The red rubber nose from Yeung Siu-chak is one of my favourite accessories. I stand in front of the mirror and put on the red nose whenever I need quick stimulation to cheer up myself. This is also what Siu-chak wants by making this signature accessory of clowns the token of every new friendship he makes. From the 29 year old, I learnt that clowning is more sophisticated and profound than just making people laugh by donning a grotesque coloured wig, floppy shoes and a red rubber nose.
Siu-chak has been in the clown business for eight years. He is also a coach at Ocean Park, teaching actors how to play Halloween characters. Although his main focus is always on how he can perfect his skills and knowledge as a clown artist, his business is clearly growing, thanks to well-off parents eager to give their children memorable parties. Well-to-do immigrants from the mainland also make up a significant portion of his business. For the new immigrants, a party with a professional clown performance is not only about giving their children something special to remember, but it also serves as an opportunity to socialise with the locals which helps them integrate into their new community.
If you’re surprised by his career choice, Siu-chak would say he became a clown because he is blessed that he grew up in Hong Kong.
The story began with the Canadian circus company Cirque de Soleil’s tour to Hong Kong in 2000. The circus company’s signature production Saltimbanco was on show at the then-vacant Tamar site.
“I saw the show twice. The performance completely captured my imagination, not just because of its colourful, fancy and dreamlike theatrical effects, but also the movement of the actors, the way they dance, jump, perform acrobatics and aerial acts, as well as their facial expressions. I know this is what I want to do, to be a circus actor,” Siu-chak said.
But he was only 16 at the time, and he was too young to join any circus(in any case, there’s no circus in Hong Kong),or go overseas for circus school. So he embarked on a journey of making himself a clown.
“I went to learn gymnastics, hip-hop, jazz, ballet, contemporary dance, break dance and more. You name it, I learned it. For gymnastics, I found a coach to teach me. Finding a ballet school that accepts a teenage boy wasn’t easy. For the rest, I went to community centres and schools that offered courses I was interested in and believed would be useful. I’ve got to train my body. I live in Tsuen Wan,I travelled to Sha Tin and Tsim Sha Tsui for those lessons. Skills like ball juggling, I learned from the Internet,”
“There is loads of information on clowning online. There are also quite a number of clown shows in Hong Kong. Most people don’t notice them, but the fact is the government does invite overseas clown troupes to come to perform in Hong Kong. There are usually several shows a year. Quite often, especially in recent years, the artists also run workshops for the audience. Because the shows and the workshops are government sponsored, the tickets are inexpensive and the student tickets are even cheaper. So there are plenty of opportunities to learn from clown artists from around the globe.”
After several years shuttling between school and after-school activities, Siu-chak went to read sports education at Baptist University. The choice was to allow himself maximum exposure to the skills and knowledge necessary to becoming a top clown. Over the course of three years, he did gymnastics and event management as well as classes run by the university’s arts department. He also studied acting, dancing, literature, and even glass making.
“Being a clown is about capturing the complete attention of your audience and making them laugh with a series of subtle body movements. Clowning is an art form, the more you learn, experience and understand, and the more mature you get, the richer your show becomes and a better artist you are,”
“I always think if you want to be a scriptwriter, experiencing life maybe a better way to learn scriptwriting than taking a scriptwriting class. I think you can learn cooking through farming because you will know the crops and the plants better. To act well and run a good show, having great skills is not enough, I need a script, I need to know how to make transitions in a script, and I’ve got to be knowledgeable. Being a clown gives me plenty of excuses to try out various arts because everything I learn will end up enriching my performance. The best clown is one who has perfected every aspect of his repertoire, then throws all his skills away, and be as natural as one can be.”
But Siu-chak knows that to succeed, he needs to achieve a fine balance between artistic creativity and eye-catching commercial elements in his shows. His business partner Eric Lai, a clown who specialises in balloon twisting and image design, is there to make their performances more commercially appealing.
In order to accommodate the demands of an expanding business and the inevitable accumulation of colourful costumes and stage props, the clowns have rented a 600-square-feet office in an industrial building near Kwai Fong MTR station. “We want an accessible location so clients can find us easily. We need a high ceiling, windows and a space that allows us to run on a 24-hour basis. Only industrial buildings close to a MTR station can satisfy our requirements,” he said.
With a proper office, Siu-chak believes he can free up plenty of room at the apartment where he and his parent live. Also, he has now got an appropriate venue for client meetings and a place where he can train young people who also aspire to become clown artists. The goal is not just that more clown artists can perform commercially, but that more of them can bring some joy and respite to hospital patients, a voluntary service that Siu-chak has been doing for a number of years.
Q: What do you like the most about Hong Kong?
A: I love Hong Kong because it is small. Being small means there are intimate inter-personal relationships. We can meet our friends fairly easily: in Hong Kong, it takes no more than two and half hours to travel from one end to the other
Although we are small, we have everything to make a good life, from the plentiful supply of goods for domestic life or business through world-class international performances to diverse cityscape, hills, the countryside and the sea.
I go to Shamshuipo where I can get stage props, accessories and fabric for costumes cheaply. If we didn’t have Cirque de Soleil coming, I would never have become a clown. Because we are an international city, we can attract many top talents, opening our eyes to many possibilities.
The fact that we are a seaside city and our countryside is easily accessible is a blessing. Green spaces are disappearing quickly in China but we still have plenty in Hong Kong. It is important we know what nature is like. I also like Hong Kong for its diverse cityscape. We have The Peak, public housing estates, and traditional villages.
Q: What do you dislike the most about Hong Kong?
A: We over-emphasise material rewards. Money is our prime consideration whatever decision we make. We’re so used to this mode of thinking that we only care about making money. Taking the clown circle as an example, too many people sacrifice art for money.
Nature should be free but here in Hong Kong we put a price tag on it, we price mountain views and sea views. I think it is also because we are a small city. I always think, in other countries where they have lots of land, money is not their biggest consideration, as long as they make enough money to live, they live happily. But here in Hong Kong, we need a lot of money to make ourselves happy.
Q: What does Hong Kong need to do for it to be a sustainable city?
A; Our city keeps changing and changes come very quickly. The changes don’t spare anyone. What an individual can do is to adjust to the new reality. We have to adjust from being a British colony to being a Chinese city. When the promise of ‘no change for 50 years’ expires, we have to make another adjustment.
Farmers face eviction because we need land for development. Television stations upgrade to high-definition broadcasting. There is nothing we can do but to adjust ourselves. Of course, we have to fight injustice. But if we do not change our money-oriented mindset, nothing is going to change. If we, or the younger generation, aren’t prepared to take up meaningful yet less profitable work, there will be no hope for Hong Kong’s future.
People rent out their shop space because they make more money from rent than doing their own business. I have seen an ice-cream van completely wrapped in an advertisement, I was so shocked and so unhappy to see that. It is not the ice-cream van I am familiar with.