In Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Blade Runner, Hong Kong’s unique visual culture — densely packed towering skyscrapers dripping with neon — inspired the auteur’s now-iconic image of the future. In many ways, the metropolis remains a model for what is to come.
Cloud-stroking, glass-fronted high rises are ascending across the globe, as more of us reside in cities than ever before, and in 2015, the World Bank reported Hong Kong’s urban population at 100%. So the fact that almost three-quarters of the territory is in fact unspoiled countryside and mountains — 40% of which is protected parkland — seems more than a little surprising.
At least it does until you take a moment to immerse yourself in Hong Kong’s urban jungle, where nature takes a remarkably bold stand in the form of banyan roots, butterflies and wild boars, all of which assert their right to the land and air they share with 7.4 million humans. But in a metropolis of this size and speed, taking that moment to appreciate the wild world around us can sometimes be difficult, leading to a disconnect between us and our environment that could have lasting implications on the sustainability of the city itself.
For Laurel Chor, a conservationist and journalist, it was this realization that propelled her to establish the Hong Kong Explorers Initiative, a project that encourages city dwellers to relate to their natural surroundings, after she found herself implanted in her hometown quite by accident, in 2013. Laurel had been working in the Central African Republic, a landlocked country rich in resources and even more so in biodiversity, when civil war broke out and she had to be evacuated. “About six weeks after we left, poachers went to the area of the forest where we had been and they killed 26 elephants,” she explains. “That was when I started learning about the ivory trade and how Hong Kong and China were having an impact on elephants as far away as the CAR. That was a rude awakening, it felt invasive, almost — a place that I thought was untouchable was completely violated, probably because of demand coming from this part of the world.”
“As a city and as a society and as a culture,
we’re not very connected to nature”
Laurel identified what she calls a “nature problem” in Hong Kong. “As a city and as a society and as a culture, we’re not very connected to nature,” she says, adding that this detachment means consumers give little thought to the provenance of their purchases, or to the impact those transactions might have on the environment, whether near or far.
Food writer Janice Leung Hayes arrived to a similar conclusion, although her eureka moment came after a dinner at a renowned Danish restaurant famous for using only locally sourced ingredients. “It was probably about eight or nine years ago, and farm-to-table had just started to become a real buzzword,” she says. “I went to Noma, and after eating there I thought: It’s dark half the year there and it’s [so cold], and they still grow things and have a restaurant that only serves produce from the region. Why don’t we have a restaurant like that in Hong Kong?”
So, she did as any good journalist would and started researching a story about eating locally in Hong Kong. “I didn’t think I was going to find anything,” she admits, but find something she did. “I was surprised to discover that not only were there farmers, but that they were farming organic. This was around 2010.”
According to a report from the government’s Food and Health Bureau, 92% of fresh vegetables were imported that year, highlighting the obstacle that Janice had figured out: Barely anyone knew these farmers existed, let alone how to buy their produce. “I asked them, ‘What if I start a market somewhere in the city, [a place where] people who live away from the farms and who don’t know about you can actually buy your things and come and speak to you, and we can try and grow this together?’” she recalls. The producers liked the idea, and just like that Janice decided to start a farmers’ market, similar to those she had taken for granted while living in the Australian city of Melbourne.
The genesis of Rooftop Republic was not quite so simple, says one of its co-founders, Andrew Tsui, who, together with Pol Fàbrega and Michelle Hong, launched the urban farming social enterprise in 2015. “It’s a theory of change.” Andrew wants to elicit a transformation in the lifestyle of city dwellers. “Our projects demonstrate the educational and financial impact of urban farming on local communities,” he says. “They need time to flourish.”
“I was surprised to discover that not only were there farmers, but that they were farming organic. This was around 2010.”
As born-and-bred city folk, Rooftop Republic’s founders enjoy an inherent understanding of what spurs urban living. In Hong Kong — where everything from noodles to public transport is available almost instantly — that is convenience. “Going out to the New Territories to visit a farm is great, but for most people it’s not sustainable, which is really sad,” Andrew says. “For green living to become a lifestyle, it needs to be accessible. We believe that urban farming needs to become part of our [city] lifestyle, but there were simply not enough urban farms around. We wanted to make them commonplace. But we didn’t want to stop there, because to evoke change, you need to build a community around each urban farm.”
Early on a Saturday morning, before most of the stores in Kwai Fong’s Metroplaza shopping center have even unlocked their doors, the fruits of Andrew’s labor are as plain to see as the community that has convened around one of the Rooftop Republic farms. Children dart between wooden planters, laughing and stopping only to inhale the aromas of Indian oregano and spearmint. One man studies a sign that tells him of the origin and many uses of the pandan plant it points to. Parents and grandparents wander between cucumber vines and butterfly peas, pausing for photos or simply taking a moment to appreciate their environment.
In the year since the Metroplaza x Rooftop Republic Sky Garden opened, it has flourished. When Sun Hung Kai Properties, which owns the Metroplaza mall, first engaged Rooftop Republic to help with the transformation of the rooftop, it was “an idling urban space, a wasted asset” according to Andrew. Today, the 1,210m2 expanse, one of Rooftop Republic’s 51 urban farms, is a picture of plenty. About half of the almost 280m2 of growing space is dedicated to education, and asparagus, corn, eggplant and kale thrive. “Last summer we grew more than 30 watermelons,” Andrew says. “People were surprised. A lot of city dwellers would never imagine that these things can grow in an urban space.” The other half of the garden changes on a quarterly basis, depending on Metroplaza’s marketing activities; for now, an abundance of herbs fills the soil.
