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That Girl: Cruzanne Macalister – comedian, scriptwriter & RTHK producer and presenter

This week’s That Girl is the multi-talented Cruzanne Macalister – stand-up comedian, scriptwriter & producer and presenter at RTHK Radio 3.

We get the lowdown from Cruzanne on life in Lamma with her adorable rescue dog Alfie (and run-ins with some other island wildlife!), discuss whether women are as funny as men, get her tips on making a living in the creative industry and find out why we shouldn’t forget to listen to the radio!

Fill us in on your background and how your family ended up in Hong Kong?
My parents met in Hong Kong actually. My mum’s from Gibraltar and my dad’s from New Zealand – he came over in the early 70s to join the Hong Kong Police. My sisters and I were all born here, so I’m one of those third-culture kids. Apart from university in New Zealand and an exchange to New York, I’ve always been here. I love Hong Kong; I actually have ‘Made in Hong Kong’ tattooed on the bottom of my foot – I thought this was hilarious at the time… but I’m still proud of being a Hong Kong native!

Where do you live? How have you made your home your own?
I live on Lamma Island. It’s fantastic. I would say I’m house-proud to a degree, but I never feel 100% settled. I’ve lived in so many different flats with so many different people that I find comfort in just having the bare essentials. In terms of making my home my own – I’m a function over form sort of person, so as long as I know everything has a logical place and purpose, I can rest easy! And of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a couple bits and pieces that lighten the place up – the two things I’ve had at every flat I’ve ever lived in are my Attack of the 50ft Woman poster and these three fat ladies made of clay – not exactly Architectural Digest material!

What are the best and worst things about living on Lamma?
The worst thing is being a slave to the ferry timetable, although I do really enjoy my morning ferry journey. Being surrounded by bugs, bats, spiders, snakes, rats, birds and lush foliage is just brilliant – it’s like living in a David Attenborough documentary… Or hosting my own National Geographic special every day! Although there have been a few episodes – notably involving a giant poisonous centipede, a gargantuan black spider accompanying me to the ferry and a small, enthusiastically painful swarm of wasps… but these memories are best not revisited.

Angry violent insects aside, Lamma’s fab! Hiking, beaching, sunning… friends are always commenting that visiting me is like going on a little holiday (a somewhat budget holiday, but a holiday nonetheless).

How would you describe your personal style? How does it evolve and change?
I don’t really feel like I have a sense of style, to be honest! I tend to just wear things that make me feel happy and confident. I like colours, patterns and things which are a bit different; one of my favourite broaches is from a sustainable, Hong Kong based social enterprise Woof, which makes jewellery from dog hair collected from groomers, it was a gift from the SPCA’s 90th anniversary gala. I also have a favourite ring made from sustainable and recycled materials, designed by my gorgeous friend, Jeanine Hsu, founder of Niin Jewellery.

I love brands with a good story behind them, like the wonderful Dahlia, which has an amazing online store; one of their founders, Leigh Littlechild lives in Hong Kong. When I was at university in Wellington in New Zealand, I used to buy a load of vintage secondhand dresses and quirky things – but that was before it all became super chic and skyrocketed in price, and now musty old clothes can cost quite a pretty penny! I do miss old-fashioned charity op shops, I suppose that’s one thing Hong Kong is missing (if you know of any, let me know!).

What are your favourite restaurants and bars in Hong Kong?
I tend to go cheap and cheerful. I’m not a big drinker so it’s more about the vibe of a venue and whether I can hear the people I’m with over the volume of the music! I wish I could name a favourite restaurant but in Hong Kong, you’re so spoiled for choice. My sister and I have a game we play on Friday nights of randomly picking a restaurant (with reasonable ratings) off Openrice and trekking out to wherever it is. It’s a fun way of discovering places you’ve never been.

What’s your favourite place in HK?
I’m all about contrasts. I love being in the middle of Yau Ma Tei with all the flashing lights, neon signs and stinky smells at 11pm at night and thinking, “Look. At. This. Place. I’m so lucky, Hong Kong is amazing,” then on a Saturday morning getting up super, super early and swimming out at Big Wave Bay beach and lying back in the water and thinking, “Look. At. This. Place. I’m so lucky, Hong Kong is amazing.” I fall in love with new places all the time, it’s the beauty of Hong Kong.

