Following on from our artists profiles series, we meet a trio of creatives who are involved in bringing music, theatre, dance and other projects to the stage. Here, we chat with SHAREEN HELLEN, Chair of the Hong Kong Singers, the city’s longest-running (90 years!) amateur theatre company.
Where are you from originally?
I moved to Hong Kong from New Zealand in 1997. I figured everyone else was leaving so I’d have a better chance of getting a job. My friends were all going to London for their big “OE” (Overseas Experience); but I had no urge to doss on couches so instead I came to Hong Kong and was dossing with my Grandma.
Have you lived anywhere else?
My husband and I lived in Japan for a year. We had a wonderful time – I even managed to find a theatre company and I starred in the musical Godspell. Is Hong Kong “home”? Absolutely. I met my husband here and we had our three kids here, so Hong Kong is the only place we know as a family.
What do you do here?
I was a lawyer in an investment bank but I stopped when we had the kids. Nowadays, I just seem to be continuously grocery shopping and overseeing home learning. I’m on the Board of the English Schools Foundation and I’m the Chair of the Hong Kong Singers.
For readers who mightn’t be familiar with the Hong Kong Singers, give us a bit of background to the company and its performances and activity.
It’s the longest-established amateur theatre company in Hong Kong, and this year is our 90th anniversary. From 1931, the society performed mostly oratorios, but in 1959 we performed Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. We also presented the first show in the newly completed City Hall in 1962.
Since then, we have performed over a hundred fabulous musicals; audiences often mistakenly think we are a professional company. We’ve produced many big shows over the years but unfortunately in recent times we haven’t had the budget to do so; it’s also very hard to get the big government venues.
As part of our 90th anniversary celebration, we held a Virtual Variety Concert over Easter, which featured performances and appearances by some of our members past and present from all over the world. This concert was a fundraiser for our next show at City Hall, Sister Act, in December. Sister Act completely sold out after just five days, which is definitely a record! We only wish we had been offered more show days to meet the demand.
What does your role as Chair of the group entail?
I have a fabulous committee and together we decide what shows and events we will produce for the coming year. We need to apply for venues and licensing rights, and then think about who will be part of the creative team and everything else involved with bringing a show to the stage. As we are an amateur company, everyone is working on a voluntary basis – even our super talented singers, actors and musicians are unpaid. We therefore have to work on a very tight budget and are always grateful for donations and sponsorship from our generous Hong Kong community.
The past year has certainly been challenging. We were scheduled to stage Songs for a New World by Jason Robert Brown but were forced to postpone three times due to theatre closures; then we had one week’s notice when theatres finally opened at 50 percent capacity. All our singers had to take COVID tests in order to perform without masks so we couldn’t actually confirm we had a show until all the negative results were received the day before! But we had fantastic appreciative audiences and everyone was so delighted just to go out at night and be sitting in a theatre watching a live show. When the audience are applauding and the performers are taking their final bows, you’re grateful that all the effort was worth it.
What’s your own background in music and theatre?
I performed in shows at school and university but I found community theatre most rewarding once I started work. In Hong Kong, if you’re a lawyer in a bank you tend to just meet lawyers and bankers. As riveting as they may seem, joining a community theatre group opens your friend base to a much wider range of fabulous people from all different backgrounds. Over the years, I’ve performed in many shows with the Hong Kong Singers. Some of my favourites have been 42nd Street, Guys and Dolls, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes. I will also be playing the lead role of Deloris Van Cartier in our upcoming production of Sister Act.
Give us an insight into a typical day for you.
I walk my youngest son to school every morning, and continue with a pitiful amount of exercise; then, if we have a show or event, I will follow up on advertising and ticket sales and check we have no issues with venue, costumes, set, sound, lighting and so on. Im trying to learn Japanese, so I’ll spend some time on my homework before walking back to school for pick-up. Afternoons are spent overseeing home learning and Zoom calls. I’m also taking tap-dancing classes in the evening, which is another initiative started by the Hong Kong Singers in the hope of staging a big tap number one day!
What neighbourhood do you live in, and why did you choose it?
Clearwater Bay. Our daughter chose it when she came back from boarding school in Australia. We had lived in the heart of Kowloon for a long time and I guess she preferred the open spaces with the surrounding ocean and greenery.
What are three things you like about your neighbourhood?
It’s incredibly quiet, with mountains and beaches, yet still with all the shopping conveniences nearby.
Quick questions about Hong Kong: what is your favourite …
Casual restaurant? Our local St Bart’s is like our canteen. We are there embarrassingly often. Never a bad meal, with a relaxed vibe and a great playlist.
Date night restaurant? The Gascoigne Room at the United Services Recreation Club. It’s a relaxing and understated club in Jordan and also has some of the best Indian food in Hong Kong. Bar or café? JaaBar, a gorgeous little hidden gem down an alleyway on Peel Street.
Thing to do with visitors? What are visitors?! But pre-COVID we’d walk around our old hood – Fa Yuen Street and the flower and goldfish markets in Prince Edward. Thing to do with kids? Brunch. Disneyland. We also have a great hike just across the road from our home, which takes us to Camp Site Beach.
Nearby holiday destination? We are now big fans of the “cruises to nowhere”! Both Genting Dream and Spectrum of the Seas have lots to offer and you really feel like you are on holiday.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.
Like this? See more in our Living in Hong Kong section!