Friday, 23 June 2017

Tjonnie Li: The physicist who helped detect Einstein’s prediction and who brings his students back to earth



When he gave me his business card, he jokingly said that he is handing the cards out very aggressively, because he needs to get rid of the printed stock before he gets promoted. Tjonnie Li is not your typical physicist: instead of adopting near-invisibility behind bushy beard, his smile is all there for you to see on his cleanly shaven face. Tjonnie Li is anything but unkempt. In fact, he is easily mistaken as a professor in the business faculty, and not surprisingly, that is what Li tells his physics students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “People who do physics here are super passionate, because there’s so much pressure for them not to do physics. I tend to encourage them to be a little bit more ‘corporate’. It’s quite odd, because it’s normally the other way round. But they are so passionate about physics that I sometimes feel that I need to bring them down back to Earth. I’d say, ‘Okay, so, guys. At some point, you’re going to have to look for a job.’ Among physicists, bad language skills is taken as a good thing. They believe that they don’t have to be eloquent, to write well, or present well - it’s part of their identity. But I try to get them to learn to articulate and present well, because it doesn’t matter if they’ve done the best work in the world, if they can’t articulate it, nobody is going to notice.”

You would be right if you think you’ve read about Li somewhere on local newspaper headlines: in February last year, the US-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced their 2015 discovery of the gravitational waves, a notion predicted by Albert Einstein precisely 100 years  prior, and Li was a member of the team. The fact that gravitational waves - and the detection of them - carry little relevance to the layperson did not lessen Li’s enthusiasm in the pursuit of the waves, not least because his fascination with astronomy started at a young age. “I was amazed that there were other worlds, and maybe that’s also why I like mythology. All those supernatural, un-earthy things. I would read about them and try to imagine what they were like. That was my initial interest in astronomy, but it turned around quite a bit when I went to high school, where I studied physics, because then you get to learn about it mathematically, not just the mythical paintings anymore. I enjoyed learning physics, maybe because I’m good at it. The enjoyment and the good grades I got just reinforced themselves. And that’s another thing I find quite encouraging about Holland: you don’t have to do something with the motive of achieving something. It wasn’t like I had to study X so I could accomplish Y. That’s what I really miss, that kind of concept of studying what you enjoy, and then you can still find a job that utilises your skills; here [in Hong Kong] it is quite different.”

From his noticeable excitement about scientists now finally able to study blackholes and therefore go on to fathom the expanse of the universe, to his proposition for the Hong Kong government to introduce social measures to improve people’s general sense of security, to his idea that a good physicist needs to be ‘a little bit immature, a little bit crazy, and a little bit like an artist’, Tjonnie Li is a physicist with whom you can speak about anything terrestrial and extra-terrestrial. And yes, he believes in aliens. “Even just purely from a physicist’s perspective, they have to exist. The universe is so big, the number of things in it is almost incomprehensible, that I find it hubris to think that this place, right here, at the edge of some galaxy, is the only place in the universe where conditions are just right to make life. It doesn’t have to be intelligent, even though I do think there is intelligent life - there just has to be.”

What’s the function of the ’T’ in your name ‘Tjonnie’? 
It’s a Dutch spelling. Without the ’T’, the name would be pronounced ‘Yonnie’, not ‘Jonnie’. So to produce the ‘J’ sound, people either put a ’T’ or an ’S’, sometimes a ‘D’, to the front. Having ’T’ and ‘J’ together is actually a common combination, something that’s almost only seen in the Dutch language.  

How was Tjonnie Li like as a child - your upbringing, childhood in Hilversum, Netherlands, for instance? 
I was born in Hong Kong, and my family moved to the Netherlands when I was four. All of my education came from the Netherlands, but luckily, my parents spoke Cantonese at home, so I can speak Cantonese. 

I had a very typical Dutch education: a lot of freedom, very little homework, a lot of playing outside. Until I was in high school, I had no homework. I would leave my bag at home, pick up a ball, and go play outside until dinner time; during summer months I would continue after dinner, until my mum called me back in there to go to bed. 

