• Devi

Lindsey McAlister OBE, JP: Preparing Hong Kong’s Young Generation Through Arts

I truly believe creativity is a very important part of our growth as it helps us in problem-solving, decision-making processes, innovation, etc.

Therefore, on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2021, I would like to shine the light on Lindsey McAlister OBE, JP, a woman who is bringing creativity to a different and bigger scale in the life of young people in Hong Kong.

Lindsey McAlister OBE, JP, is the founder of Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation (HKYAF). She works tirelessly to create inclusive and inspirational art projects for young people in Hong Kong, regardless of their background, languages, cultures, or abilities. Lindsey, through HKYAF, has created different projects including the yearly event “Standard Chartered Arts in the Park”.

HKYAF also created yearly Performing Art Showcases and Exhibitions. Further, through their Art Angels Programme, HKYAF together with their corporate partners painted murals in hospitals, special needs schools, and social services centres. HKYAF also helped disable children partake in art projects with professional parties. They also organised art projects and parties in hospitals for long-term sick children and families.

Due to her hard work and commitments, Lindsey received an “Order of the British Empire” award from the Queen of England and “Justice of the Peace” title of honour from Hong Kong’s government.

In this article, I asked Lindsey to share her entrepreneurial journey, her way to handle rejection, and her advice for people who want to become entrepreneurs like her.

Many people would like to turn their passion into something more but they are worried about lots of things. Tell us about your entrepreneurship journey and how you overcame your worries.

I’m not a big thinker, but I’m a “do-er”. I don’t spend excessive amounts of time worrying about "what if…”. I just give it a go!

I arrived in Hong Kong over 30 years ago with a background in the arts and lots of energy and enthusiasm. As soon as I arrived (and had the angel choir moment), I knew I was here to make magic!

I’d been trying to get my idea for Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation (HKYAF) off the ground for several months. I did very un-strategic things like cold calling companies from the yellow pages. No one wanted to meet to discuss my idea!

Eventually, I met Po Chung, the co-founder of DHL Asia Pacific and Chairman Emeritus of DHL Express, at an art event. And I knew that the universe had sent me a sign. He’d just begun an initiative called “Business for the Arts” and they were seeking new projects for seed funding. After presenting my idea in my “one-woman show”, I was told to keep them updated about my progress. This was six months into my mission and I’ve had to make an overdraft from the bank to get things started. I sat at the bank all day with arms folded before the bank manager agreed to give me an overdraft!

I created a programme of events, inviting schools and artists, booking venues and printed a programme that I sent to everyone I knew, including Po. Several days later, he called me and wrote me a couple of cheques. And HKYAF was born!

This was a fantastic journey. Since then, I have never really worried. If it’s meant to be, it will be. And HKYAF is definitely meant to be!

What challenges did you face; and how did you overcome it? What is your motto in pursuing your idea? Did you have any fear in case your project did not work?

My team would smile at this question! At HKYAF, we don’t have “problems” or “challenges”. These have been reframed as “opportunities”. These include being new to Hong Kong, not having a track record here and being totally unconnected to anyone. 2019 and 2020 have also given us lots of “opportunities”!

Around the time when I met Po Chung, I also met the ostentatious Sir David Tang. I thought he’d be just the man to be HKYAF’s patron and sent a specially written fax to his office to invite him to be our patron. It wasn’t just any fax. It was a fax that stood out amongst all the others that poured out of his machine on an hourly basis. Twenty minutes later, my fax machine beeped with a short reply – “Yes”!

This was the beginning of a beautiful 25-year relationship. David was an amazing man who I miss in my life. So I guess my motto would be “If you don’t ask you don’t get”!

Have you ever been rejected in your fundraising efforts or getting buy-in from different stakeholders? How did you deal with rejection?

Oh yes, and I take it personally! Rejection is a horrible feeling. That’s why I could never be a performer. I can’t bear the thought of all that rejection. I don’t think I really deal with it. I try and tell myself that it’s not “me” they don’t like, it’s just not the right project or opportunity for that particular sponsor. Then I’d have a bath and a large gin and tonic, pick myself up, brush myself off and have another go!

What are your observations about the arts for young people? Is Hong Kong improving? What is lacking; and why art development is important for young people?

There have always been lots of opportunities in the arts for young people, but the quality is very mixed. At HKYAF, we pride ourselves on the standard of the work created.

I always make a point that HKYAF is a project for life skills. Yes, it’s an art project, but we also want our participants to discover their full potential, be what they want to be and do what they want to do.

Through the arts, participants develop self-confidence and self-esteem. They learn that they can be leaders and team players, as well as negotiators, communicators, creative thinkers and problem solvers. They learn time management and organisational skills, and also empathy and dedication, and have a sense of pride in their work and attention to detail. Some participants even learn to manage budgets.

When a young person completes a project with HKYAF, they have skills that we would encourage in our children and our future employees. These skills can also be translated into every other aspect of their lives. Whether these kids go on to be concert pianists, ballerinas or bank managers, the skills they learn are skills we all need to survive and thrive.

During the pandemic, what kind of activities has HKYAF done? What are its strategies if the pandemic continues?

We’ve moved many of our projects online, although personally, I find this really unsatisfying as I love being in the same space as the young people I work with. But we did it, starting last July and August with online dance and theatre summer programmes. We then converted our big end-of-year project Standard Chartered Arts in the Park to a series of workshops, online activities and performances and an art pack, which was hugely well received. Surprisingly, we had huge viewing numbers, which was beyond our expectations. Even though it wasn’t the same as watching a live performance, we also filmed several drama and dance projects and shared them online.

We were super lucky (or was it destiny?) to be able to stage #hashtag – a show that I wrote about cyberbully and whether the people you meet on the internet who they say they are. We observed social distancing rules in the theatre with 50% occupancy. Everyone in the audience wore a mask, and the venue was sanitized between shows, etc. But most importantly, the show went on!

We are in a much better place in 2021 with our ability to plan both physical and virtual events. Right now, we have plan A and B (and possibly a C just in case). The learning curve was steep, but we scaled it and now we have a new skill set in our toolbox!

Lastly, what’s your advice for people who would like to follow their passion?

As Nike say –“Just do it”!

Follow HKYAF @hkyaf on Facebook or Instagram for the latest updates.

Photos credit: Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation

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