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City Weekend

The Aussie Santa Claus bringing Christmas cheer to Hongkongers for generations

  • Toby Newman, 47, has a family tradition in December in which he flies back to the city of his youth, taking turns with his father to bring festive joy
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 December, 2018, 8:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 December, 2018, 8:03am

With Christmas round the corner, Santa Claus is coming to town – not from the North Pole, but Australia.

Toby Newman, 47, who is clad in the signature jolly red outfit complete with a white bushy beard and heavy belly, says: “I became Santa Claus 14 years ago when my dad asked me to help him.

“Being Santa is so much fun. I like meeting children, giving them joy and making them happy. So I thought, why not?”

Newman, who is Australian, lived in Hong Kong from 16 to 21, when his father Kim worked in the city. In 2002, the senior Newman took up a gig as Santa, bringing joy to kids in malls during Christmas.

The family returned to their hometown when the younger Newman was in his 20s, but his father continued the tradition of coming back to Hong Kong and dressing up as Santa to bring holiday cheer to locals.

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When Toby Newman was 33, his father asked him to help with the role, and the merry duo have been at it ever since, taking turns flying into town in December to channel the spirit of Santa.

Newman says he is privileged to have seen Christmas celebrations in Hong Kong grow over more than a decade he has played the role.

“People here really make it a celebration. The whole city is decorating and everybody is participating. It’s really a big celebration and it has been getting bigger every year.”

This year, Newman is employed as Santa at mall Festival Walk in Kowloon Tong. He declines to reveal how much he earns, but says he works from noon to 6pm each weekend from December 1 to 26.

As part of his role play, he poses with passers-by for photos, with the money raised going to charity. Each photo, together with a frame, costs HK$98 (US$13). The money will be donated to those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, according to Newman.

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A job perk centres on knowing the photo opportunities with customers go towards forging family bonds, he says. “People usually come here as a family. If their families are not here, they still come to take a photo and give it to their families for the memories.”

He adds that having played the role for so long, he has noticed familiar faces returning every year.

“Some people have been coming back, the same group of friends. They came as university students, and then they come as married couples, and later, with their children. The tradition is so strong in Hong Kong.”

Some people have been coming back, the same group of friends. The tradition is so strong in Hong Kong.
Toby Newman

He recalls a pregnant woman he met one Christmas, who came back the next year with her baby girl, and in the years that followed, Newman has seen the child grow up as she returned for a festive snap each time. As long as both sides continue the tradition, Newman muses that he may get to see three generations of visitors.

Apart from sharing the joy with the public, Newman’s Santa also brings cheer to the needy. In his jolly role, he has visited elderly people in poor villages and children with special needs in Hong Kong.

He says although his character is fictional, he has always cherished a good imagination in children, and as a boy, he too looked forward to every photo with Santa Claus.

“I believe in the idea of Santa Claus,” he says. “If children ask me whether Santa Claus is real, I would tell them that I’m real.”

When Newman is not playing Santa, he is back in Australia, working part-time and managing a website, for which he declines to reveal details. He says he is working on a children’s book called Selfie the Quokka.

The quokka is an Australian marsupial belonging to the same family as kangaroos, and adults grow to about the size of a cat. Native to Western Australia, the species is popular with tourists because of its fuzzy appearance and comical face.

Newman’s book will follow the adventurous journey of a snapshot-loving quokka character on Rottnest Island, the animal’s home. He says publication is slated for next year.

With a son, 11, and three daughters aged three, nine and 21, he says he may one day pass down the family’s Santa tradition in Hong Kong to his son.

“It’s the best job in the world,” he says.