My parents forced very few things on me, they only wanted me to do well at school. I was a very happy child, very much geared towards hobbies and interests. I read a lot, I played chess, competitively. I played, first, football, and then volleyball. I got to play a lot of sports because the schooling was not so dense. My childhood was really just about exploring myself. I played a lot of computer games as well, spent a lot of time tinkering around computers. I wasn’t one to sleep 10 to 12 hours a day. I didn’t want to be just sitting and staring out of the window, although I did have very nice windows at home! In Holland there are flats in rows of houses built around gardens, gardens that belong to the homeowners living on the ground floor, where some people would have chickens, some would grow weeds, some would let their child play in it. There are many of these patches, so sometimes I did stare out of the window. But typically, I was always doing something. 



What did you use to read about?
Anything I could get my hands on. Of course, I was already into astronomy, but I was usually just looking at the pictures, because as a child, you wouldn’t understand much. But I was always at the library, picking through books, seeing pictures of the Jupiter, the galaxies and so on. But the actual reading was on novels. Another thing I particularly enjoyed was mythology: Greek and Latin mythology. That’s why I ended up studying Latin and Greek in high school. 

What was it that fascinated you about astronomy?
It’s just the possibility of something else out there. I was amazed that there were other worlds, and maybe that’s also why I like mythology. All those supernatural, un-earthy things. I would read about them and try to imagine what they were like. That was my initial interest in astronomy, but it turned around quite a bit when I went to high school, where I studied physics, because then you get to learn about it mathematically, not just the mythical paintings anymore. I enjoyed learning physics - maybe because I’m good at it, and that’s why I enjoyed it? The enjoyment and the good grades I got just reinforced themselves. 

At some point I decided that I was to become a physicist, without much thought, definitely. And that’s another thing I find quite encouraging about Holland: you don’t have to do something with the motive of achieving something. It wasn’t like I had to study X so I could accomplish Y. Though my mum did, gently, ask me to try medicine. So there was still some Chinese influence there. But I was convinced that becoming a physicist, I could still be working at a firm, like Google - there are just so many things you can do as a physicist. That’s what I really miss, that kind of concept of studying what you enjoy, and then you can still find a job that utilises your skills; here [in Hong Kong] it is quite different. In a discussion with my mum, she said, “If you grew up here, you may not become what you are today, not as successful, just because of the different way society is structured.” The kind of pressure faced by students here, I may have responded in a very negative way. 

Is that what you’re trying to impart in your students here, to be passionate about physics?
It’s actually quite the other way round! People who do physics here are super passionate, because there’s so much pressure for them not to do physics. I tend to encourage them to be a little bit more ‘corporate’. It’s quite odd, because it’s normally the other way round. But they are so passionate about physics that I sometimes feel that I need to bring them down back to Earth. I’d say, “Okay, so, guys. At some point, you’re going to have to look for a job.” There are things that I stress, things like presentation. Among physicists, bad language skills is taken as a good thing. They believe that they don’t have to be eloquent, to write well, or present well - it’s part of their identity. But I try to get them to learn to articulate and present well, because it doesn’t matter if they’ve done the best work in the world, if they can’t articulate it, nobody is going to notice. 

There was a time that I believed I was going to become a banker or a consultant at a bank - I even did an internship as a consultant for one of those big consultancy firms. I was stationed in a multinational semiconductor company, doing cost reduction. Very boring, if you ask a physicist. For the longest time I thought that was the way I would go - I thought I would still pursue physics as part of the enjoyment, but I would have to work in the corporate world. But during the internship it turned out I wasn’t too fond of it, so I decided to continue on in physics, though my internship showed the practical sides of physics, that a physicist could dress smart instead of wearing flip-flops. 

What about physicists in Holland - are they more ‘well-groomed’ and articulate? 
I’d say it’s more common for a physicist to be a little bit more in touch with the world than a physicist in Hong Kong, because here, there’s a lot more pressure from society to get good grades and be presentable, to be good at multiple things, and then you’ll be quickly shoved in professions such as medicine and law and economics. But then on individual cases, physicists in Holland can be just as quirky. 

Was there a time in your life so far that you believed in aliens?
I’ve always believed in aliens, I just don’t think they are here on Earth. Even just purely from a physicist’s perspective, they have to exist. The universe is so big, the number of things in it is almost incomprehensible, that I find it hubris to think that this place, right here, at the edge of some galaxy, is the only place in the universe where conditions are just right to make life. It doesn’t have to be intelligent, even though I do think there is intelligent life - there just has to be. It may not be in the form, it really may not be anything that we can compare to, but there has to be life out there. Because the universe is so vast that there has to be something out there, but then it’s unlikely that they are here. Even if they are able to make long journeys over large distances, how would they know to find us here? If you zoom out, there’s this big galaxy, there are billions of stars in that galaxy. For the life out there to find us is not easy, and likewise, for us to find them is difficult. They could be sending out signals, but either they are too far for us to receive the signals, or we don’t know how to interpret those signals. Even if aliens were able to pick up our signals, they may not discern them as signals, they may just think those are universal noise.

