I’m kneeling on the rooftop of one of the most valuable buildings in Hong Kong’s financial district. On one side looms a forest of steel and chrome, including the iconic Bank of China tower with its knife-like planes. On the other is the sweeping expanse of Victoria Harbour. But I’m not here for the view: I’m harvesting organic vegetables. Immediately in front me is a patch of moist soil covered in fluffy green shoots. I gently tug on them, they willingly emerge from the soil, revealing the attached carrots.
The site of this surreal juxtaposition is the Bank of America Tower in Central. There’s something strangely therapeutic about being surrounded by produce in the city’s business heart. Even as we are enveloped by the incessant racket of the building’s rooftop ventilation, I find myself staring at the golden hue of the carrot in my hand, covered in a dusting of black soil, and I am momentarily transported.
A faint buzzing breaks through the ventilation noise, as well as my reverie — is that a bee?
“How did they find us?” remarks Andrew Tsui, co-founder of one-year-old urban farming initiative Rooftop Republic, which runs the garden. The bees’ uncanny ability to detect flowers 40 storeys above ground, on a platform that was formerly used as a helipad, in the middle of a concrete jungle, stumped us all. It was a sharp reminder that there are other living beings sharing this planet with us, that nature can’t be ignored, that our choices have a major impact on the lives of other species.
Such latent lessons on the ecosystem are typical of what the founders of Rooftop Republic experience on a daily basis and hope to pass on to the public. Tsui, his wife Michelle Hong, and farming partner-in-crime Pol Fabrega are the unlikely trio behind Rooftop Republic, whose name is a reference to the physical spaces they like to work with, as well as the nation of progressive foodies they hope to lead. The company establishes and maintains organic farms in the urban areas of Hong Kong and engages the community through workshops and events.
The three thirty-somethings became friends and business partners after meeting at an event promoting social entrepreneurship. None of them had experience in farming. Tsui grew up in Hong Kong and Singapore, eventually becoming a civil engineer with experience in the Singapore armed forces and the financial sector. Hong is born-and-bred Singaporean with advertising expertise, while Spanish-born Fabrega worked in human rights and social development organisations around Asia.
What unites them is the desire to make Hong Kong a place where we can live sustainably. The way they have transformed bare concrete into nutritious food, with no prior agricultural training, shows how feasible it is for all of us to lead greener lives.
When he returned to Hong Kong after several years in Singapore, Tsui was struck by the city’s density. “The first thing that hit me was I felt very sad about the space in Hong Kong,” he says. “We have fantastic natural reserves but eight million people are crammed on two narrow strips of land on either side of the harbour and are deprived of nature in their daily life.”
In contrast, Tsui found Singapore to be a “lovely garden city” with good integration of greenery into urban planning. He saw a need for green-ifying Hong Kong’s idle and under-utilised spaces, such as rooftops and balconies. He realised it was the perfect place for experimenting with urban farming.
Urban farming is a growing trend in Hong Kong, with several organisations running a range of programs and workshops. What Rooftop Republic offers is a commitment to organic methods and cooperation with local farmers. Corporations, schools, and individuals can hire the group to design and install farms tailored to specific urban spaces. Local organic farmers are enlisted to oversee the operations. Food grown on these mini farms are typically donated to food banks such as Feeding Hong Kong. So far, Rooftop Republic has managed to attract support from corporate sponsors like Jones Lang Lasalle, which owns the Bank of America building, as well as educational institutions like the Discovery Bay International School.
The founders agree that Rooftop Republic could only be possible in a place like Hong Kong, where there is a strong entrepreneurial spirit and vibrant civic engagement. “You can be very spontaneous in Hong Kong,” says Hong. Tsui echoes her opinion: “Everyone here is hungry for innovation, creativity, and ideas. Hong Kong’s start-up mentality is healthy,” he says.
Fabrega landed in Hong Kong four years ago but fell in love with it immediately. “I was blown away,” he says. “I never imagined that I would be starting my own business, but in Hong Kong it is actually possible. You have an idea, you go and do it. You have to be super driven and be prepared for a steep learning curve, but it is totally doable.”
While the city’s capitalist economy brings many opportunities, it also leaves many people behind. Hong Kong has one of the world’s widest income gaps; nearly one in five people live in poverty. But the Rooftop Republic trio are optimistic that their business will be able to address and disrupt these disparities. By exploring an alternative and sustainable food production process right in the heart of the city, Tsui, Hong and Fabrega are creating a common ground for city dwellers from all walks of life. “The ownership of the space no longer matters,” says Tsui. “People with different values come here to experience nature. And nature is magical.”
After a year in operation, the trio have several corporate partnerships under their belt, including farms at Cathay Pacific’s headquarters. Their next project will transform the rooftop of the Fringe Club into a verdant space, offering rooftop yoga as well as farming and nutrition workshops for adults and kids. But their ambitions don’t stop there. “Our ultimate aim is to make ourselves irrelevant,” says Tsui. He hopes that urban farming, food security, and sustainable living will be taken for granted one day and there won’t be a need for Rooftop Republic’s intervention.
Fabrega wants to see us take a more mindful approach when shopping for groceries, because our daily choices — such as buying local or organic produce — are what determine our collective fate. “There is a real urgency to transform our food system,” he says. “Research shows that by 2050 the planet won’t be able to produce enough food to feed everyone. Although we can’t feed the world with our rooftop farms, we can be part of a wider solution.”
And while it will be hard to immediately convert to eating organic, or to grow our own tomatoes on our windowsills, Hong says every little bit of change counts. “It’s not about making a complete change and suddenly your worries will be gone,” he says. “It’s a matter of minimising risks and continuously learning more about what ‘organic’ means. If you don’t have the luxury of growing your own food, at least get to know the person who is growing it for you and find someone with integrity.”
Visit rooftoprepublic.com to join Rooftop Republic’s upcoming workshops for adults and kids at the Fringe Club, starting April 16, 2016.