That year he took a momentous decision – to return to Macao, where he went to work in a music school that had been set up five years before and bore no comparison to the academies in Beijing and the U.S. where he had learnt his skill.
Now, 15 years later, he is director of the school, the Macao Conservatory, which includes dance and theatre as well as music, and has more than 2,000 students and 110 teachers from around the world.
Leung has transformed the conservatory from an extra-mural school with no entry requirements and no diplomas into a professional institution that aims to train world-class musicians, dancers and actors. He wants it to match the five-star hotels and entertainment venues which Macao has acquired over the last 10 years.
“Before, Macao had no performing venues and no market for musical performances,” said Leung. “As the economy has taken off and Macao has become a world-class tourism city, high-quality hotels have been built and many venues have opened or are under construction. These provide performers with a wonderful professional opportunity.
“But, up to now, performances here have been dominated by people from Hong Kong and the mainland and local talent has been very rare. Now we can change this situation and train many local people. I hope that, in the near future, we will see Macao people performing on the stages of Macao.”
A long and tortuous journey
His father, Leung Koon Lau, was a well-known musician who studied at the Central Academy of Music in Beijing in the 1950s and taught at Pui Ching, one of the most famous middle schools in Macao. Keen that his son follow in his footsteps, Father started him playing the piano at the age of eight and told him to practise four hours a day, before and after school.
“I did not want to study. I wanted to read novels and play with other children,” Leung recalled. “Father watched me every minute, correcting my mistakes. This led to bad relations between us. I did not want to listen to him, I resisted. By the time I was 15, my father could not manage me any more.”
So, in 1979, his mother took him to Beijing to study under a famous teacher named Zhou Guangren. “She was a great inspiration to me, very serious and totally dedicated. I realised that my standard was poor and far behind those of the other students at the school.” He remained all summer, studying eight hours a day. “For hours, professor Zhou explained the theories behind the music and demonstrated them.” Two other teachers who had been classmates of his father also took notes and helped to explain things to him.
After he returned to Macao, his father decided not to teach him and introduced him to another classmate, who lived in Hong Kong. So, every Sunday, the young man took the boat there and then the number one bus to Happy Valley, where the teacher lived.
“I realised the view of my parents – ‘we provide you with the best conditions to learn music and, if you cannot make it in the future, do not blame us’. My sister became a nurse. She was less of a troublemaker than I. My parents treated us the same.”
At that time, Macao had no university. If young people wanted further education, they had to go to Hong Kong, Taiwan or overseas. An excellent student, Leung was one of the few Macao students to win a place to study science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; but he decided instead to go to study music at the University of Kansas.
What attracted him was a famous Portuguese pianist named Sequeira Costa, who was a teacher there and agreed to accept him as one of his 10 students during a year. “Technically speaking, I was good but did not know enough of the treatment of music, of different styles and different periods.”
Twelve years in the United States and five degrees
He remained in the U.S. for 12 years, collecting five degrees – bachelors and masters in piano performance and music theory and a doctorate in musical arts. For the last six years, he received a full grant from the Macao government, covering all tuition and living expenses, on the condition that he return after graduation and work in Macao for four years. This was a promise rather than an obligation; the government could not force him to return. He completed his Ph.D in just two years, half the normal time. He performed in public and won many awards. He accepted a post at Kansas University to teach piano and music theory.
Sense of family brought Leung back to Macao
Then, in 1994, his sister called him and asked him to come home. “My grandmother was ill. She was alone with our parents. The rest of the family had emigrated.” It was not an easy decision. The U.S. offered many opportunities for teaching and performing and Macao almost none. It had no full-time music school and very limited opportunities to perform.
Leung’s sense of filial piety prevailed over his professional ambitions; he gave up his good teaching post and salary and returned home. “It was hard to adapt. Macao is very small.”
The next year, he was offered a job as music teacher of the Macao Conservatory that had been set up in 1989 by the Portuguese government. “They saw the handover to China in 1999 and wanted to leave something behind. They built the airport and the university. The conservatory was set up in a rush and very amateurish. The director was a Portuguese who had neither vision nor a plan for future development. There was no system of what kind of students to accept, no regulations and no certificates. The director’s wife established a dance school. It was run like a family business.”
It was an enormous shock for Leung who had learnt his trade from world-class teachers at professional institutions.
