Social Warrior Women
EL Hong Kong|March - May 2020
LINDSEY MCALISTER OBE, JP is the founder of Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation.
REBECCA SIMPSON

Opening Up Opportunity

LINDSEY MCALISTER OBE, JP is the founder of Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation. She’s an effervescent creative force who has impacted the lives of an entire generation of Hong Kong youths.

What brought you here?

I arrived in Hong Kong over 30 years ago with a background in the arts and lots of energy and enthusiasm. From the moment I put my foot on Hong Kong soil (and had the “angel choir” moment), I knew I’d been brought here to make magic.

I’d been travelling in Southeast Asia for a year. The plan was to spend a week or two in Hong Kong and then head back to the UK where I had a job waiting for me with the Arts Council. But, after hearing those angels sing, I knew I had to stay. So, I rang the UK and resigned! I felt so strongly that I was supposed to be in Hong Kong. It’s a good thing that I acknowledged my intuition and stayed, otherwise Hong Kong would have been deprived of all these amazing opportunities for young people.

What has been the highlight of your expat experience?

Turning Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation (HKYAF) from an idea into a reality has been the highlight of my life!

The idea for the foundation began as a youth arts festival. I’d been trying to get it off the ground for several months, doing very un-strategic things like cold-calling companies from the yellow pages. I’d met Po Chung, the co-founder of DHL Asia Pacific and Chairman Emeritus of DHL Express, at an arts event, and I was invited to his office to make a presentation about the festival. I’d never done anything like that before. But I went in and did my one-woman show anyway.

The presentation went well, but I was told to keep him updated on how plans were going. Six months into my mission, I had about HK$500 in a bank account, and so I went along to the bank to ask for an overdraft to make HKYAF a reality. They said no at first, but I was persistent. It took a whole day before the overdraft was approved.

From there on, I created a programme of events, invited schools and artists, booked venues and printed a programme that I posted to everyone. After several days, I received a phone call from Po Chung and he congratulated me on making it happen. He enquired who my sponsor was because there were no logos on the materials I’d sent him. I told him about the overdraft I got and he invited me to his office the following day. When I got there, he was sitting at his desk with his cheque book out. “How much is your overdraft?” he asked, and he wrote me a cheque in response. His next question was “How much do you need to make your festival happen?” – and then he wrote another one!

That was a fantastic life lesson.

What drove you to start HKYAF?

When I arrived in Hong Kong, I had a good look at what was being offered to young people in the arts. Although there were quite a few child or youth art projects, the quality was low. These were opportunities that parents had to pay for and most of them were very competitive.

I felt I could offer something better for the community. I wanted to create inclusive and inspirational projects that reach out to young people of all cultures, backgrounds, languages, and abilities. I wanted to actively create opportunities for disadvantaged and underprivileged young people. There was a need to offer free-of-charge opportunities for young people so that everybody had the chance to create and experience the arts in a wide variety of genres.

You’ve achieved so much that you were recognised with an OBE in 2006. What’s your advice to other women who want to mobilise communities?

My advice is not to think too much. I’m not a big thinker. I follow my heart and just dive in. If you sit down and address all the things that might go wrong, you’d never do anything.

If you know in your heart (and you really have to know) that you have an awesome idea that will serve our community, you absolutely have to do it! You don’t do this type of work for the money or the recognition. You do it because it’s like breathing. You can’t live without it!

Fostering Arts & Culture

As the Museum Director of M+, Hong Kong’s new showcase of visual culture, Australian expat SUHANYA RAFFEL is tasked with the role of helping build the city’s cultural capital.

What brought you to Hong Kong?

The M+ project has always been on my radar. I’ve been visiting Hong Kong since the early 1990s. I was keenly aware of the major cultural infrastructure programme that is the West Kowloon Cultural District when it was being formulated.

The role of Museum Director was one I couldn’t resist. The idea of bringing a major cultural institution into fruition through building a unique collection of art, design, architecture and moving image in Asia – all while working with a major architect, Herzog & de Meuron, on the museum building – is an exceptional opportunity. I’m here to see M+ transform Hong Kong and take a preeminent place amongst international museums of equivalent scale.

Hong Kong is unique. It’s really a people-based cosmopolitan city and its primary resource is its people. Reflecting on this, I think about the movement of ideas and the positioning of the city beyond its finance credentials. I want to lead a museum in a city that’s investing in cultural capital. This is thinking for the future.

What’s been the highlight of your expat experience so far?

A highlight for me has been getting to know people beyond the cultural sector and into other parts of the city’s life. It’s such a dynamic and energetic place that the experience of living in the city itself has been a real highlight.

And the toughest challenge?

Despite being a great city, Hong Kong has lacked large-scale cultural infrastructure. Establishing one piece of this, the M+ museum, is my daily challenge. Within the institution, I’ve taken an active approach to engage a local audience base that hasn’t traditionally grown up with a worldclass museum or a museum-going habit.

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