Putting Hong Kong’s forgotten figures in the spotlight is filmmaker’s labour of love

Former TV producer’s passion project profiles 25 overlooked figures in Hong Kong’s cultural scene

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 February, 2016, 12:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 February, 2016, 12:02am

Bad experiences have made ceramic artist Johnson Tsang Cheung-shing wary of video interviews. The last time he accepted a television station’s request, he went to considerable effort to present his porcelain figurines in different stages of preparation to illustrate the creative process.

But the scramble and stress he endured on the shoot did not pay off, Tsang says. All too often such videos prove disappointing; moreover he is fed up with how the post-production editing distorts what he says in his interviews.

Nevertheless, Tsang was intrigued last March when part-time documentary maker Patrick Cheong Po-man approached him about being a subject in the latter’s Influencer 25 project, a series of video profiles about people in Hong Kong who live their beliefs.

“Before saying yes, I watched some of [Cheong’s] videos and found them to be quite different,” Tsang says. “They are more genuine and I credit that to how he lets the subjects express themselves without any presumption. It’s more like two friends chatting.”

Influencer 25 is a labour of love for Cheong, a former television producer who has worked at media companies including TVB, Star TV and National Geographic for some 20 years.

He became fed up with how corporate culture was stifling producers’ creativity and limiting the possibilities of what audiences could enjoy, and in 2012 switched to a freelance career instead. His expertise lies in creating and editing motion graphics but filmmaking is what he enjoys most.

A commission to create videos to accompany a psychology professor’s lectures at Polytechnic University reminded him of the educational potential of the medium. And when a local TV station rejected his pitch for an informative youth programme, it only ignited Cheong’s determination to produce alternative material and give viewers a greater choice of content.

“It was the year when various channels were applying for free-to-air TV licences. They needed a lot of programme ideas and I was invited to makes some pitches to one of them,” Cheong says. “I proposed a youth-oriented show, but it was a pretty painful experience trying to convince them to take it. They liked the idea and we went through more discussions, but in the end the pitch was not accepted because ‘it’s not in line with their direction’.

“Each station has its own direction, which is more often than not entertainment oriented as that is more profitable. They also have many concerns in terms of production costs, marketing strategy, viewership and sponsorship.”

But rejection didn’t dampen Cheong’s spirit. He decided to produce a series of videos about people driven by passion or a sense of mission to persist in what they believe in regardless of the outcome.

Setting his target at 25 people, Cheong aims to tell the stories of overlooked personalities – what motivates them to do what they do and how their choices made a difference in their own life and that of others.

The idea is to encourage others to live their dreams. “It’s like a chain reaction,” Cheong says.

Instead of trying to pitch his project to a television station, he changed tack and started his own YouTube channel to share the series with the public.

The video channel, which combine interviews with famous quotes, music and sometimes animation that echo the subjects’ views, are also complemented with an Influencer 25 website and Facebook page.

“Social media is so convenient now – everyone can make something and share it on the channel they started. So I seized the opportunity,” says Cheong, who holds a master’s degree in communication and media studies from the University of the Arts London. “If it was 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do it at all.”

There is little cost involved other than his own time. Already familiar with video production, he can film simultaneously with the two pocket-size cameras that he already owns and make use of existing post-production software. Moreover, in making profiles he does not need to worry about hiring actors or venues.

His first video features Leonard Law, who runs L’Apres Midi Gallery, a Tin Hau cafe that also serves as an art and performance space.

An artistic director before he switched to freelancing, Law needed a studio of his own and thought it might be good to share not only the creative space, but also his passion for coffee. Besides providing the venue for art exhibitions and music gigs, he also organises weekend crafts markets to support talented Hongkongers who lack an affordable platform for their work.

Through the third video, we learn more about the people behind online music magazine Bitetone, and get a glimpse of the state of the city’s alternative music scene.

The Influencer subjects, including comics artist Tubby Fellow (real name Keith Lee), share a stubborn streak. Lee trained in design in Canada, but never lost his passion for drawing comics. So much so, he eventually gave up his full-time job with a publisher to fulfil his dream of becoming a comic artist even though the earnings from his part-time work at local comics publishing houses isn’t enough to live on.

As much as he loves veteran artists such as Ma Wing-shing (creator of the Stormrider and Chinese Heroes series), Lee finds the Hong Kong comic scene, long dominated by the kung fu genre, lacks variety. That’s why he started experimenting with different styles.

Lee has since developed a humorous, self-deprecating style that he says gives him satisfaction, and hopes there will be more avenues for aspiring comics artists.

Similarly, the segment on Tsang, a former police sergeant, reveals his struggles in risking a career change to devote himself to ceramic art. What’s more, he must contend with the relative lack of status that ceramic art holds.

“I love how some people’s faith in changing their way of life to add colour to any repetitive, boring routine,” says Cheong.

“And the inspiration behind the project’s title – and naturally the targeted number of interviewees – is that I believe there are pivotal phases in one’s life, and the first is when a person reaches 25. It’s almost like a turning point during which different decisions or happenings will have a lasting impact.”

That certainly held true for Cheong: when he was 25, he was working at the music network Channel V, where he was given a lot of freedom to execute his own ideas. Although there wasn’t much funding or assistance, the process taught him how to realise concepts from scratch.

And it is a demanding approach that also informs his 25 videos project. “I own each and every second of the videos,” he says. “The satisfaction is immense.”

After two decades of working as a producer, Cheong still relishes being a hands-on creative.

He treasures making every instalment, but his fourth on Mark Mak Chi-ho, founder of Non-Profit Making Veterinary Service Society (NPV) was particularly memorable. It called for multiple visits to the clinic in Mong Kok as well as shoots at rallies or adoption events, which Cheong turns into a video that promotes compassion.

“It was only through making the NPV video that I realised how backward our animal protection laws are, for instance, and what horrible dealings those illegal breeders are involved in,” he says. “This project has been a great learning curve for me. I try my best to include people from different walks of life and hopefully each video will teach me – and viewers – something new. The gain might be abstract, but valuable regardless.”

The latest episode Cheong has published features Leung Kai-yip, who founded On Fire, an initiative that recruits volunteers to offer free tuition for underprivileged students.

Having grown up in an impoverished immigrant family, Leung launched the venture in March 2012 to help alleviate the problem of cross-generational poverty. On Fire now organises a pool of 100 volunteers, who provide personal tuition at 25 locations across the city each week to several hundred youngsters.

While the filmmaker is touched by Leung’s determination to persist with such a challenging task, the On Fire founder says that sentiment is mutual.

“We are both about pursuing our dreams and spreading a positive vibe,” says Leung, who previously worked at the Evangel Children’s Home.

“His project is a great platform for bringing together all these willful pioneers ... and to become catalysts of interactions or collaborations among us all.”