Can you tell us more about your experience of adopting your rescue dog, Alfie?
Alfie’s the love of my life! I adopted Alfie from the SPCA; she was rescued from an illegal breeding operation in Hong Kong. She was kept in a cage for most of her life and has a few scars and bumps that hint to a sad, sad past. I’m very passionate about animal welfare and how if you’re thinking about getting a dog, adopt don’t buy. People in Hong Kong don’t realise where the majority of pet-shop puppies come from – and all too often it’s from sad, old breeding dogs like Alfie who are kept in horrific conditions.

The SPCA have some truly wonderful animals for adoption and their staff are knowledgeable and passionate – Alfie was a bit of a celebrity while she was there, I think she has more friends than I do! But she’s happy as a clam now, living a life of Lamma luxury. I love her huge, chunky, dribbling face – even if it’s one only a mother could love!

What are some of your fave dog-friendly spots in HK?
Well, Alfie is slightly disabled; she can’t walk very far and has bad joints (all a result of her history), so if I take her to Hong Kong Island to see my family or around Lamma, I have to pop her in her ‘chariot’ – it’s a big bucket with wheels – so I’m usually quite a spectacle for tourists! But Lamma has a great dog beach and I often go hiking with my parents’ dogs into the mountains – there is something quite special about watching a rescued Chihuahua splashing through mud and brambles!

How did you get into performing stand-up comedy?
I think it was in my first year of university, someone said, “You’re funny – you should do stand up.” So I did! And surprisingly it went quite well, so I kept doing it! You fall in love with laughter and the buzz of being in a room full of good moods, it’s brilliant.

I also have a fascination with ‘the science of humour’ and while I was in New York, I went on a workshop in the mountains of Woodstock called, ‘The Zen of Clown’ where I frolicked around in the forest wearing a red nose, trying to discover ‘my inner idiot’. I think I found it… it was a brilliant experience! I can be quite a serious and focused person, so I kept the red nose to remind myself that it’s healthy to let yourself go and be a bit silly sometimes.

Is it nerve-wracking being on-stage? Have you ever been heckled?
I think there’s a certain level of anxiousness you get before a gig – but that’s a good thing. Once you get on stage, it all melts away with the first laugh – unless no one is laughing, in which case you have to really dig deep to keep going but if you focus and relax, you can always bring an audience back around. I’ve been heckled on a few occasions, but no one’s ever said anything rude or mean or anything – once it was just someone on their phone saying, “Dude, GET DOWN HERE, THIS GIRL IS FUNNY!” which I took as a huge compliment!

What would you say to the claims often made by male comedians that women just aren’t funny?
Rubbish… but unfortunately, it’s still a widely held view. I think that women have a harder time with confidence and believing in their inherent funniness, and finding the funny in life – but there is funny EVERYWHERE, you just have to be open to it and learn to laugh at yourself. I know dozens and dozens of hilarious ladies; the ones who’ve recognised it and owned it are successful and vibrant comediennes, but all it takes is a little confidence.

You’ve also had a successful career as a scriptwriter. How is writing dialogue different from just… you know… saying things?! Is it difficult to ‘let go’ of your work to actor’s interpretations?
I love scriptwriting; I did my Masters degree in it actually. But I won’t get all academic and long-winded about narrative theory here! Often in real life, we say things that don’t mean much; in a good script, every word is important. Every time an actor opens their mouth, you have to be mindful of revealing character or advancing the drama.

It is hard to let go of work, but if you’re working with passionate talented actors, it’s very exciting; a script is like a selection of directions on a map – you can choose which way you want to travel and how fast or slow, calm, collected or frustrated you are when you get to your destination. I’ve written for radio, television, short film and even event speeches, and every script is a new challenge. I’ve always got my own scripts bubbling away at the back of my mind and scrawl lines of dialogue or character traits on napkins and receipts as I zoom through my week. Inspiration strikes at any time, without warning!

