Cover Lindsey McAlister (Photo: Affa Chan)

The founder of the Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation explains why she’s moved away from Broadway and West End musicals, and why representation matters on stage and screen

“I imagine Tatler readers never would’ve heard of YAF.” This unassertive statement is far from characteristic of Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation (HKYAF) founder Lindsey McAlister.

Anyone who has ever met her, let alone worked with her, would be more likely to describe her as a force of nature, both in personality (loud, uninhibited, tactile, very big on eye contact) and physically, her somewhat unruly long, blond curls catching in her mismatched earrings, her wild gesticulations, her boldly patterned outfits giving the impression she’s much taller than she is.

Far more typical is the chutzpah with which she has approached individuals and institutions over the years for funding—entrepreneur philanthropist Robert Miller (and definite member of the Tatler community) is “amazing and very, very generous”; she calls Standard Chartered a “dream partner” and Swire “amazing”—or how she has run projects over the years, from taking over spaces such as Victoria Park and West Kowloon for entire weekends to hold Arts in the Park, to organising apprenticeships for those interested in the technical side of the industry, running intergenerational arts projects with the Hong Kong Jockey Club and staging near-Broadway-worthy musicals.

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To call McAlister “passionate” doesn’t even begin to describe the depth of her commitment to what she does; she lives and breathes it. She founded the organisation in 1993, and since then has committed her life to organising projects that allow young people from all cultures, languages, backgrounds and abilities to be involved in something bigger than themselves, and something that reminds them life is about more than grades.

“The arts definitely change lives,” she says. “The kids who are at school in Hong Kong particularly are under such an enormous amount of pressure to be right, and to pass exams and to get qualifications. And I think when they get involved in these sorts of projects, it’s incredibly liberating for them.” And while of course the projects HKYAF runs are arts-focused, they foster life skills such as confidence, communication and creativity.

“The beautiful thing about getting involved in a youth project is we’re not only creating art, and we’re not only giving all these useful skills, we’re also creating communities— and families. We become such a tight-knit family, and those relationships are going to remain for the rest of their lives.”

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For years, HKYAF’s flagship project each year had been a large-scale production of a well-known musical— think Rent or Oliver!—but from 2019, the citywide social unrest and then Covid-19 led to McAlister’s entire creative team leaving the city, forcing her to change the way she ran auditions and rehearsals, as well as how shows were produced.

Instead of licensing a Broadway show, accepting that rehearsals would often have to be over video chat, and that the show might not even not go ahead in the case of venue closures, McAlister realised she had to reinvent what she did and how she approached HKYAF programmes. She decided to write an original small-scale show, #Hashtag, which, with the good fortune that seems reflective of McAlister’s life, went ahead with live, in-person performances.

The reaction from the teens who saw it was far beyond what she expected, and made her even more aware of the impact her work had on young people beyond pure entertainment. “After we wrote #Hashtag, all the kids were like, ‘Oh, my God, this is so much more relevant to our lives.’ So that made me think, by mistake—or I prefer by fate and destiny, because my life is just like one big, magical [moment]—I was meant to start writing these shows.”

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I wanted the LGBT community of Hong Kong to be represented in the cast. And, wow, were they
Lindsey McAlister

And so she wrote again for the 2021 show, Only A Girl, an original musical about an Asian lesbian teen. Acknowledging that, as a heterosexual white woman whose teenage years were decades ago, she didn’t represent the protagonist, McAlister reached out to the LGBTQ community.

“I really wanted it to be authentic. I worked with lots of young people who identify with the community to make sure that what I was writing was correct and authentic and on point. All these young people were coming out to me. I reached out to those kids and told them I was thinking about writing an LGBT piece, and I’d really like to know more. And of course, they’re just thrilled that anybody wants to sit down and have a cup of coffee with them, and let them tell their story,” she says.

“I had coffee with one young person who I’d never met before but had heard I was writing the show, and we were there for five hours. They just asked me to make a show and tell their story through theatre.”

 

But what was especially unexpected and rewarding, given Hong Kong’s often conservative approach to issues such as sexuality, was how open the aspiring cast members were. “I wanted the LGBT community of Hong Kong to be represented in the cast. And, wow, were they,” says McAlister. “Kids—and kids from local schools, which was very, very surprising—coming to the audition, and being very, very open. And identifying— and in a room full of strangers—as pansexual, asexual, aromantic. Very, very, very surprising, but so amazing.”

Perhaps even more shocking to a casual onlooker is that her supporters didn’t shy away from what some might consider a taboo subject: the government’s Arts Development Council matched the funding provided by the Miller Performing Arts programme. McAlister’s reaction to this is uncharacteristically calm, though. “Why would anybody not fund our programmes?” she asks. “The work we do is so important: the lives that we’re changing, the impact we’re making on Hong Kong.”

Participants in HKYAF programmes, or YAFies, as they’re affectionately referred to as, have gone on to appear on Broadway and the West End—two were in the recent production of Anything Goes in London—in Netflix series and Hollywood movies; one of the Widows in Marvel’s Black Widow was a YAFie.

But the power of arts to change lives goes beyond the natural performers: it’s the life-changing effect it has on the struggling students, the insecure teens, the clumsy, hyperactive boy “who could barely walk into a room without falling over and whose teachers were at the end of their tether”. McAlister believes her work is about “shattering expectations of what young people can do and giving them the opportunity to find their voice”.

McAlister, who was awarded an OBE in 2006 for her commitment to education and the arts and appeared on Tatler’s 2021 Asia’s Most Influential list, will mark the 30th anniversary of HKYAF next year. When asked what she’s planning to do to honour the occasion, she demurs.

“We’re not that good at big celebrations of things. I think the work really is the celebration; I’d rather not waste time on creating a separate event, because everything we do is creating events. I’d rather people just supported what we you know what we’ve already got happening—because everything’s a celebration.”

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