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Roads Taken and Not Taken

Minnie Ng Ka-yiu of School of Chinese Opera and Gary Chan Kwok-yuk of School of Film and Television

1 Sep 2022

The path of life features many forks, with each decision promising a different destination. Minnie Ng Ka-yiu from the School of Chinese Opera had vacillated between Chinese music and sports since graduating from high school; while Gary Chan Kwok-yuk from the School of Film and Television was of two minds about returning to academia after working for several years. But with the encouragement of family members, both made the decision to study at the Academy, with Minnie focusing on Cantonese opera accompaniment and Gary devoting himself to film direction. In doing so, they rediscovered themselves and their mission in life.


Minnie had learnt the liuqin (Chinese mandolin) from a young age. She also excelled at sports, however, and for quite some time thought she would become a full-time athlete. After graduating from high school, she faced the dilemma of having to pick a speciality.


"I was struggling to make up my mind for the longest time," she recalls. "But my family knew me best, especially my mother, who was clear about where my interests and potential lay. With her support, I chose the Academy."


Of the Academy's six Schools, both the School of Chinese Opera and the School of Music have programmes related to Chinese music. Since Minnie likes the impromptu and interactive nature of Cantonese opera accompaniment, she opted for the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) Degree in Chinese Opera.


"I was exposed to Cantonese opera through extracurricular activities in primary school," she explains. "I thought the face painting was super cool, and eventually developed an interest in the art form. So if I were to study some form of music, Cantonese operatic music would be a good choice."


Switching Strings


The liuqin is a high-pitched stringed instrument that often plays the main melody in ethnic music ensembles. However, it is less common in Cantonese opera accompaniment. After entering the Academy, Minnie's teacher advised her to major in sanxian (three-stringed lute) instead. Not one to fear the unfamiliar, she courageously heeded his advice. But six months into the programme, Covid struck, and classes moved online. This posed an enormous challenge to her learning.


"I felt helpless," she laments. "I knew close to nothing about playing sanxian. Having to learn a new instrument from the screen was a thorny undertaking. Luckily in-person classes resumed in the second year."


And thanks to teacher Zhao Taisheng's meticulous instruction, Minnie was able to catch up. Zhao is a leading sanxian artist who, in Minnie's eyes, can work magic just by plucking an open string three times. Having a good teacher ignited her passion for learning, and Minnie mastered the skills of the sanxian within a short time. What's more, she fell in love with its unique charm.


"The sanxian can be both gentle and virile," she says. "It is most charming when playing pieces of Jiangnan style – nothing short of mesmerising. I finally found an instrument I am passionate about!"


She has recently been busy playing accompaniment for the graduation works of her Cantonese-opera classmates. It requires her to perform, after only a few rehearsals, a piece with a hurried and busy rhythm. This might be intimidating to some, but Minnie enjoyed it thoroughly.


"Compared to the majority of musical performances, which follow a score, Cantonese opera accompaniment has a lot of improvisation thrown in," she says. "Like a live band show, it's challenging but fun!" The freeform feel of the performance and the tense process of preparation for a live event may have some similarities to sports after all.   


The music programme of the School of Chinese Opera also covers topics such as Chinese literature, Cantonese-opera history, and music design. The mode of learning combines theory with practice, and offers an important foundation in training to students who are new to Cantonese opera.


"I didn't know there is systematic training for Cantonese operatic music," Minnie explains. "The elders in the field always tell you to just look at the score and play, but what the veterans have is experience. For us, it's best to learn from theory, and slowly build experience. It's easier to get the hang of it when you understand the format underlying Cantonese operatic music."


Entering her final year, Minnie is thinking about the future. "Life is full of choices," she notes. "Studying at the Academy was the best choice I've ever made. Cantonese opera and sanxian have opened many doors for me. I hope to return the favour by becoming a promoter of Cantonese opera accompaniment in Hong Kong."


Take Two for his Career


"Movies are dreams," Gary Chan Kwok-yuk explains. "Every dream reveals a new world. The best thing about filmmaking is being able to manifest worlds, and presenting them to an audience."


Gary, a directing major in the School of Film and Television, cites his elder brother in the film industry as his mentor. Growing up, Gary was immersed in the world of film, television drama, and animation. So it came as no surprise that filmmaking was what he wanted to study.  


After high school, Gary enrolled in the Hong Kong Design Institute's Film, Television and Photography programme. This was followed by jobs at an advertising company and writing scripts for television and film. Though initially focused on this writing path, he slowly began to crave discursive power, so he tried his hand at directing. In 2020 he participated in the local category of the Fresh Wave International Short Film Festival.


"While shooting my short film for the competition, I realised how little I knew about production, and that if I wanted to continue directing, I must start from scratch," he remembers. "So I made the leap – I became a student of the Academy's undergraduate programme in film and television."


Gary admits that it took him a while to make up his mind, because the move is tantamount to taking a fresh start for someone who already had a career in film.


"My family was very supportive," he says. "They knew I had a clear objective, and were of the view that spending four years studying for a profession I like is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. If I forgo this opportunity, I might never have the chance again."


While "shopping" for similar programmes offered by different universities, Gary found that the way that the Academy's Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) in Film and Television is structured and set up is closest to that of working in the industry. He also likes that students are free to choose their area of specialisation, while also getting a good grounding by studying film and television theory and history.


"The school emphasises teamwork," he notes. "The grip and electric homework last semester took us three days to shoot. We had thought it would only take one. We spent the extra night in a hotel nearby and hurried back to campus early the following day to finish shooting."


He jokes that if this had happened in the "real world," it would have ruffled some feathers. "All the classmates on the team shared the same objective," he explains. "But filmmaking is a lot more complex, and adjustment problems among teammates may take more time to resolve than creative issues."


As an experienced campaigner who has worked in the film industry already, has learning production systematically brought new insights? 


"It has made me aware that I have forgotten some very simple things or taken them for granted," he says. "Learning afresh has reminded me not to overthink, and to return to the basics and adopt a new perspective when the situation calls for it."


For instance, Gary is optimistic in the face of the supposed "demise" of Hong Kong cinema. "There were too many co-productions that required Hong Kong filmmakers to create stories and topics that don't belong to us," he points out.


"The decrease of co-productions in recent years has allowed local independent films to stand out, and begin a new and important chapter in the development of Hong Kong cinema."


The article was published in the Sep 2022 issue of Academy NewsClick here to read the original story.)



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