has directed more than 50 plays, also leads drama education programmes in more than 30 schools in Shanghai and Beijing.

According to Hong Kong government statistics, in 2017 there were 500,000 Hong Kong natives living in China, of which more than 300,000 were of working age; they accounted for eight per cent of Hong Kong’s working population.

There’s no way I could pursue a singing career in Hong Kong, where the entertainment and music industry is very commercial
Chiu Bing-hang

With the development of infrastructure linking Hong Kong and China, such as the high-speed railway to Guangzhou, more creative people may decide to move north to further their career development.

Another benefit is increased administrative integration. Since September 1, residents of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan have been eligible to apply for smart cards giving them the same rights as their Chinese counterparts to access 18 public schemes and services.

Among those looking to take advantage is Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts dance graduate Tsang Tsz-kin, who specialises in teaching a form of improvisational modern dance. He says he was surprised by the liberal attitude of his Chinese students towards the dance form, which requires a lot of physical contact between students.

“Contact improvisation explores one’s body and movement in relationship to others through touch. Dancers have to learn the mechanics of the body so they can be lifted by their dance partner or [handle their partner’s weight] with fluidity.

“I have corporate clients who let their staff do contact improvisation as novices for team-building and orientation, getting subordinates to practise it with their bosses. This wouldn’t happen in Hong Kong, where people are more conservative [regarding physical contact],” he says.

Tsang relocated to Beijing in 2016 after his wife, who is from China, found a new job in the capital. He had not expected the niche dance form to gain a wide following almost as soon as he started holding classes in Beijing.

“My wife works full time, so I teach part time while home-schooling my two kids. There are so many students that I could run classes every day. I originally planned only a temporary relocation. Now, given the enthusiastic response, I plan to stay in Beijing and open a dance school.”

A former member of Hong Kong’s City Contemporary Dance Company, who has performed and created performances, Tsang set up a dance school in Hong Kong in 1999, running classes for schools and organising promotional dance activities for corporate sponsors. He says the overly commercialised nature of the market in Hong Kong put him off.

Although Hong Kong people often malign people from China [for their poor manners], my Chinese friends are more sophisticated than my Hong Kong friends
Cheng Sze-fong

“You can earn a lot of money doing promotional events for the big brands. Hong Kong schools just want to win dance competitions. Students have to keep on practising repetitive moves to prepare for a synchronised group performance. Synchronisation is all they ask for. There’s no room for students to explore their bodies and learn about dance,” he says.

The inaugural contact improvisation art festival, called Touch, was held in Shanghai in 2017, enabling dance teachers and culture enthusiasts to come together to conduct exchanges. Tsang, who joined the festival as a speaker, is excited by the numerous opportunities there are for professional development in China.

“Other cities in China, such as Hangzhou, invite me to teach there. I am so busy now that I am planning to stop home-schooling and enrol my children in schools.”

Hong Kong-born brothers Cheng Hin-fong and Cheng Sze-fong run the Link Gallery and a co-working space in Wangfujing, a prime commercial area in Beijing.

Elder brother Sze-fong, a City University of Hong Kong business graduate, says the threshold for starting a business in Beijing is much lower than in Hong Kong because rents are lower.

“The Hong Kong market is dominated by big chains, leaving little room for start-ups like us. I studied for my master’s degree in the UK and I met many people from China there who have become my friends,” Sze-fong says.

“Although Hong Kong people often malign people from China [for their poor manners], my Chinese friends are more sophisticated than my Hong Kong friends. Unlike Hong Kong people, who just want to stay in Hong Kong, people from China are adventurous and eager to leave where they come from and explore the best cities.

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A graduate of China’s Central Academy Of Fine Arts with a doctorate from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, younger brother Hin-fong is in charge of the gallery, which opened recently. He says he likes to display works by young Chinese artists.

“The works might be the arts university students’ graduation works. The paintings on sale here are below 40,000 yuan (US$5,850). There are many up-and-coming young artists in China whose works I appreciate a lot.”