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Monday, February 12, 2018, 17:43
Connecting the dots in Xi’an
By Chitralekha Basu
Monday, February 12, 2018, 17:43 By Chitralekha Basu

Hong Kong’s young art enthusiasts who recently visited Shaanxi as part of the Belt and Road Initiative are shaping up to be fine ambassadors of Chinese culture, says Chitralekha Basu

Hong Kong students bonded with their Shaanxi counterparts during the five-day cultural exchange tour, hosted by Hong Kong Arts Festival and supported by China’s Ministry of Culture. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Christy Ying, an International Baccalaureate Diploma candidate at Hong Kong’s St. Stephen’s College, never thought of herself as much of a dancer. However, on a trip to Xi’an in the last week of 2017, Ying found herself matching steps with trained dancers at the Huaqing College of the Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology. This was her first exposure to Dai Zu, a traditional dance practiced by the ethnic Dai community of Yunnan. It had looked rather complicated at first. The dance form featured a very distinct set of hand gestures, adding up to a unique dance vocabulary. 

And then Ying surprised herself. It did not take her long to be able to move in sync with dancers training to be professionals. At that moment, it struck Hong Kong girl Ying that “there were more commonalities than differences” between herself and the dance students from Xi’an. The experience reminded her of the Danz Up show she had seen as part of Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF) in 2017. Danz Up was essentially an experiment in fusing street dancing with other popular dance styles, featuring young dancers from Hong Kong and led by Rain Chan. Apparently it had nothing in common with a time-tested dance form with roots in the heritage of an ethnic Chinese community. 

Still, Ying saw resonances of one in the other. “It’s about the enthusiasm of the dancers. Dancing is (ultimately) about the ardor and the energy,” she says.

Ying was one of the lucky 25 students, selected from 13 Hong Kong schools, to be part of the first ever arts and cultural exchange tour for the “Young Friends” of HKAF with support from People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of Culture. Then perhaps it was not all luck after all. The final 25 who visited Shaanxi province either came highly recommended by their schools or had to sit a competitive test followed by interviews to establish their credentials. 

HKAF’s Young Friends program, says senior outreach manager Kenneth Lee, “is not about training young people to become artists” but rather to provide them with tools to sharpen their faculties of critical appreciation of the arts. “It’s really about developing the individual,” adds HKAF director Tisa Ho. 

Exchange tour participant Christy Ying said she was impressed by the way Xi’an’s Little Goose Pagoda had been preserved with due respect to its antiquity. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Since the scheme was started in 1992, HKAF has exposed over 730,000 young Hong Kong people to some of the finest performance art shows handpicked from across the world every year to play at the festival. The budding arts enthusiasts have been encouraged to compare notes and find out more about the socio-historical context from which a particular piece of theatre emerged, or how a Chinese performance tradition like the Qin opera, for example, has evolved over the years. Through organizing guided backstage tours, workshops and post-performance conversations with leading artistes, the HKAF has created a well-honed contingent of budding arts aficionados over the last 26 years. “A small number of our alumni have in fact pursued a career in art and are established artistes today,” informs Lee. 

Tryst with history

This was, however, the first time Young Friends of HKAF stepped out of Hong Kong to explore newer horizons. The pilot cultural exchange tour was organized as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, launched by the Central People’s Government to enhance connectivity and cooperation among the several different nations and economies along a trade route that existed thousands of years ago, connecting ancient Chinese cities like Anxi and Dunhuang all the way to the Middle-East and Western Asia as early as 200 BC. 

The trip to Shaanxi, somewhat predictably, was designed around the ancient Chinese capital Xi’an. The city had flourished as the epicenter of trade and culture in Asia during the heyday of the Tang Dynasty (618—907) and is now known the world over for the thousands of hand-sculpted life-size terracotta warriors, found in the mausoleum of the first Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259—210 BC).    

“We thought it was quite important for the visiting students to learn about the culture and economic development of Xi’an, besides the arts history,” says Lee. “To appreciate the arts we feel one needs an understanding of different cultures and, of course, Hong Kong students could start with China because this is where their roots are,” he adds.


Although Xi’an might have been an obvious choice, the experiences lined up for the Hong Kong students were not always touristy. For instance, in Fuping Ceramic Village they got mud on their hands, working the potter’s wheel. Ying says she was quite amazed by the range of ceramic art on show. Some of the prize-winning works on display were highly abstract. She particularly remembers a piece by a Japanese artist — a minimalist expression of the sea created by etching a few lines on a ceramic panel. 

“When I first saw it I did not know what to make of it,” says Ying. Then the expert at the exhibition center explained the choices the artist had made in terms of the form and the medium, which, Ying says, will serve as a valuable reference point when she visits exhibitions in the future.

If young Ying represents the quality of students who went on the cultural exchange tour, China could expect to get a set of bright young Belt and Road cultural ambassadors from Hong Kong before long. 

Ying, for one, thinks learning to dance in step with students in Xi’an is “a skill that’s transferable” and could be easily applied in other fields to “help bridge China with the rest of the world”.

“I think we need to use our cultural heritage in a way that people from rest of the world can see the charisma and greatness of Chinese art,” she adds. “With more exchange programs like the one we just had we can deepen our understanding.”

If you go

46th Hong Kong Arts Festival

From Feb 23 to March 24

At various venues in Hong Kong


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