By Samantha Chan

Just a ten-minute walk from the buzzing flea market and working-class neighbourhood in Sham Shui Po, there stands the Hong Kong campus of the US private art school Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

Photo: Samantha Chan//HKFP.

On a regular Wednesday afternoon, the artistic haven is usually flooded with soft chattering and muffled voices with strong accents. For the past four months, however, the former North Kowloon Magistracy building has been vacant. The sounds of honking and engines revving from the main road have taken over.

The school is leaving Hong Kong. Three workers on the site said that construction work began in early May. Now, approaching July, the first and second floors are all clear and the school’s name has been removed from the entrance.

On March 13, all students and staff at SCAD Hong Kong were notified by an internal email that the Hong Kong campus would discontinue its operations after the Spring 2020 quarter.

A clothing rack with colourful garments and paper bags of fabric can be seen from the outside. Photo: Samantha Chan//HKFP.

Students can opt to transfer to the Atlanta or Savannah campuses in the US, or complete their degrees remotely, for the same tuition as at SCAD Hong Kong.

More than 2,700 people have signed an online petition urging SCAD to rescind its decision, but the school has yet to disclose a specific reason behind the abrupt shutdown beyond saying the decision was made “after a comprehensive analysis” related to “student safety and academic quality.”

“It is completely random in my eyes. Out of nowhere, we [students] all got that email saying this is it,” Kaylin Dashkewytch, a first-year student studying Animation, told HKFP.

Book shelves and packed boxes accumulate on the ground floor. Photo: Samantha Chan//HKFP.

Even realising that events such as the pro-democracy protests and Covid-19 outbreak might inhibit profitability for the school and interrupt her studies, she did not expect SCAD to axe the Hong Kong campus.

“They simply weren’t willing to wait it out,” she said. “We really went out of our way to push SCAD to figure out why this is happening. We all feel that this is unfair.”

According to the latest financial statement of SCAD Foundation (Hong Kong) Limited, although the school had accumulated a deficit of more than HK$321 million between 2010 and the end of June 2019, the amount was less than the year before.

With an uptick in its overall revenue in the year of 2019, the school experienced a HK$421,628 surplus in its total comprehensive income for 2019 – an improvement compared with one year before, which recorded a deficit of HK$16 million.

President’s response

A friend of Dashkewytch reached out to SCAD President and Co-founder Paula Wallace on Instagram for an explanation.

Wallace replied saying: “Our lease is up in Hong Kong, and that means it was time to assess the future success and best course for action for every student, faculty and staff. Although I understand that it may be hard to see this perspective, the Board of Trustees made their decision to ensure that every student in Hong Kong is able to receive a SCAD quality education and degree.”

An anti-extradition bill demonstration. Photo: May James/HKFP.

She added that she wants to “ensure” students in Hong Kong are receiving the support they need from Khoi Vo, Vice President of SCAD Hong Kong.

Dashkewytch, with Gabriella Mataleo, a first-year student majoring in Graphic Design, and a few more schoolmates, wrote a letter to the school on behalf of all students explaining their misgivings about SCAD’s solution. They asked Vo to consider it and respond.

The only mannequin in the building. Photo: Samantha Chan//HKFP.

According to Mataleo, Vo called her and said students should not constantly disturb Wallace, and complained their action was unprofessional. When HKFP contacted Vo at his current role at the institution, he hung up the phone after saying: “You received the response from the school. That’s the response you’re going to get, okay?”

Embittered by the fact that SCAD Hong Kong would cease operations in June, Dashkewytch decided to take online classes from her home in Canada during the upcoming school year: “I’m not quite ready to transfer to Savannah because I’ve never been to that part of North America. It is also pricey since I never had to pay for accommodation in Hong Kong,” she said.

Tuition concerns

Financial costs were also a concern for Mataleo in considering whether to transfer to the US or another university in Hong Kong.

Photo: Samantha Chan//HKFP.

“SCAD Hong Kong is unlike other JUPAS institutions. Even the admission made me feel warm and welcome. That’s why I chose to study here despite the heavy tuition I will have to repay,” she said. “For the past three quarters, my experience is mostly positive. Therefore, this is definitely sad news. It adds a lot of financial burden to me.”

She added that SCAD only provides solutions to those who are willing to relocate to the US since university transfer is very common in the US. But her Hong Kong student loan cannot be extended to overseas study.

Photo: Samantha Chan//HKFP.

In response, a SCAD spokesperson told HKFP each student completing a degree for approximately the same cost in the same timeframe would be eligible to have one trip, accommodation and board on campus paid for if they were living at home in Hong Kong.

They said they would also be paying for international student insurance and replacing any Hong Kong government grant money, in addition to a sum to cover the cost of applying for a visa: “Students would be responsible for sourcing any additional loans needed.”

Chaotic arrangement

Both students said the administrative nightmare continued. Two weeks after the email announcement, the school asked students to sign up for a 30-minute time slot to retrieve their items in classrooms, studios and other storage facilities at the campus.

However, by the time of the announcement many students had already flown home.

Photo: Samantha Chan.

“Everything was so rushed and chaotic. They [SCAD] needed to give more notice, especially for students who would have to apply to other schools now. It is too late now to apply for transfer to other institutions,” Dashkewytch said.

Kamilah Wong, a third-year student majoring in Sequential Art, echoed that sentiment: “I do wish they had told us earlier, or maybe reconsidered, but I guess it is what it is. I hope transferring to Savannah will open new doors for me.”

Wong decided to go to the US in the coming fall because she cannot find other schools in Hong Kong that have a similar programme.

The courtroom, which was converted into a lecture hall, returns to its original state. Photo: Samantha Chan//HKFP.

“I was shocked, I didn’t think this would happen. I felt very confused and worried about my future when I heard the news,” she recalled.

SCAD’s spokesperson said students were given at least one week notice and a plan was developed to allow them to safely collect their belongings according to social distancing guidelines: “As the situation on the ground evolved and escalated, we worked closely with authorities to schedule additional dates [and] times for student collection of personal items.”

“When students needed and requested additional time, our faculty and staff were able to accommodate most requests.”

‘Nail in the coffin’

Simon Birch, a Hong Kong-based multimedia artist and guest lecturer at SCAD Hong Kong, described the school’s Hong Kong-based students as “very open-minded, poly-cultural, enthusiastic, and very talented.”

File Photo: Samantha Chan.

“The shutdown is another nail in the coffin for Hong Kong creativity,” Birch told HKFP.

He was not surprised the Hong Kong branch had been axed, saying that Hong Kong “does not seem to nurture creativity at all,” unlike other major cities.

He explained that there are too few options for the creatives in terms of education and opportunities, meaning that a lot of potential talent will never be realised.

“The perception of creativity here is to inject international brands like SCAD and Art Basel to Hong Kong. But look… they are both gone now,” Birch said.

Samantha Chan is studying for a master’s degree in journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research interests are primarily in the areas of under-reported stories and local arts and cultural development. 

Clarification 2.6.20: Art Basel Hong Kong was suspended in 2020 owing to the Covid-19 outbreak but is set to return in 2021.

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.