What are some of the weirdest or most memorable jobs you’ve had?
I love experiencing different workplaces. I’ve worked every student job imaginable, from being a caregiver with disabled individuals for four years, to a checkout operator at a budget supermarket in New Zealand, to coordinating a Busking festival in Auckland (where I managed to lose a man on stilts – tell me how that’s possible?!). One of my favourite jobs was Creative Director on this absolutely mad music video for an independent musician, Mo Blishen, in New Zealand. She had some really clear ideas about what she wanted to happen in this video, it was so much fun and totally mad. It’s called The Chocolate Cake Song and it’s on YouTube here if you’re feeling curious! You have been warned.

Is it difficult to earn a living in the creative industry? Any tips for people wanting to make their career in the industry?
It’s not easy… but nothing worthwhile ever is. Sometimes it’s just a leap of faith. One tip I would offer is finding income-earning outlets that exercise your skills. I love writing comedy and scripts, but I also just love words. So my sister Ellie and I started a writing and publicity business, The Quick Word Company. When I’m busy thinking up creative ideas and angles for clients, that part of my brain is whirring along and I find my own ideas surface more easily. I get my best strikes of inspiration when I’m really busy. I’ve toyed with the idea of just holing up with a laptop on a desk by a window and just ‘writing for days’ but you need to keep your brain ticking along – and keeping busy and involved helps with that, big time.

You’re currently working at RTHK Radio 3, with your own show set to air later in the year. Can you tell us more about that?
I’m working on a little show with Hong Kong comedian, Vivek Mahbubani, called The Hong Kong Lowdown. It’s a show which explores parts of Hong Kong you might not know about and it’s been heaps of fun to work on – the two of us keep coming across things and thinking, ‘Wow, I did not know that!’ I’ve also helped out on a bunch of other programmes, there’s so much diversity at Radio 3 that you’re never bored and always learning new things, meeting interesting people and are surrounded by seriously talented broadcasters.

Fill us in on an average day at RTHK!
No two days are the same, to be honest! I might do some audio editing, find some guests, research topics… it changes everyday, although it’s pleasantly always busy. Obviously, I get to do a lot of listening too – in the morning, there are all the current affairs programmes, starting with Hong Kong Today at 6.30am, which is a great rundown of leading news and events. That’s followed by Money For Nothing at 8am which is an insightful programme with live guests discussing the world of business, money and finance (I recommend listening – I learn so much; contrary to what I used to think, finance is actually really interesting!) Then there’s Backchat, which is a live talkback programme where the issues of the day are discussed and debated – it’s a fantastic forum for Hong Kong news and views. Then you’re into the fun stuff, Morning Brew from 9.30am-1pm, Kwok Talk over lunchtime, Drive Time in the afternoon, and then my working day is done! The radio is on in the office all day, of course, and people are always busy researching, finalising or lining up their shows. It’s such a close-knit team and there’s never a dull moment.

Do you think there is still a place for radio in the 21st century? What does radio do that other media cannot?
Absolutely there is! Radio is exciting, innovative and immediate. In a world where our attention is ripped about every which way, there’s something very satisfying and engaging in listening in to a radio programme. As is often said by the presenters here, “Radio is about painting a picture with your voice.” Listening to voices and sounds lets you tap into your imagination and concentration. Sometimes, I find it quite depressing how with our fast pace of life, we’ve stopped seeing the value in conversation and listening. Radio reminds us to listen; I don’t think that’s ever going to stop being something we should value.

What’s the best piece of advice someone has given you and why?
“Stay ahead of your taxes,” from Dad. Haha, probably not quite what you’re looking for (but still good advice!). Or “There are two things in life you should not share, your husband and your toothbrush,” from my Granny. OK, I’ll quit joking; probably, “You come into this world with nothing and you leave this world with nothing, so make sure you have a head full of stories, memories and experiences.” That’s probably one of my faves; it’s good to remind ourselves of what’s really important in life.

What’s the key to being happy in life in HK?
Get yourself amongst some greenery at least once a week. Be open-minded, be friendly, be helpful, be involved and don’t get bogged down with comparing yourself to other people. Hong Kong is a unique city, brimful of diversity, so celebrate your differences.

All photos in the That Girl article above were taken by the hugely talented Sabrina Sikora of Sabrina Sikora Photography – get in touch with her at sabrinasikora@gmail.com.

Check out the rest of our That Girls here!

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