Meet the woman behind Hong Kong’s Youth Arts Foundation, a non-profit organisation celebrating 25 years in action that empowers young people to find their voice through their own artistic niche, whatever that may be.

Against the background of Hong Kong’s famously academics-driven educational environment, one woman has been working tirelessly towards a more accessible artistic world for the city’s youth with her NGO, the Hong Kong’s Youth Arts Foundation (YAF). 25 years on, Lindsey McAlister has worked with over 800,000 children, collaborated with Cirque de Soleil composers and even flew to the UK recently to watch two ex-YAF kids perform in the King and I at London’s West End. She sat down with Hive Life to explain how art can hold the power to change lives and the importance of making this small haven accessible to all.

As is the case with many of us now living the city, Lindsey only ever intended to visit Hong Kong as a stopover when she first landed here 30 years ago. “But the minute I put my foot on Hong Kong soil, I had the angel choir moment and knew I was going to be here forever,” she remembers. “I gave up my job in the arts council in the UK that afternoon. I just had such a strong feeling that Hong Kong was going to be my home and I was going to make some magic here.”

Working for the English School’s Foundation, Lindsey felt as though she needed to make a bigger impact outside of the expatriate bubble and so began cultivating the youth arts festival we know today as Arts in the Park. With only HKD 500 in her bank, she had an all-day Mexican standoff with Standard Chartered’s bank manager until she was granted an overdraft to fund her first year. Catching the attention of the man who brought DHL to Hong Kong, Po Chung, Lindsey remembers, “He had a touch of the theatrical about him. As I arrived at his office, he was sat with his chequebook out and his pen poised and wrote me a check for not only my overdraft but a year’s worth of funding as well! It was an amazing life lesson for me, it made me realise that if you want something badly enough, you’ve just got to go and make it happen.”

From beginning with just one festival, one generous sponsor and a lot of determination, YAF is now celebrating 25 years of youth arts festivals, musicals, workshops, visual art exhibitions and more. “In a nutshell, YAF is a free of charge, non-competitive organisation that works with young people from different backgrounds, cultures and abilities. We do both performing and visual arts with a lot of cross-fertilisation, and of course a lot of community art events,” Lindsey says, adding jokingly, “…we even did sushi making one year, so there’s really nothing we don’t do!”

Unveiling the potential of young artists from all backgrounds is the core of her organisation. “I want to help young people find their voice through the arts, be the best they can be and fulfil their potential. YAF is not competitive, it’s about participating and having experiences that teach life skills, such as self-confidence, collaboration, creative thinking or problem-solving; whether you’re going to go into the arts professionally, become a bank manager or a bus driver, these are all important.”

Just the day before our chat, Lindsey was working on one of YAF’s many projects for underprivileged young people, The Spark Project. In collaboration with international social services and under the sponsorship of Swire Trust, YAF sends artists to work with young people living in small group homes to teach them anything from puppetry through to photography and circus skills. “I was there just yesterday, which was an opportunity for all the small group homes to come together and celebrate what they’d learnt with their wider community and their parents,” she says. “This project is amazing, it gives not only opportunities to these young people who are cared for but really have a no frills existence, but also something to look forward to.”

Lindsey describes Hong Kong’s artistic scene today as “bigger and brighter” than the one she found in 1993. Earlier this month, this year’s Arts in the Park festival reached new heights, bringing in 190,000 people under the sponsorship of the very bank where it all began, Standard Chartered. Next, she looks forward to their upcoming production of the musical Fame. “It’s the perfect show to put on for our 25th year because it’s all about passion, resilience and energy in the arts, which epitomises what a lot of our young people go through.”

Much to the disdain of her board, Lindsey tells us she doesn’t have a five-year plan but only wants to continue to grow organically and grasp each and every opportunity that comes her way. “So, god knows where we’ll be in five years,” she smiles, “…even more fabulous than we are now!”