12 March 2014
This week, the Consulate General of Italy in Hong Kong and the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre, with support from The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, is launching an exhibition featuring one of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's most important works, Supper at Emmaus.
It’s the latest Italian masterpiece to come to town following Botticelli’s Venus Hong Kong debut late last year. Alessandra Schiavo, Consul General of Italy in Hong Kong and Macau, has been instrumental in these efforts to promote Italy’s “under-represented” culture in Hong Kong. Last year, she also commissioned and edited the book 500 Years of Italians in Hong Kong & Macau. In Six Questions, Ms Schiavo discusses Italy’s long history in Hong Kong and the cultural and economic relationship between the two economies.
How has the Italian community in Hong Kong grown over the years?
We have more than 2,900 Italians officially registered in Hong Kong plus about 100 in Macau, but the interesting thing is the rate of growth. When I came here almost four years ago, there were 1,864 Italians, so we’ve grown by over 1,000 and our community in Macau, while very small, has grown in the same period of time by over 55 per cent.
After the signing last year of the treaty for the avoidance of double taxation, our community will continue to grow as more and more Italian companies decide to set up their offices in Hong Kong. I’ve experienced an incredible growth of the Italian community and I’m sure that that rate of expansion will continue, if not increase, in the future.
What is changing is the composition of the Italian community; we have more and more younger people than before. Ten years ago, we had people arrive here in their 40s and 50s, more mature professionals with a well-established career already. Now we have people in their 20s and 30s, soon after graduation, for example, who are deciding to live here.
Describe the trade relationship between Italy and Hong Kong.
It’s very satisfying. In 2013, our trade volume was US$10.8 billion, which means that Hong Kong is Italy’s third-largest partner in Asia. Our largest partner is China, then we have Japan and Hong Kong. Our trade volume with Hong Kong is even bigger than what Italy has with India and South Korea. It’s very promising, and what is also very encouraging is that we have a surplus with Hong Kong of about US$4.6 billion. Our exports last year were US$7.7 billion, which makes it an increase of about eight per cent compared to the previous year of 2012, so it is a very encouraging trend.
The major Italian brands already have a strong presence in Hong Kong. What about small and medium sized enterprises?
We are seeing more and more small and medium enterprises. It’s difficult to have the exact dimension of this phenomenon because sometimes they register as Hong Kong companies, but there are more and more of them coming. This is because of a similarity between Italy and Hong Kong – our economic fabric is that of small and medium enterprises. They are flexible because they can adjust their strategies more easily, and many are export-oriented.
How does the Consulate General work to further enhance the made-in-Italy brand?
The big brands and the small brands – we never differentiate – we always try to support all of them. What the Italian Consulate does on a wider and strategic level is create more opportunities for Italian culture. The book, 500 Years of Italians in Hong Kong & Macau, for example, responds to this goal to make the presence of Italian people in Hong Kong better known.
For example, the Sacred Heart Canossian College was founded by Italians, as was the Canossa Hospital because of the Canossian sisters who arrived in Hong Kong in the middle of the 19th century. The Fu Hong Society, which plays an important role in assisting the disabled, was also founded by Italian people. When we spread this message, we hope we are telling the Hong Kong people that we are here and are here with you.
How are cultural events and exhibitions helping to enhance Italian values?
I committed myself from the moment I arrived in Hong Kong to promote Italian culture. We opened the Italian Cultural Institute two years ago, and for me, this has been one of my biggest achievements.
We also have worked to bring to Hong Kong some exhibitions. The Botticelli that we brought here between October and December 2013, and which is now in Macau, has been an incredible success. It was visited by more than 9,000 people in only three-and-a-half days during Chinese New Year in Macau, and we’ve extended the exhibition because it’s been very successful. Now, we are bringing a Caravaggio masterpiece to the Asia Society from 12 March to 13 April.
All of these exhibitions are very important to stress the value and scope of Italian culture. We have all these companies and big brands, and people ask me what is their secret to success. For me, the key to their success is history and culture. We have these fantastic brands, works of arts, and these clothes that really look like masterpieces because Italians have it in their DNA. In their blood is this love for beauty, this idea of the aesthetic, these very old traditions in art and craftsmanship. When we bring these pieces, we help people understand the ancient roots of the Italian fashion brands.
Following the publication of 500 Years of Italians in Hong Kong and Macau in 2013, were many people surprised that Italians have had such a long-standing relationship with Hong Kong?
Many people were surprised, they didn’t know about the role Italians have played. Many times Italians are interested in doing things but not necessarily branding. It’s not really in our character, and sometimes people say you should market your creations more and it’s true, we definitely should do it more, but it’s also a question of being humble. I really thought it was important to reconstruct this history. It’s really a history of friendship and commitment; it’s a history of a fascination for Asia and China. Also, I wanted to write this book with the Italian community, not only about the Italian community, so I invited Italian citizens who wanted to participate with their own experiences.