Hubert Burda Media

Carina Lau, Eason Chan, Lang Lang and more celebrate First Initiative Foundation

On the fifth anniversary of First Initiative Foundation, we speak to founder Michelle Ong and some of the charity's celebrity partners.

Eason Chan, Carina Lau and Lang Lang

Hong Kong is famous for its active charity scene. There are hundreds of local organisations supporting people through every health crisis imaginable, and there are lists of foundations working to alleviate poverty, protect the environment and save endangered species. But, wondered entrepreneur Michelle Ong one day, where were the charities supporting Hong Kong’s cultural scene?

“I supported so many different and deserving charities in Hong Kong for many years,” Ong remembers, “and I finally decided to establish a foundation to uplift Hong Kong in terms of cultural, social and educational initiatives – things close to my heart. I wanted to create initiatives that were multifaceted, connected, inclusive and far reaching. I didn’t want to do singular events, but outreach on a broader level – public concert performances and master classes with key artists; or heritage and local arts events supported by performance, designated scholarships, educational publications and exhibitions.”

The result was the First Initiative Foundation (FIF), which aims to promote Hong Kong’s artists, musicians and actors on the global stage and to get locals more involved in cultural activities. “For example,” Ong says, “our Cantonese Opera Initiative included a supported performance for the public, establishment of scholarships in Cantonese Opera at the Academy of Performing Arts, gifting of opera costumes to the school and support of a children’s opera group. All of this was with the participation and support of [renowned Cantonese Opera singers] Pak Suet-sin, Chan Po-chu and Mui Suet-see.”

Michelle Ong

Michelle Ong

“FIF brought Cantonese opera to the forefront,” says Chan, pointing out that the genre is “Hong Kong’s own special art form”. Yet, in this age of Spotify, pop music enthusiasts far outnumber those who appreciate this niche area. Mui, too, thus underlines the importance of FIF’s “really good outreach programmes, [so that] our youth will carry on the traditions.”

They’re not the only ones sustaining the cause. Actress Carina Lau has supported FIF for years. “I’ve known Michelle for a long time,” Lau explains, ”and knew of the good work she was doing with FIF. I’m committed to supporting many of the same things – the arts, music, cultural development and education. I saw that FIF was making a lasting difference through its creative and meaningful extended initiatives. So when Michelle asked me to join as an Artist in Support I said, ‘Absolutely, yes.’”

Alongside Lau, film director Ann Hui, Cantopop star Miriam Yeung, pianist Lang Lang and composer Leon Ko are all Artists in Support.  Explaining her involvement, Yeung says, “I think FIF does a wonderful job of extending their initiatives by supporting related scholarships, master classes, exhib-itions and special publications. It emphasises the educational aspect and provides long-term learning opportunities.”

Chan Po-chu, Michelle Ong and Mui Suet-see

Chan Po-chu, Michelle Ong and Mui Suet-see

Ko’s support shows FIF isn’t just about performers, either. “As a composer, I’m an avid supporter of using art to change society. There are a number of organisations in Hong Kong devoted to art promotion, but FIF’s celebration of excellence and reinforcement of Hong Kong as a world stage is what truly sets it apart.”

As well as appointing Artists in Support to help its initiatives, FIF also named Cantopop star Eason Chan as its Hong Kong Youth Ambassador. “Everybody needs a role model,” Chan says, “who can inspire us to reach for new heights and realise our life goals. A role model is someone we can look up to – to give us confidence and self-esteem. A role model lets us dream of a great future.”

Chan also hosted a concert in support of FIF, in which classical guitarist Xuefei Yang participated. “It was a fun way of supporting FIF in its activities for the young people of Hong Kong,” Yang explains. “The FIF event provided a great platform for the young to be exposed to a wide variety of artists and music.”

Renée Fleming

Another keen supporter of the charity is pianist Lang Lang. “I actually work closely with them on our Young Scholars Programme,” he reveals. “It’s a two-year scholarship programme for select and talented young pianists from around the world. It includes my mentoring, and we provide performance and educational opportunities. We just chose our two newest Hong Kong Young Scholars and I’m looking forward to working with them and FIF.”

Several international stars have supported FIF over the years, including American opera singer Renée Fleming, who is one of FIF’s honorary advisors. “I have such wonderful memories of my last visit to Hong Kong, in 2013, when I came to sing at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre,” she reminisces. “FIF was a crucial part of the experience, arranging a master class and a reception at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, where I worked with marvellously talented students. FIF’s commitment to the next generation of performers, to arts education, and to uplifting the entire community through arts and culture, is to be applauded.”

But although FIF has achieved plenty in just five years, Ong still has ideas. “Near-term plans include producing a children’s book, and we’ve also just named our third set of FIF Young Scholars in Hong Kong as part of Lang Lang’s Young Scholars Programme,” she says. “We’re also bringing in a wonderful pianist, Anne Queffélec, for a public performance and an educational master class working in conjunction with Le French May.”

With such stellar local and international artists lining up to support FIF, we can’t wait to see what it accomplishes next.