Every year at Christmastime in Hong Kong, Santas bring malls and office parties festive cheer. But let’s face it: most of them are pretty generic. Being a run-of-the-mill Santa wasn’t good enough for Jim Chan, who has officially outdone them all by winning the Santa Winter Games in Sweden – the first Chinese to take home gold. ‘Since we’re bringing people happiness, why not give it your all?’ he says.
At the competition, Chan saw how much effort people put into becoming Santas, so he decided to bring this practice back to Hong Kong. In 2013, he partnered with Johnny Wu to establish Santa School Hong Kong, the first academy to offer professional Santa training in Chinese. And entrance to the school is competitive. ‘It’s not a course you can just pay to take. We first do an interview and decide based on personality,’ says Chan. In addition to etiquette, demeanour, gestures and skills, ‘we teach child psychology, so we have to make sure aspiring Santas are kind and won’t use their learnings to do anything immoral’.
Berry Yeung became a Santa a few years ago, after attending the school. ‘It was my mum’s dying wish for me to bring joy to the world,’ he says. He became a magician but was approached by Chan as a potential Santa. After a rigorous interview process, he was admitted. His shtick: cheeky Santa, with cartoon glasses.
‘Each person’s Santa costume is designed based on the individual’s skills, so they’re all unique,’ says Wu.
The school only has about six students right now; the two founders put quality before quantity to maintain a high standard. ‘To save money, many shopping malls in Hong Kong use amateur Santas who are their staff. Professional Santas are rare in Hong Kong, but we strive to stay friendly with everyone in the trade,’ says Chan, who during the rest of the year is a balloon artist, a Chinese prosperity god and a puppeteer.
The careers of professional Santas hinge on the continued suspension of disbelief among the public. ‘I hope parents keep up the tradition of Santa,’ says Wu. ‘Playing this role, it is our mission to share joy, and we hope to do it for life.’