Hong Kong Arts Festival turns 50; moves performances online as city battles fifth wave of Covid

Clara Ki Lu
  • Since social gatherings are limited to only two people, it is impossible to hold large-scale events, forcing venues to go online
  • Check out TM from Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed, in which the cast interacts with the audience one-on-one
Clara Ki Lu |

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The show poster from “Wonder Boy,” a coming-of-age drama exploring the inner world of a boy with a speech impediment. Photo: Hong Kong Arts Festival

The Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF) celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. However, since the fifth wave of coronavirus has either cancelled performances or moved them online, months of preparation have resulted in a different outcome.

For years, the HKAF has brought renowned artists from all around the world to the city, cementing Hong Kong’s reputation as a place where East meets West and bringing the community together through a shared love of the arts.

All this came to a halt in 2020.

The taiko group merging Hong Kong culture with Japanese drums

“We were absolutely unprepared … we had to cancel everything,” said Tisa Ho, Executive Director of the HKAF.

The situation was relatively stable in 2021, with Hong Kong reporting zero local cases for months on end towards the end of the year. However, that took a 180 degree turn when Omicron spread across the community early in 2022.

Within weeks, the city was grappling with tens of thousands of local cases per day. Buildings went into lockdown, work from home policies were implemented, and Hong Kong faced its most stringent social distancing measures yet.

In “To Be A Machine,” the audience observes the play as avatars on iPads. Photo: Ste Murray

All this had a profound impact on the HKAF.

“Performing arts is a very social thing … people talk about teamwork whenever you put on a performance together. So when the team can’t work together, it’s really hard,” Ho said.

With gatherings limited to only two people, the HKAF struggled to change its performances into a hybrid mode, meaning cancellation was the only option.

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“We are sitting here watching our box office income disappear. And our sponsorships have evaporated to a large degree,” Ho explained.

Last month, the government announced a new round of pandemic relief funding, expected to total HK$27 billion. The HKAF hopes they will qualify for some of these subsidies.

The joy of spreading music to your community

Still, they have found ways to keep the arts alive during this difficult time, including arranging a series of interactive events such as TM, an online show from Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed, billed as a drama that gives “an extra twist on online communication,” as the cast has one-on-one interactions with audience members.

“We are able to present some of the world’s best shows as part of HKAF’s online programming,” Ho said. “I hope this helps people with whatever they have to get through.”

Check out the HKAF’s website for a list of events.

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