Who maintains these gardens is at the discretion of Rooftop Republic’s clients, most of which are developers, property management companies and corporations. Andrew explains that several are sustained by local residents, often retirees educated in farming practices, who are paid for their labor. “It creates value for the community; it’s an empowerment process,” he explains. “For this to [be sustained], it has to be a business model. It can’t be a charity project reliant on funding. Very simply, it is a business with a social purpose, an environmental purpose.”
“People were surprised. A lot of city dwellers would never imagine that these things can grow in an urban space.”
What’s more, it connects city dwellers with the process of food production. “It gives another meaning to the food that we put on our plate. It’s not just a product. It is something with life that has a timeline and there is someone behind it who has put in a lot of effort and a lot of heart,” Andrew says.
The same can be said of Janice’s market, which has grown beyond recognition from the “rudimentary tents and flimsy tables” of the inaugural event in September 2012. Like Rooftop Republic, the farmers’ market has the backing of a major company, Swire Properties, which owns the land on which Tong Chong Street Market is held during Hong Kong’s dry season, from November to February. “Swire really believes in sustainability as a company and this gets the community involved,” Janice says. “It’s made the whole event more legitimate. It’s a permanent fixture of the area.” Even over Hong Kong’s hot and humid summers, when typhoons and pests threaten to eviscerate farmers’ produce, there is a pick-up point for pre-ordered vegetables at Swire’s Taikoo Place, a busy complex in Quarry Bay.
Meanwhile, Laurel’s Hong Kong Explorers Initiative has also evolved since its inception six years ago. What started as a program to simply connect people with their surroundings by leading them on night safaris and birdwatching, kayaking and snorkeling excursions has become a platform for education — both about Hong Kong’s incredible biodiversity and the city’s role in the illegal wildlife trade. Laurel gives talks at schools and businesses on these issues, while also working as an investigative journalist. “It’s not hard to surprise people with all these fun facts about Hong Kong,” she says, before listing some: “We have more coral species than the Caribbean; we have more reef fish species than Hawaii.” Not all of the statistics are so benign, though. Laurel also points out that Hong Kong accounts for 50% of all shark fin trade globally and millions of live animals, plants and their derivatives are trafficked through the city every year.
“I’m hoping, through my various projects, to help people have more of a connection to nature and to think more about how they consume and how that impacts the planet,” Laurel says. “When we’re in such a dense city, consumption is very visible, while the drain on the planet is not. You can see how much food and energy is required to keep the city running but you don’t really see where it comes from. We live in this bubble where you live your life and things just appear on your table or in your shopping cart. I’m hoping to address that.”
Andrew, Janice and Laurel might have each sought a distinct solution to steering Hong Kong on a path towards a more sustainable future, but all three agree on one thing: there is an appetite for change. “I have faith in Hong Kong people, and I think the city is set up for success in that our government has money, our people are educated and, because we’re so densely populated, change can happen quickly,” says Laurel.
But what is the best way for city dwellers, whether in Hong Kong or elsewhere, to affect change? “By voting with your dollar,” Janice says.
Andrew agrees. “Consumers are very empowered, and corporates are learning very hard lessons [on the consequences] of not listening to consumers,” he says. “But sometimes we underestimate the power of our voices.”
This concern resonates with Laurel. “Part of my mission is empowering the individual, showing them that their actions have an impact, good or bad,” she says. “People don’t think that they can make a difference, but whatever your actions are, amplify them by seven billion and think what the world would be like if everyone made the same decisions you did. Your words and actions and choices matter, not just for the world, but for those around you.”
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Nature break: Things to do and places to see in HK for a breath of fresh air
If you want to do as Hongkongers do, take to one of the territory’s wealth of hiking trails that lead above the clouds, through dense woodland, across sand spits and to remote beaches. Easily accessible from Hong Kong Island, Dragon’s Back meanders up and down some moderate peaks — said to resemble the scales of the mythical beast it is named after — before depositing hikers at either Shek O or Big Wave Bay, both small seaside villages that are worlds away from the city. More adventurous souls should set their sights on Lantau Island’s Sunset Peak trek. Always remember to take enough water and wear appropriate attire.
Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden
Located in the New Territories, Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden offers visitors an ethically sound opportunity to get up close and personal with Hong Kong’s diverse flora and fauna. A network of paths crisscrossing the northern slopes of Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest peak, take you through gardens and greenhouses and up to animal enclosures, which are home to exotic and native animals, including gibbons, lorises and leopard cats. The Farm Museum gives an idea of what farming in Hong Kong used to be like, and how much it has changed. kfbg.org
Hong Kong Wetland Park
After authorities caught a young crocodile that had been spotted cruising along the Shan Pui River in 2003, there was no question about where it would find a permanent home — at Hong Kong Wetland Park. Lucky visitors to the city’s beloved eco-tourism destination might get a glimpse of Pui Pui, who now lives in a large, landscaped enclosure, but even if she’s feeling shy, the park is home to an impressive cast of wildlife. wetlandpark.gov.hk
Cebu Pacific flies to Hong Kong from Manila, Cebu, Iloilo, Clark.
This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of Smile magazine.