Conversations at Shun Hing — Alison Friedman

Alison Friedman is not your regular expatriate. She is not a banker. Hailing from the United States, she speaks fluent Putonghua. She is well-versed in Chinese arts and culture after having spent more than a decade in China, precisely the reason why the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA) made her the Artistic Director of Performing Arts last year.

She leads dance, theatre, xiqu as well as music and outdoor teams at the District. Her journey in China had begun when she became a Fulbright scholar at Peking University and the Beijing Dance Academy in 2002.

But, not everyone welcomed her appointment, for example, there were Cantonese opera performers who criticized that Friedman lacks any experience with xiqu, or Chinese opera. Still, it’s been almost an year since her appointment and Friedman has been restless — shaping the vision of soon-to-come major arts venues such as the Xiqu Centre, and leading various arts projects.

Friedman was one of distinguished speakers at Shun Hing College’s high table dinner (Sep. 15th). We briefly caught up with her before she spoke at the dinner.

Friedman at SHC High Table Dinner (Photo: Oliver Law)

What made you get into the art scene in China?

I was very interested in Chinese as a language, and I got the Fulbright fellowship to go to China in 2002. Moreover, what I realised I loved about the arts was not just that you could create new creative things, but that you can showcase cultures and countries that you don’t get to see in the regular media and the government.

In fact, when I first moved to China, it was in the run up to the Olympics, and it was this incredible moment in history when everything was opening up and everything was changing, but what that meant was that there was a lot of misunderstanding too. It was at this time that I thought — how can you show nuance in diversity and complexity that exists in China to the outside world. Well, I think arts can do that, and that’s why I got really interested in the art scene in China.

What do you think of Hong Kong’s art scene is right now?

It’s really exciting and very vibrant. In fact I think it’s at an important moment with so many new organisations opening, like the West Kowloon. In a few years, Hong Kong will start having all these exciting performances, such as dances, music and theatre, and I think that will really help the city to become the cultural center apart from what it already is — a tourism and shopping center.

What’s your one goal for the West Kowloon District?

The West Kowloon has to be relevant. It has to be a place where people feel connected and find meaning. I love how art can facilitate conversation and bring people together, and that’s what Hong Kong and the world needs right now. In a time when we are divided, we need places that bring us together for collective shared experience to reflect on our identity and where we are going, and that’s what is the West Kowloon’s purpose.

Xiqu Centre (Courtesy of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority)

As a foreigner where do you see your strength and weakness in being the director?

As a person, I’ve spent most of my adult life being a foreigner in a different country, so I have a different way of thinking, and a different perspective as compared to a person who’s in their home country. In a sense, this allows me to have that outside perspective that I think is really important.

How can HKU students contribute to projects in the West Kowloon Cultural District?

Come see performances. Come get involved. Volunteer and intern for our programs. Come to our park, and tell us what performances you’d like to see.

How can students apply for an internship at the District?

Through the website — we have 3 different intakes through the year.

What’s the performance that you’re expecting the most right now?

I can’t tell you because we haven’t announced it yet, but stay tuned!

• Click here if you want to find out more about the West Kowloon Cultural District

• Follow Alison Friedman on Twitter


The interview was lightly edited for clarity

Written by Juwon Park

Edited by Brahmnoor Singh Chawla

Photographer: Oliver Law

A place dedicated to writers of Shun Hing College (HKU) — Hong Kong.