DIALOGUE WITH TISA HO: A CURIOUS MIND AND A PLAYFUL HEART
“If I were to describe Comparative Literature in a word, it would be ‘complexity’.”
TISA HO 何嘉坤 (BA 1971; MA 1973) has been serving as Executive Director of the Hong Kong Arts Festival since 2006. She is also the first Hong Kong arts administrator to be elected to the Chair of the International Society of the Performing Arts. Her leadership and vision have contributed to the development of arts programmes and policies in Hong Kong and elsewhere, for example, in Singapore. Her story gives us a glimpse into the experiences of a literature student before the Department became independent.
REMINISCING THE GOOD OLD DAYS
To Tisa, life as an undergraduate was highly enjoyable, with the freedom to explore within and beyond the classroom. She recollects spending at least half of her school days in the Drama Lab located in a classroom on the second floor of the Main Building. Everyone participated not for course credits, but for the fun it brought. “And I believe we absorbed a lot of the literature while having fun. I’m a simple person. I believe in living in the moment and enjoying what I do!”
One floor above was where the office and tutorial rooms of Comparative Literature were located. The area and community, although small when compared to that of English Literature, had a great vibe. People were chilling out, and lecturers would interact with students casually. “The informal atmosphere made us feel relaxed, which is nice especially when we had to dig into challenging texts like Derrida!” And to make classes even more pleasurable, “Prof. Ackbar Abbas was so charming that we just melted!”
STUDYING COMPLIT AS AN UNDERGRADUATE AND POSTGRADUATE
At that time, Comparative Literature adopted a rather contemporary focus and covered mainly European literature. “The scope was broader than English Literature, but it was still far from what we would now understand as World Literature. There weren’t any courses focusing on film studies, gender studies or popular culture. But I remembered watching Rashomon in a Comp Lit course, and was able to suggest a course in African Literature in English.” What seems to have remained consistent, however, is critical interest in the narrative voice. “We would examine the significance of the narrator in any
given text,” she recalled.
After completing her undergraduate studies, Tisa took the MA Programme and wrote her thesis on an image within D.H. Lawrence’s short stories. “A lot had been written about his novels, but I found his short stories especially fascinating, and replete with recurring motifs which intrigued me. I wanted to find out more and decided to give it a go, attempting to ‘deconstruct’ them. But of course, I didn’t really unravel all that wonderful writing in the end,” she laughed.
COMPLIT AS SEEDS AND A STEPPING STONE
With hindsight, Tisa realises what she had absorbed and experienced during these carefree years had somewhat shaped her perspective and path. “Unlike English Literature which adopts a more linear approach, Comparative Literature is slightly more digressive and stresses heavily on the contextualisation of texts,” she noted. This enhanced awareness of a text’s social context enables her to appreciate and understand a performance within
its specific socio-historical circumstances, a training that helps with programming. “For instance, if we look at the ballet La Bayadère (shown at the Hong Kong Arts Festival 2017) from a feminist or orientalist point of view, it can be very problematic or even unacceptable to a contemporary audience. But if we employ another ‘frame’ and situate it within its historical period and cultural background, we can better make sense of its meaning.”
Studying Comp Lit also indirectly led to a life-changing opportunity that eventually paved the way for her lifelong career in arts administration. She secured a scholarship for a full year of study in France while doing her master’s degree, and took the opportunity to learn about cultural centres which were being established in regional cities in France, in an effort at decentralisation because it was felt that cultural institutions were too heavily concentrated in Paris. “I attended a lot of programmes as a volunteer, having the chance to observe how directors, who were called ‘animators’, managed cultural centres and programmes.”
Whether as a student or arts administrator, a deep, genuine passion for the arts has motivated Tisa to see and learn more. Almost ironically, for a “simple person” like Tisa, it is the “complexity” in Comparative Literature that provides an endless source of fascination.