The first uh-oh moment of the 2020 Hong Kong Arts Festival, recalls Grace Lang Cheung-wai, the festival’s programme director, was when the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which was supposed to perform the opening programme, cancelled . Was it because of Covid-19 or the anti-government protests ? Lang considers the question. In recent years, it’s difficult to unstitch one Hong Kong difficulty from another. “I think it was Covid,” she says eventually. “The Boston Symphony were also going to tour China, and China was still waiting to see how things would end up. They could have come … but they did not come.” After that, the domino effect briskly took over and the 2020 festival was cancelled. The sets for Ariadne auf Naxos , which had sailed into Hong Kong for the Bavarian State Opera’s performance, were dispatched back to Germany. By the time they had returned, Covid-19 was there too. Lang is reminiscing in the Arts Festival’s Wan Chai office. Behind her is a 1973 poster advertising the first festival, featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Margot Fonteyn , Yehudi Menuhin, the Bristol Old Vic … In those days, she was a Form Three (year nine) student at St Stephen’s Girls’ College in Mid-Levels who queued at dawn for tickets to see that dream constellation of stars. Most flew in courtesy of BOAC, an airline that would form part of British Airways in 1974 and which was the festival’s prime mover, in every sense. The idea was to lure visitors to Hong Kong during the traditionally slack months of February and March, employing a theatrical flourish. Local acts dominate 2022 Hong Kong Arts Festival line-up Or, as the South China Morning Post put it in February 1972: “Seven key men are quietly charting an ambitious project to put Hongkong [sic] on the world culture map.” The following month, the paper had a headline – “Festival job for woman” – above a story about the appointment of an administration manager called Sonia Archer. Attitudes have moved on. In 2006, when Tisa Ho – still the festival’s executive director – took up her job, she became head of an all-female management team. In at least one respect, however, the past shakes hands with the present. Half a century ago, Ted Duggan, who handled BOAC’s public relations, had remarked how wonderful it would be to have artists from mainland China performing in Hong Kong. In 2022, Lang knows how he felt. Pity the poor programme manager in a pandemic. This mid-January conversation occasionally has an air of magical thinking: hopefully, maybe, let’s see. After the disaster of 2020, the 2021 festival had to pivot to more online productions. The 2022 programme hums with concepts undreamed of in 1973: uploaded audiences, performative installations, augmented reality, virtual reality, unique reality. Lang hankers after real reality. Overseas artists can’t, or won’t, do quarantine and she is trying to remain optimistic about those mainland Chinese artists who are due to perform on an actual stage. “We’re having a big project with the Shanghai Opera House and the Suzhou orchestra in the last two weeks of March,” she says. “So we are waiting … If there is no sign of the border reopening, we have to cancel or to replace the programme.” On February 10, festival organisers announced the cancellation or postponement of most in-venue performances because of surging Covid-19 cases and uncertainty about the availability of performance venues closed to curb the spread of the virus. However, the Shanghai/Suzhou project was not among them. Long before Covid-19, Lang had already developed the skills of both a chess grandmaster and an army quartermaster. She understands artistic temperaments (she majored in music at Wesleyan University in Connecticut in the United States) and she understands bureaucracy (she did a three-year part-time certificate in arts administration through the University of Hong Kong). She began her career in the music office at City Hall, where she worked with the headline-making Archer, then moved to the Hong Kong Arts Centre. When a sudden flood almost ruined Hong Kong’s landmark arts festival When she joined the Arts Festival in September 1988, her title was “programme manager” but, as there were only eight people in the office, her duties included administration and human resources. Her major responsibility for her first festival, in 1989, was the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor, André Previn. That meant sorting out at least 100 individual contracts, flights, and rooms at the now-demolished Furama Hotel. Lodgings have occupied much of her time. In 1991, members of the City of Birmingham Symphony orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle, found that their feet dangled off the ends of their beds. Lang, who’s funny, feisty and fair, gave it to them straight: “‘The only option is the Panda Hotel in Tsuen Wan – would you like to move there? You lose half a day in travelling. And it’s a lesser-category hotel.’ So in the end – they shut up! We just added some benches to the end of the bed for the tall ones and they were very happy.” The jazz musician Herbie Hancock , having heard that The Peninsula was the best place to lay his head, insisted on shifting from a lower-grade establishment. By contrast, an Indian drumming group arrived in the city with no luggage except its own rice. After negotiation, their Kowloon hotel offered the use of its Italian restaurant in the afternoons, and the Arts Festival committee took the drummers to Chungking Mansions to supplement supplies. I talk to my friends – what have you seen? What’s happening? We plan [for] 2023, 2024, 2025 … Grace Lang, Hong Kong Arts Festival programme director Meanwhile, the Opera of the Prague National Theatre brought its own stoves on which to grill steaks in members’ rooms. Some Eastern European groups were inclined to stock up on Hong Kong’s cheaper electrical appliances, such as rice cookers, and ship them all back with the sets at the festival’s expense. On such occasions, Lang has shown her diplomatic side. “It needs a little bit of sympathy and understanding,” she explains. “And love, I think.” Asked if she’s ever had contact with the police, she replies without pausing, “Guns. Some shows have gunshots, so we have to book a car specially with one member of staff to bring the gun back afterwards.” (Bearing in mind the recent tragedy involving Alec Baldwin , is it necessary to use a real gun in the theatre of make-believe? “Yes! The sound is different .”) Over the years, she’s witnessed the change in Hong Kong’s artistic response to itself. “In the 1990s, because it was going to be handed back to China, people were trying to find their roots.” Lang cites a 1990 version of La Traviata , directed by Ralph Koltai and conducted by Tang Wu-hai, which was set in Shanghai. By 1994, there was The Kids, The Wind & The City , a Hong Kong musical directed by Fredric Mao. Many Chinese minorities have performed in the Arts Festival’s events over many years. Still, as its own roots suggested, the festival has always been about global traffic. Lang has been indefatigable in her wanderings, taking the pulse of productions worldwide. Her knowledge, and her contacts, have been priceless in previous down-to-the-wire experiences. In 2015, for example, she’d been in negotiations with the Berlin State Ballet about bringing The Sleeping Beauty to the 44th festival. She’d heard the company was involved in a long-running local union dispute but was assured it was definitely coming. One morning in late September, she received an overnight cancellation message. At the time, the artistic director of the Berlin State Ballet was the Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato; and it was his version of The Sleeping Beauty that had been planned for Hong Kong. Lang knew, crucially, that he’d originally written it for the Mikhailovsky Ballet of St Petersburg in 2011, when he’d been its artistic director. She rang a contact. He happened to be in St Petersburg. He went to the Mikhailovsky Theatre. “Within 12 hours it was settled. It was the same production – we didn’t even have to change the photos!” Lang smiles at the memory. “It was such a blessed experience. How could I deny this possibility in any of what’s upcoming in the future? It will be solved.” Meanwhile, she waits in hope for the mainland Chinese artists. Her passport expired a year ago. (“Better get it renewed.”) These days, she maintains her global connections through the almost-reality of video calls. “I talk to my friends – what have you seen? What’s happening? We plan [for] 2023, 2024, 2025 …” A history of Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations in Hong Kong “Seiji Ozawa,” she says, pointing to the name on the poster behind her. On the festival’s first-ever opening night, 26 February 1973, Ozawa conducted the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra. “And Yu Lu is his protégé.” The Ningbo-born Yu Lu is due to conduct the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra for two performances on 5 and 6 March at this year’s festival, the sort of connection between history and artist which gives Lang pleasure. Yu Lu was booked because Jaap van Zweden, the Hong Kong Phil’s music director, has been caught up in quarantine regulations . Soon after this interview, however, it becomes clear that no mainland Chinese artist will be crossing the border for the 50th festival. Wilson Ng, the Hong Kong-born conductor booked as van Zweden’s replacement for the festival’s opening on 25 February, is already in the city, no airline required. Alas, because of pandemic social-distancing measures, the Cultural Centre – like all cultural venues on Hong Kong’s map – will be closed.