KEYS TO THE FUTURE I was a bit of a late bloomer. I didn't pick up the piano until I was 13. My sister was taking piano lessons and I thought it sounded pretty good, so I started to take lessons as well. I progressed quickly and, within three years, got myself through grade eight. After that, my family emigrated to Canada and there I continued to pursue my music and arts interests. There's not a lot of art DNA in my family: my dad was a businessman and my mom is not very artistic. For me to pursue art was a big surprise to my family.
MOVING UP My dad fled to Hong Kong from Foshan in the early '50s, before the borders were closed, with little more than the clothes on his back. My mom followed suit a few years later. I spent the first four years of my life living in So Uk Estate, a public housing estate in Cheung Sha Wan. People complain about the lack of living space now but, back then, my dad's and my uncle's families, as well as my grandma - 10 people altogether - had to live in the same unit of slightly more than 400 square feet. But life wasn't so bad; dad told me years later that Sam Hui (Koon-kit) lived a few units down from us and that many a time he had to tell the future Canto-pop superstar off for playing his guitar in the corridor too loudly. My dad's restaurant business took off. With the family fortunes turning for the better, we moved to Mei Foo Sun Chuen and much later on to the leafier Mid-Levels. For my primary education, I was sent to Methodist School, in Yau Ma Tei. Not a religious person to this day, my mind would drift away to faraway lands as I was made to listen to Bible teachings during morning assembly. Much to my delight, and that of my parents, my exam results were good enough to earn me a place at Queen Elizabeth School (in Mong Kok).
ROUGH START Transition was rough. Canada is vast and beautiful, and the people gentle and friendly, but my English, which I thought was excellent by the standard of any 17-year-old in Hong Kong, just wasn't good enough to get me going in an English-speaking country. To overcome my deficiency, I started to read carnivorously, overload on sitcoms to pick up the accent and slang, and practise English with myself when I was washing dishes or mopping the floor. (I was fortunate not to develop schizophrenia as a result!) The first year I was at York University, in Toronto, I took economics to please my dad. But the subject just didn't speak to me and I was lazy; I wanted to switch my major to a degree that wouldn't require a lot of reading and writing papers. So the second semester I applied for a transfer and got accepted to the music department, to play piano - but not without a huge fight with my dad; he thought I was going to starve myself to death by taking up music. He almost disowned me. Finally he caved in and I started four years of arts education.
COMING HOME I really wanted to be on stage. This was before Lang Lang and Li Yundi; Fou Ts'ong was the major Chinese stage pianist. I thought to myself, "Someday, I want to be Fou Ts'ong." In the final year of my degree, my piano professor told me, "Paul, you're a pretty good musician. You can become a decent chamber musician, but you'll never make it as a soloist." My world was shattered but I still wanted a career that had everything to do with the arts. I went back to York University and got myself an MBA, majoring in marketing and minoring in arts administration. Then I got a job as a management trainee at a small theatre association. I was in that job for half a year but … I'm an immigrant, obviously, and even in the arts, there are some barriers. I wouldn't call it racism, just certain barriers I had to overcome. I decided to go back to Hong Kong, to try my luck on a so-called level playing field. I came back in 1994 and worked in a non-arts job for two years.
There was an advertisement in the SCMP for a job as an audience development manager at the Hong Kong Philharmonic. I didn't even know what audience development was but I thought, "That's the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra!" Later on, my boss told me there had been two candidates, one girl, one boy. And they hired me because the job involved carrying a lot of heavy stuff.
SMALL PACKAGES (After a stint in the United States), I returned again to Hong Kong and bobbed around for six years in different organisations, from WWF to the Australian International School to Aedas, an architectural firm, in fundraising, PR, community relations and business development. I realised I needed to do something new and I decided to open a bar in NoHo: Meilanfang, named after the famed Peking Opera star. In 2009, I got another call from the Hong Kong Phil asking if I would like to go back and help. At the end of the fourth year, I felt like my time was up, again. I was lucky to be asked to join the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. I went from one of the largest performing arts organisations - budget wise and staff wise - to a small artistic outfit with two-and-a-half people, including myself. People thought I was crazy, but it was one of the most rewarding experiences I'd ever had; I got to see the creation of art from start to finish.
MAKING THE RIGHT MOVES I joined the Hong Kong Ballet in 2014 (shortly after the company had faced accusations of self-censorship after cutting a scene for political reasons. That) happened before my time and I think during a time when they had no executive director. I decided to give the job a try because, by inclination, I love ballet. Ever since I joined the arts sector, 20 years ago, there's always been this thought that the major performing arts organisations get a lot of the resources and there's not a lot left for the smaller ones. But it's not a competition. Together, we should make the pie bigger, in terms of funding and audience. And even when the major organisations are supposedly getting a lot more money than the smaller organisations, it's still not enough. The Hong Kong Phil has more than 90 musicians and we have close to 50 dancers year round. We're in the business of perfection, and perfection requires bottomless funding.
ART OF SUCCESS I started out as a lowly management trainee at a small theatre association in Toronto and then music and now dance. My dad's passed away but, if I could, I'd tell him that the arts have served me quite OK.