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Pay wanes, Passion wins

Published on 11th December 2015

She took a risk, because you take risks for what you love.

Shadowed by the family tradition of devotion to architecture, Ysabelle Trujillo Jose always believed interior design was the right career for her in terms of income and stability.

But she took a courageous step and opted instead to chase after her dream course, performing arts, in an academically driven city where there are just a small number of companies and productions that actually hire and pay performers. “As for my financial stability, I’ll work my way through even if it means that I have to do three shows everyday, as long as I’m happy,” is what the 21-year-old Filipino woman has to say.

Jose is currently studying for a Higher Diploma in Musical Theatre at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts (HKAPA). Having started dancing at an age as early as 4, the talented girl embarked on her passion by taking up ballet and tap dance classes later evolving into many other styles through the years, followed by singing and finally into musical theatre.

Although the APA provides various degree programmes, Musical Theatre does not happen to one of them. “Musical theatre never really had a home here in APA or in Hong Kong, to be honest,” says Ysabelle, with a disappointed shrug. “In terms of the industry here in Hong Kong, mainly there’s Disneyland… and Ocean Park and that’s about it.”

“If there were something for us performers here in Hong Kong as career, I definitely would stay,” says Jose, with a profound look in her wide eyes and a frown of deep thoughts, almost too harsh for her soft features. She has already applied to the UK in order to pursue her career in this discipline.

Learning facilities and infrastructures do not seem to be the root causes for the hesitant attitude towards performing arts. Only last year, the Director of HKAPA, Professor Adrian Walter announced a new extension of the HKAPA campus within the next 5 years to enhance the quality of education students receive at the school. “This will further enrich the learning environment for students,” said the Director in a South China Morning Post interview on January 2014.

Instead it’s the culture here in our exam-oriented city that leads to the lack of significance given to this industry. Jose studied in one of the English Schools Foundation (ESF) schools, the largest provider of English-medium international education in Hong Kong. “At ESF, it was all about the process of learning a certain thing. We could find different means of learning; let it be music, art or performing. Not everything had to be based on textbooks and PowerPoint’s.”

She soon found herself in for a rather unpleasant cultural shock, as she entered the YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College (YHKCC). “Now all I heard was that I needed to ace my exams, get straights A’s and A*s, which would be the only way to succeed in life. But this isn’t really the case. Arts and other creative outlets can also contribute to your learning aside from recalling facts and theories.”

One of the steps taken by the academy to encourage secondary students to indulge more in performing arts is the Gifted Young Dancer Programme (GYDP) for youths of age 14-18. It is a self-financed programme established in 2004. Charis Yiu, a F5 student studying in Po Leung Kuk Ngan Po Ling College is one of the 33 successful applicants this year.

 “The GYDP allows me to try out different genres of dance to find out what I like,” says the 16-year-old, who is taking two technique classes of ballet and contemporary and a repertory class. “I wish local schools would add performing arts into the education curriculum too just to let the students explore and promote this aspect as well.”

It’s not just the young students who are discontent with the culture of performing arts here in HK. Violet Lau, the Head of the Students Affairs sheds some light on this issue.

“I think it’s more about the perception of Hong Kong as a whole,” says Lau, recalling her knowledge on the grades-oriented beliefs and practices of a conventional Chinese society. “If the kids are not studying something practical that would let them make a lot of money after they graduate then the parents would have hesitation allowing their kids to study performing arts,” says the middle-aged woman, her frustration on such a view clearly echoing through her words.

“It really saddens me that we have so much potential as youths but by the time we get out of the “proper” universities, it’s lost,” Jose expresses her concern, with a pang of melancholy in her voice.

She feels grateful and fortunate as she is now somewhere where she wants to be. But there are still a handful of youths whose remarkable talents were suppressed due to the academic-obsessed mindset of the city.

Caleb Li, a 20-year old HKU student happens to be one of them. “My parents verbally agreed when I discussed about studying ballet after high-school but I knew that they didn’t like it,” says the former ballet dancer who had started dancing since the age of 4.

“I’m not even passionate about dancing anymore after not dancing for 3 years;

Passion dies when you don’t get an opportunity, and that’s Hong Kong.” The way Li let out these harsh words of brutal honesty in such a monotonic voice is enough to let us know just how easily HK is losing young aspirations.

Stella Lau, a ballet teacher and dance educator in HKAPA expresses her thoughts as well. “When you talk about the future, I don’t think any programme can guarantee you a place in a certain profession. But it does provide you an opportunity to embark on your career,” says the enthusiastic former HK Ballet ballerina.

As a parent of three kids herself, Lau says she doesn’t want to generalize all the parents about this paradigm, but she cannot help bring the attention to the skeptical views of HK parents.

“My mom didn’t talk to me properly for three whole years. But after she watched my graduation performance “Giselle” I saw traces of tears on her face and she told me she finally understood my passion,” says Lau, with a hint of a melancholy smile and pride in her eyes as she reminisces her struggling days.

She then proceeds to share her vision about her mission of audience building and educating the general public to portray how beautiful performing arts is since she had overcome her obstacle via the same path.

“The thing about performing arts is that it can make someone richer, but richer as in here and here,” says the graceful lady, first pointing to her temple and then to her heart.

Another key suggestion Violet Lau speaks about is the governmental aid to the local entertainment industries. “Most organizations and companies are working under a very tight budget and it’s not easy for them to find a venue to let the performers perform. More financial support and allocation of venues like the West Kowloon venue to these companies would be helpful as they are the ones hiring the graduates.”

Performing provides something a regular day-job cannot; the creativity and the imagination, which makes one, feel better and enjoy life better.

Without these crucial elements, our city is doomed to become dry and unimaginative. It is going to put HK as less competitive to other cities too, like Singapore. Innovation is the strength of citizens to be able to compete in multiple aspects. For example even in business, figures alone are not sufficient; creative business plans and strategies to achieve the targets are must-haves. Performing arts happens to be the top-notch of creativity and HK cannot afford to lose this bit at any cost.

“I can’t imagine a city like Hong Kong with flourishing economy and high buildings but there’s no soul in it!” says Stella Lau, shaking her head in disbelief, her voice loud and heard against the soft jazz music played at the academy.

To let performing arts reach the level of recognition it deserves in a rather conservative community, brave leaps from young minds and social acceptance are imperative, despite the oppositions from norms.

Till then, we can only pray that these hidden talents can finally break out of the mould and find their voices in time before a regret is forever plastered in their hearts.