Cover Gillian Choa has been with The Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts for more than two decades

Professor Gillian Choa is the first female director of The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA). She talks to Tatler about her role, the APA ball and what’s next for the institution

What inspired you to join this field?

My love for film and dance. I started ballet when I was five, and I was obsessed with film, TV and the stage since the age of nine. Music was a big part of my life. I was in musicals and the school choir at St Paul’s Co-educational College in Hong Kong. I played Oliver Twist at age 11 which was very memorable and exciting for me. My internship at TVB as a teenager made me seriously consider a career backstage, and then theatre design school kind of confirmed what I wanted to do.

What does it mean to be the first female director of the HKAPA?

I dedicated most of my life to the academy and have worked with men and have always been quite comfortable being part of this community. To be the first female director didn’t mean much to me initially, but I hope it means I can inspire other female leaders. 

You’ve been with the academy for two decades, in various leadership roles. How did those roles prepare you for this new position?

Those roles were demanding in their own way. As dean of the theatre [the largest school in the APA], I had to manage daily operations and administrative work, and I also had to work with the other schools. I looked after strategic and academic planning of the school, and staff from 12 different industries. As deputy director and provost, my role was much more about looking after the academy holistically—working with deans of the other schools, planning themes of all schools and making sure all our wheels were well-oiled. I also had accountability to the council of the academy, which gave me great insight and experience that prepared me for this directorship. It was a natural progression.

In the QS World University Rankings announced in 2021, the Academy is ranked No 1 in Asia and 10th in the world in the performing arts category—how does that make you feel?

I’m proud and I hope we do even better in years to come, but we’re not obsessed with rankings. It does not take centre stage in our strategic focus. The focus is to continue to do well and give the best education to our young performing artists, and to nurture them into confident practitioners, contributors, innovators and leaders in the industry. We are not going to rank first forever, but we can always be proud of the fact that we have the best educational philosophy and training. We are one of the few educational institutions that can offer training in every aspect of the performing arts, with six major disciplines under one roof. We also have state-of-the-art facilities that allow students to practise and innovate before they step into the real world. 

The APA Ball is taking place in January. How has Covid-19 impacted fundraising?

Each year, the ball generates scholarships for our students. We’ve helped over 1,200 students since the scholarships’ inception in 1989. Fundraising during Covid-19 has been harder as we have little means to attract donations as a result of the reduction of physical performances. Though we still have many generous donors, not all are willing to give with the same enthusiasm as they did before. We hope that it will pick up in the future.

Why is it important for people to support the HKAPA?

The performing arts is a major industry in Hong Kong. On average, there are over 5,000 productions a year in the city, which greatly contributes to the Hong Kong economy. Our students need encouragement from the public to help them realise their dreams— whether the support is monetary or simply encouragement. It’s crucial for the future of the performing arts. Many of our students come from very humble families that need tremendous financial support to complete their training and realise their goals. Our community needs these students to lead the next generation of performing artists, because without them, there would be no entertainment in Hong Kong.

What has been your proudest achievement since the start of your career?

As someone who values integrity, professional ethics and honesty, I’m proud to have endured hardships and emerged triumphant over the years. I deeply believe in performing arts education, and to be here heading the academy is the most important work I could have ever imagined.

What is on the horizon for the academy?

We aim to forge partnerships overseas and conduct more research and development for students of different disciplines. We are actively developing virtual reality, augmented reality and extended reality for both educational and research purposes and to realise their potential in the performing and technical arts—we were fortunate to have received sizeable government funding to do so. The aim is to maintain the HKAPA’s local, regional and international profile as one of the most important and recognised institutions of excellence in the performing arts. One day, we hope it will be every international student’s first choice for their performing arts studies.

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