In 1998, the Portuguese director left and was replaced by a Chinese lady. Leung began to suggest how to reform the institution, in terms of syllabus, regulations and operating system. He was made director of the music school, giving him the opportunity to implement changes there. In 2002, the lady director applied for study leave and Leung was made acting director, a post which became permanent in 2004.
Since then, he has overhauled the institution, introducing professional teachers from around the world, instituting full-time courses and issuing certificates.
“The switch was not easy, as we had to deal with legal issues and regulations, in order to give diplomas. Things now have started to run systematically and we are attracting students of a younger age. Our reputation is improving,” he said.
The school now has more than 2,000 students, compared to 700 in 1999. It has 110 teachers, from Macao, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, Austria, the Czech Republic, Britain, Russia, Canada, the U.S. and Australia; they have extensive teaching and performing experience.
It has forged links with schools in the mainland, holding courses with the Shanghai Dance School, one of the best known in China, and music classes with the Beijing Central Academy of Music. Experts from these two cities come to assess their classes and exams, so that their standard will be equivalent to those in Shanghai and Beijing.
All under one roof
“Our aim is to raise our standards and status and eventually become an institution of tertiary education,” Leung said. “This will take 5-10 years. We want to improve the quality of our students, teachers, courses and facilities.”
The school organises workshops and short courses and invites distinguished artists as guest lecturers. It offers courses both to full-time students of music, dance and drama and to students of outside schools who want to attend particular classes.
In 2004, the dance school moved to a new site, as did the drama school in 2007. In 2008, the music school acquired a new building, next to its existing one, which was built in the 1920s as a housing project of the former Portuguese administration. The new block has 1,900 square metres and 36 classrooms, with a piano in each room.
Leung is keen to bring the three schools under one roof. “The three are scattered, leading inevitably to waste and duplication. The three performing arts support each other, learn from each other and stimulate each other. In addition, the three were not designed specifically as art schools. We urgently need our own performing venue. We are like a diving team with no pool in which to dive.”
He is lobbying the government for a new site where the three can be united. Since the urban area of Macao is very crowded, with the highest population density per square metre in the world, he is happy to consider a site in Taipa, which has more space.
“We need a new custom-built school, where music, dance and theatre can work under one roof and where the place of performance is the centre. We also need new student dormitories. This would improve the ability of the teachers to fulfil their potential and attract and train more students to enter the hall of performance. Such a new school would give us the foundation and the conditions.”
In January 2010, Leung received recognition from the Macao government for his work, the Medal of Dedication, which is given to outstanding public servants.
Ironically, his hectic work schedule as the head of an institution with three different disciplines and an administrator of culture in Macao leaves him no time to practise the piano and improve the skill which he and his father spent so many years to learn.
It has 900 students, full and part-time. It holds classes together with the Shanghai Dance Academy. In 2005, it started to offer the first full-time professional dance courses in Macao, with lessons in Chinese and ballet dancing. Its diploma is recognised by advanced dance academies in the mainland, Hong Kong and abroad, which allows the students to go on to further studies in them.
The first bunch of graduates have all been accepted into the Beijing Dance Academy, the Shanghai Dance School of Shanghai Theatre Academy and Hong Kong APA.
The school has founded its own dance company, producing and performing authentic dance numbers and dance dramas. Students have won many outstanding prizes and performed in many important venues, including the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing.
The school has nearly 1,000 students and 80 teachers. It offers education in Chinese and western music, with compulsory and elective courses. It has choirs, small playing groups and an orchestra. It holds workshops and master classes by distinguished teachers from outside. It organises joint performances between teachers and students and events outside the school, to give the students wide experience. They take part in the annual Macao Youth Music Competition and other regional and national competitions.
The school offers three- and five-year courses, at the elementary, middle and advanced level.
In October 2009, it launched full-time ‘music technique courses’ jointly taught by its own teachers and those from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. The certificate issued at the end of this course is recognised internationally and enables the holder to apply for a music major or liberal arts course at a college or university.
It has 200 students and teachers from Hong Kong, the mainland, Singapore and Britain. After graduation, students have continued their education in drama at universities in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The students take part in drama competitions in Macao and Hong Kong. It offers course of one-, two- and three-years. In 2008, teachers and students at the school, together with performers from Macao, set up the Macao Youth Drama Group. It puts on plays at public venues.
By Staff Reporter in Macao
(Issue N. 4, July 2010)