My Turbulent Graduation from the HK Academy for Performing Arts
By Liam Klenk
From 2011 to 2013, I studied Theatre, Stage & Events Management at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Never would I have expected my graduation from the Academy in August 2013 to turn out to be a mini-revolution. As one of only very few foreigners who graduated that day, I was at a loss and could only try to do my best to be respectful and not get in the way.
I didn’t live in Hong Kong for the two years of my studies there. Rather, I commuted every day from the neighboring Self Administrative Region of Macau, where I worked for the Dragone Entertainment show The House of Dancing Water.
The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts had been incredibly helpful and supportive in setting up their own study program for me: An already mature student, who worked full time, and wanted to somehow squeeze in as much time as he could to gain further knowledge about working backstage.
During my years studying at the Academy, all professors would make extra time for me in the mornings. Then, I would have to take the ferry to race back to Macau again. To spend the rest of my day and night backstage at The House of Dancing Water.
Additionally, I would spend both days of our weekly two-day dark in Hong Kong, attending regular classes at the Academy for both full days.
I survived this crazy schedule mostly on hazelnut lattes from ‘Pret-a-Manger’ and ‘Pacific Coffee’, the Hong Kong equivalents of Starbucks.
It was the busiest and also one of the most interesting times of my entire life thus far.
As the only non-Asian student amongst hundreds of local students, I immersed myself deep into a foreign culture. I learned about their unique way of studying, about the way they organize their work.
I learned about the great pride and effort they take in everything they do. And about their unique way of seeing the world around them.
It was wonderful to work on smaller theatre productions in Hong Kong whilst I, at the same time, still worked for one of the largest aquatic circus shows on Earth.
What I did not have back then, was a lot of time to actually experience the regular daily life of Hong Kong off-campus. Thus, I did not feel much unrest within the general population. Everyone seemed quite content in going about their business.
At school, all private conversations around me were in Cantonese, so I also must have missed many political discussions amongst my classmates. I had met my girlfriend there as well. But she was South Korean so she also did not speak any Cantonese.
The other students had always been wonderfully kind and courteous towards us. They had tried their best to switch to English whenever they could. Yet this did not extend beyond the classroom.
At the time, in 2013, no large demonstrations had yet taken place about anything. At its heart, although there were subtle changes, Hong Kong was still the Self-Administrative Region it had been for many decades.
Our graduation day was set for the 27th of June 2013.
Leung Chun-Ying, Chief Executive of the self-administrative region of Hong Kong had the honor to present the degrees to us graduating students. He had been appointed by Mainland China and was notoriously unpopular within the population of Hong Kong.
I was blissfully unaware, and came to campus that day with my girlfriend. We had met each other during stage management and lighting design lectures.
We had enjoyed being able to take these classes together for the last year of each of our studies at the Academy. Now we were both graduating, a milestone we were excited about and had looked forward to for many months.
Decked out in traditional graduation attire, we were beaming and happy to be able to experience this important day together.
I was going to miss this place. It had been great to go through a second stint of university studies almost twenty years after my first one in Zurich, Switzerland.
Being a mature student had had its advantages. This time around, I had wanted to be there 100%. Thus, I had studied harder than ever before in my life.
As I wandered around the hallways one last time, I said goodbye to the bright purple and yellow carpets, the classrooms, the theatre venues, the props and scenic arts work shops, the extensive library, and the scent of growth and wisdom.
Then, after a long day of rehearsals and picture taking, the actual ceremony began in the Academy’s main theatre.
Everything was highly ceremonial. Dignity, tradition, pride, and hope were tangible throughout the building.
TV crews started appearing through every theatre entrance.
My girlfriend and I were seated in the midst of all the other students in the auditorium. The first students were called onstage. We had gone through the sequence before, and I knew I was going to be one of the last graduates to be called onstage.
Two hundred and thirty three students graduated from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts that day.
The majority of the usually rather shy and soft-spoken graduates seized this moment to publicly display their anger at the presence of the Chief Executive, who had earned his post not through public election, but through appointment by the Mainland Chinese government.
I had difficulty grasping what happened around me. My girlfriend and I looked on in astonishment as our graduation ceremony turned slowly but surely into a mini-revolution.
Instead of bowing to Leung Chun-Ying as had been rehearsed, almost all of our Hong Kong Chinese peers shook their fists at him, screamed political slogans, gave him their backs or even their butts, or walked past without recognizing his presence.
Entire groups of students presented banners while seated in the auditorium waiting for their turn on stage.
Due to the Chinese cultural restrictions of saving face, Leung Chun-Ying could not interrupt the proceedings. He weathered the rush of humiliations, smiling gently as he announced each graduate’s accomplishments in the same calm and dignified manner.
Being a politically neutral – and rather surprised – observer, I followed the proceedings with unease and fascination. My girlfriend and I were witnessing history in the making.
My heart beat faster with each act of nonviolent protest, wondering if there would be any consequences for these young theatre practitioners who were bound to begin their careers in Hong Kong’s cultural institutions. Would their career end before it even started? Would they be arrested straight after the ceremony was concluded? (Thankfully, that was not the case.)
During our academy classes, many of the local students had seemed incredibly quiet and introverted seen through my Central European eyes.
Seeing them now, vehemently defending their way of life, I was deeply touched by their courage.
I also realized I was clueless and had never stopped to ask anyone in more detail about their life outside school. Their hopes, dreams, concerns, and aspirations.
I had been so busy running to and from ferries, had been so focused on my studies and on dividing my energy conscientiously between work and acquiring knowledge, that the thought of city life outside the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts had never even crossed my mind.
As I felt for my fellow students and cheered them on, I wondered what I should do when I would be called on stage to receive my diploma? I had never concerned myself much with politics in general no matter where I was in the world. While I felt deeply sympathetic for and proud of my fellow graduates, I felt their fight was not mine.
I did not want to disrespect them. Yet, neither did I want to disrespect Leung Chun-Ying who would be smiling gently while handing me my diploma. Nor did I want to disrespect the management of the school and my professors. They had worked hard to make this day as festive as possible for us.
What was the right thing to do? What wasn’t? Time was running out. And I realized, I needed to simply do what felt right for me at that moment. Today, I was not going to be a revolutionary. I was not going to change the world in a broader sense. I’d start small with simply changing my own first.
A dozen more students later, it was my turn. I walked up the steps to the center of the stage, faced the Chief Executive and bowed.
As he read out my accomplishments, the auditorium behind us still boiling with the anger of shouting students chanting slogans, his smile never wavered.
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