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Women who have made a difference: #1

In honour of International Women’s Day this March, we’re featuring four female leaders who are making a mark in Hong Kong.  In part one of our story, we shine the spotlight on LINDSEY MCALISTER.

Opening Up Opportunity

Lindsey McAlister OBE, JP is the founder of Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation. She’s an effervescent creative force who has impacted the lives of an entire generation of Hong Kong youths.

What brought you here?

I arrived in Hong Kong over 30 years ago with a background in the arts and lots of energy and enthusiasm. From the moment I put my foot on Hong Kong soil (and had the “angel choir” moment), I knew I’d been brought here to make magic.

I’d been travelling in Southeast Asia for a year. The plan was to spend a week or two in Hong Kong and then head back to the UK where I had a job waiting for me with the Arts Council. But, after hearing those angels sing, I knew I had to stay. So, I rang the UK and resigned! I felt so strongly that I was supposed to be in Hong Kong. It’s a good thing that I acknowledged my intuition and stayed, otherwise Hong Kong would have been deprived of all these amazing opportunities for young people.

Female entrepreneurs in Hong Kong -Lindsay McAlister

What has been the highlight of your expat experience?

Turning Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation (HKYAF) from an idea into a reality has been the highlight of my life! The idea for the foundation began as a youth arts festival. I’d been trying to get it off the ground for several months, doing very un-strategic things like cold-calling companies from the yellow pages. I’d met Po Chung, the co-founder of DHL Asia Pacific and Chairman Emeritus of DHL Express, at an arts event, and I was invited to his office to make a presentation about the festival. I had never done anything like that before. But I went in and did my one-woman show anyway.

The presentation went well, but I was told to keep him updated on how plans were going. Six months into my mission, I had about HK$500 in a bank account. And so I went along to the bank to ask for an overdraft to make HKYAF a reality. They said no at first, but I was persistent. It took a whole day before the overdraft was approved.

A life lesson

From there on, I created a programme of events, invited schools and artists, booked venues and printed a programme that I posted to everyone. After several days, I received a phone call from Po Chung and he congratulated me on making it happen. He enquired who my sponsor was because there were no logos on the materials I’d sent him. I told him about the overdraft I got and he invited me to his office the following day. When I got there, he was sitting at his desk with his cheque book out. “How much is your overdraft?” he asked, and he wrote me a cheque in response. His next question was “How much do you need to make your festival happen?” – and then he wrote another one!

That was a fantastic life lesson.

What drove you to start HKYAF?

When I arrived in Hong Kong, I had a good look at what was being offered to young people in the arts. Although there were quite a few child or youth art projects, the quality was low. These were opportunities that parents had to pay for and most of them were very competitive.

I felt I could offer something better for the community. I wanted to create inclusive and inspirational projects that reach out to young people of all cultures, backgrounds, languages and abilities. And I wanted to actively create opportunities for disadvantaged and underprivileged young people. There was a need to offer free-of-charge opportunities for young people so that everybody had the chance to create and experience the arts in a wide variety of genres.

You’ve achieved so much that you were recognised with an OBE in 2006. What’s your advice to other women who want to mobilise communities?

My advice is not to think too much. I’m not a big thinker. I follow my heart and just dive in. If you sit down and address all the things that might go wrong, you’d never do anything.

If you know in your heart (and you really have to know) that you have an awesome idea that will serve our community, you absolutely have to do it! You don’t do this type of work for the money or the recognition – you do it because it’s like breathing. You can’t live without it!

About the foundation

HKYAF is a charity that provides access to high-quality, non-competitive, free-of-charge arts experiences for all young people aged five to 25. Established in 1993, it organises inclusive and inspirational projects that reach out to youngsters of all cultures, backgrounds, languages and abilities, and actively creates opportunities for those who are disadvantaged and underprivileged. Each year, HKYAF reaches over 800,000 people through its projects, exhibitions and performances.

Join an HKYAF event!

Standard Chartered Arts in the Park

Standard Chartered Arts in the Park is one of Hong Kong’s largest youth arts festivals and puppet parades, held in November. Join this family-oriented arts carnival where over 3,500 participants from schools and youth organisations come together to flex their creative muscles with professional artists. They produce vibrant costumes and giant puppets for two spectacular street parades. Plus a variety of stage performances and art stalls.

Check back here for part two of our International Women’s Day Story.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.