TED Talks began in 1984, with a mission to help disseminate “ideas worth spreading”. Since its early days, it showcased speakers from the technology, entertainment, and design sectors (hence the acronym, TED), the platform has grown exponentially thanks to its virally popular free online videos. Today, the global nonprofit has even branched out into other types of programming, from global conferences, intimate interviews, and TEDx – independent self-organised events that follow certain TED-approved guidelines in exchange for free licensing. Globally, there are more than 3,000 TEDx Talks every year.
In 2019, TEDx finally arrived in Macao. Curator and organiser Venus Loi launched TEDxSenadoSquare, featuring speakers from photography veteran António Leong, dolphin researcher and conservation activist Viena Mak, urban space architect Tamara Solski and digitalisation expert Anna Choi. The following year, due to Covid-19, event organisers held the event online in respect of social restrictions.
After a year online, however, TEDx is finally back on the live stage, set to take place at the Dom Pedro V Theatre in Largo de Santo Agostinho on 30 October 2021. The event’s theme, “Dawn”, invites speakers to explore the transformative nature of social change, harnessing insights from the past, present and future, while reintroducing some light into the darkness after a two-year pandemic disruption.
Where it started
Loi was first introduced to TED in 2009 when she was 16 years old, after her teacher played a video of a talk during math class. “It was about SixthSense technology [a type of wearable computer] and I was totally mind-blown!” she says, adding that she was impressed with how much knowledge could be imparted within a brief 18-minute timeframe.
When Loi moved to the UK in 2010 to begin her A-Levels at Bath’s Royal High School, she got in touch with the organisers of the local TEDxYouth chapter, which arranged events specifically geared towards young people. Tickets were already sold out, but after she sent a long message on Facebook expressing her interest in attending, organisers were so impressed they found her a spare ticket, with the agreement that she would help their team clean up the venue after the event.
It was her first TED event, and the start of her “official TEDx experience”, according to Loi. She started out as an attendee and in the following year, she became the ‘official reporter’ of the event, in charge of interviewing speakers, as well as writing blog posts and for school newsletters.
After she moved to Durham University in northeast England to pursue an undergraduate degree in economics, Loi launched TEDxDurhamUniversity, along with a team of fellow freshmen who were passionate about the project.
“It was difficult at the beginning as we were all new to the area, but we eventually got there,” she laughs, adding that the event has continued annually on campus.
Loi returned to Macao in 2016. When Typhoon Hato hit the city in the summer of 2017, she volunteered to help clean up after the storm, and in doing so, met a group of community organisers who she gelled with. As they got to know one another, Loi’s background in organising TEDx events in the UK sparked interest among the group.
“I was very lucky to have met a few like-minded people who are still part of the organising team,” she says.
The road to TEDx
Despite their initial enthusiasm, it still took Loi and her team nearly a year to get everything in order to launch the event. Everyone is a volunteer and most work full-time jobs – Loi herself works as an assistant coordinator at Macau Urban Renewal Limited. In what little spare time they had, they slowly completed paperwork, applied for a bank account, and cleared a number of bureaucratic hurdles.
“There was a lot of back and forth as we figured things out along the way,” says Loi, before they could finally become a registered NGO in Macao and receive their TEDx license in 2018.
In the event’s first year, around 250 people attended the Dom Pedro V Theatre, where a lineup of nine speakers presented thought-provoking presentations on everything from philosophy to photography. Loi says that she and her team – around four or five core members at the time – wanted to include speakers who were able to speak on topics not commonly discussed in Macao.
“I wanted to reach people with ideas that they might initially have found too dull to explore,” she says. “Offering diversity in knowledge is one of the most important aspects of TEDx, because it pushes us to learn outside of our comfort zones.”
This year’s schedule touches on challenging social issues, with Christy Un starting the event on the topic of of changes. Psychotherapist Dr Elvo Sou will also speak on the recent rise in suicide numbers in Macao, as well as the importance of sustainability in preserving our ecosystem, presented by “Macao Ant Man” Danny Chi-Man Leong. Architect Lui Chak Keong will discuss our relationships with public space during the pandemic, and its impact on city planning. And creative minds like Kim Chen, the co-founder of local incense boutique Veng Lei Laboratory, and Alice Kok, the respected art scholar, will each take to the stage to explore their unique perspectives of art in our modern culture and daily lives. Wellness coach and author Hio Lou Chang and percussionist performer Yukie Lai will both lead participants in crowd activities during breaks between talks.
In line with TED principles, Loi says that inclusivity is also at the forefront of every TEDxSenadoSquare. That’s why pains are taken to ensure that attendees from all of Macao’s diverse communities are able to understand what is being shared on stage. Organisers have arranged for subtitles to appear in different languages ahead of time, including in English and Chinese. They also had a sign language interpreter provide live translations at their 2019 event.
“Previously when we offered sign language, we received feedback from people with hearing impairments who said they were able to be in the audience and enjoy the experience just like any other participant,” Loi says. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to do it next year if we have more seats available. It means a lot to know that we can offer more inclusiveness to people who often feel excluded.”
Rising to the challenge
This year’s event will be a scaled-down affair, with only half the number of tickets available due to a one-metre social distancing regulation. There are around 120 seats for the event, and Loi says ticket sales have been slow, likely because of lingering fears over Covid-19. Asked if it would be easier to move online again, Loi says that she still sees significant value in a live TEDx format.
“We’re still committed to doing an offline event, because I feel like the emotions and ideas just break through that little bit more. We are really hoping for support from the community at this time.”
Despite generous sponsors, who have covered things like the venue to free meals for volunteers and speakers, there have still been costs that can only be recouped through ticket sales. It has been financially difficult, but for Loi the event has become more symbolic in the wake of the pandemic.
“Life still has to go on, regardless of Covid-19. In the most difficult times we’ve been through in the last two years, I always hoped that this event could come together again, and I don’t plan on cancelling it.”