Those Who Inspire Hope in Hong Kong

Launch at The French Residency - Courtesy of Delphine Barets

Hong Kong is divided. Anyone who follows the news knows as much. But the cleavage isn’t just political – it’s social and cultural, too. It’s a rancour that ruins family dim sum, a poison that feeds conspiracy theories and bitter resentments.

“It used to be possible to disagree with someone without coming to blows,” says former Chief Secretary Anson Chan, a veteran civil servant and democracy advocate who has been described as the “conscience of Hong Kong.” 

The toxic atmosphere is felt all too keenly by Hong Kong’s frustrated young people, who don’t see themselves reflected in the city’s establishment, and whose ambitions have been thwarted over and over. “They are fighting for the future, but they don’t see the future has much for them,” says Chan.

But there’s always hope. Chan is one of 67 people profiled in Those Who Inspire: Hong Kong, a new book that showcases people from all walks of life who have made Hong Kong a better place. “Our book is for millennials,” says co-editor Delphine Barets. “We want to give them inspiration they maybe hadn’t thought about before – not just Li Ka-shing.” (Li is Asia’s richest man and a frequent target of criticism for his role in building Hong Kong’s inequitable economy, though he was also an icon for the postwar generation of Hongkongers striving to make their fortune.)  

The book is just one part of a larger project that Barets launched with Marlène Plomik in 2011. The two Frenchwoman were working on a communications strategy for the Oman government when they realised many stories about the Gulf state weren’t being told. Rather than create a “Who’s Who” type directory of the country’s elite, they decided to focus on the full spectrum of those who have made Oman one of the most peaceful places in the Middle East.

Those Who Inspire soon grew to include workshops and seminars, all of it financed by bulk sales of the book to companies, who donate them to schools and community groups. For each book sold, one is donated, and all of the people profiled list their email address so they can be directly contacted for advice and mentoring. After Oman, Barets and Plomik went to the United Arab Emirates and Nigeria, before finally coming to Hong Kong in early 2016. Barets says her goal is to produce at least one book for a country on each continent.

Nigerians were enthusiastic about the project – Barets says she was able to sell 13,000 copies of the book there. When she arrived in Hong Kong to do research last January, she found a city with an entirely different state of mind. “It’s having an identity crisis,” she says. “In general, people are pretty stressed. The generation of their parents built Hong Kong, and now that it has been built they’re thinking, ‘What can change?’ They’re not as free and optimistic as some of the other youth I’ve encountered. They’re pretty serious, actually.”

Finding the right mix of inspiring people was difficult. “[Young people] had just come out of the Umbrella Movement, so they had a political conscience and they wanted to hear about political figures,” she says. “That was tricky for us because we want to show people who are inspirational, not who will influence them.” 

There’s a fine line between inspiration and influence – Barets says it’s the difference between a point of view and a way of doing things. “We ended up with an eclectic selection of people,” she says. The book features Anson Chan, but it also includes even-tempered pro-Beijing politician Jasper Tsang. Most of the book deals with people who aren’t involved in politics at all. There are nurses, entrepreneurs, corporate gurus, police officers and writers, to name just a handful. 

One of them is Loretta Lau, who worked for decades as a nurse in Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales hospitals. When she retired in 2009, she didn’t want to sit idle, so she began teaching a continuing education course for Lingnan University and a course for elderly care at the Hong Kong Society for the Aged.

“I love to care for others,” says Lau. In recent years, nursing has fallen out of favour as a profession, and she wants to make sure young people understand how it is both important and personally fulfilling. “They don’t know you can develop your own interests,” she says. “I cannot say it’s a comfortable job but there are so many ways you can grow. You will never tire of your career.”

After her initial training, Lau began assisting surgeons in their work, learning to act quickly and decisively in stressful situations. “Besides having passion, you have to have a very clear mind and be alert. If you aren’t, the doctors might lose their temper and throw forceps at you,” she says with a laugh. “If that happens, they always apologise afterwards.”

Another one of the book’s subjects is Barry Smith. In 1982, when he was a student in London, he applied for a job with the Hong Kong police force, arriving here without knowing anything about the city. Today, he is a senior superintendent, the Kwun Tong district commander and a founder of Operation Breakthrough, in which police officers mentor juvenile offenders through sports and dance.

“If you give them a lecture, they won’t listen, but if you say, ‘Let me teach you how to play rugby,’ suddenly they’re interested,” says Smith. In the end, it’s a much more effective way of teaching them the same things: teamwork, discipline and respect. Since Operation Breakthrough started in 1996, some of its graduates have become police officers, firefighters and social workers; one even became a professional boxer.

Those Who Inspire doesn’t limit its role models to adults. It also includes a handful of inspirational young people like Yew San Cheah, a secondary student who is writing a novel and who founded Abacus Startup Academy, a non-profit incubator for underprivileged kids. “Some of [them] were former drug abusers and have now become CEOs,” says Cheah.

Cheah, who cites Chinese provocateur Feng Tang and American humorist Dave Eggers as his literary influences, says Hong Kong can be a difficult place for people who think outside of the box. But that’s changing. “A lot of my peers are genuinely into the arts,” he says.

The challenge will be to sustain it. For her part, Barets is buoyed by the potential of Hong Kong’s youth. “When you’re 18, you think anything is possible,” she says.

Even Anson Chan is guardedly hopeful, now that Chief Executive CY Leung — whom she blames for prying open the fault lines that divide Hong Kong — is stepping down. “I’m more optimistic now than I have been in a long time,” she says.

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