Explain to us, in layman terms, the gravitational waves the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) team has discovered? 
The way I got into this exact type of research is quite random. I was finishing up my master’s degree in Cambridge, I was thinking of doing solar cell physics, but somehow I also wanted to do more astronomy. What I ended up doing was, I rang up the father of a friend of mine, who is an astrophysics (the study of stars) professor in Amsterdam. The conversation lasted a whole minute. I asked him, “Do you have a job for me?” “When can you start?” The conversation ended with him saying, “I’ll get it done.” So that was it. I knew what kind of research he was doing, I’ve always thought it was interesting, but there wasn’t really a deep, long urge that I wanted to do this kind of research. It was just that there was this person I knew, doing things that I was interested in, and so it just rolled together, and I wanted to do a PhD in that. I must admit that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It wasn’t very well thought through, it wasn’t like a job with a clear job description; I was just interested in it and wanted to learn more about it. That’s how I got into the LIGO research. If I knew then what I know now, I may not have done it. (laughs)

Is it relevant to people of the general public? The answer is: no. In 1916, Einstein came up with the notion that gravity is nothing but curved space. Spacetime is like a fabric. If you pull tight a cloth or rubber sheet on all its edges, you’ll have this nice, flat surface; but if you put a heavy marble on it, it’s going to make a dent. So that’s what mass does to spacetime: mass bends spacetime. When you put the marble on the fabric, you’ll see the marble rolling down into the hole, and that’s gravity, according to Einstein. With this notion also came the concept that you can shake the fabric so that ripples appear. Another analogy is, you have a still pond, and you throw a rock inside, then you can see these waves rippling out on the surface. Gravitational waves are exactly these waves, but in spacetime. So spacetime vibrates. 

Now, what does this mean in real life? What does it mean when space vibrates, when time vibrates? When time vibrates, it basically means that time goes faster and slower, periodically. So when a gravitational wave comes by, time stretches and squeezes. It’s the same thing for space. Space can stretch and squeeze: something that used to be a metre may become 1.1 metres or 0.9 metre. So for a brief moment, I’m a little bit taller, a little bit slimmer, and for a brief moment later, I’m a little bit shorter, and a little bit wider. The only problem is these effects are so small that we will never experience them. We had to build these very large machines, and that’s LIGO, to pick up these tiny changes in the lengths of space or time. That’s how we were able to find gravitational waves. 



What is causing those waves then?
Anything that moves, in principle, will ripple spacetime. Anything I throw in the pond could cause ripples, it doesn’t matter whether I throw a stone or a twig. In this case, the signal that we found was two blackholes colliding. It’s just like two marbles randomly going around on the fabric, and in certain circumstances, two blackholes meet each other, and they bump into each other. But in the case when two blackholes collide, it shakes spacetime so much that, even though it happens very far away, we can still feel the shaking of spacetime here on Earth. That’s gravitational waves, the shaking that we were able to detect. The whole signal we found lasted about 0.2 second - that was the part of the signal that we could detect. So for 0.2 second your body stretched and squeezed, but of course, as a human, you won’t notice it, because the effect is just so small, there’s no way you could have felt it. To give you and example how much that stretching and squeezing is, imagine something as large as a distance between us and the stars, and you stretch that distance by the width of the hair, that’s how little stretching and squeezing happens, and for us, on a human scale, the stretching and the distance is less than that. There’s no way for a human to notice it, but if you can build very sensitive machines - and in our case, we’ve shown that we can - then you can detect the effect. 

And this comes back to what it means for us humans. This means that we can now study blackholes. Blackholes, as their name suggests, are black, so we can’t point any telescopes to blackholes and study them. Any blackhole that collides or moves or does something, it would make gravitational waves, so now we have this way with which we can almost observe invisible objects in the universe. As long as something moves, shake, explode, we now have the ability to detect it. 

Do we know how many blackholes there are in the universe? 
That’s one of the big unanswered questions we are working on. The longer our detectors are in operation, the more data we can collect from the blackholes. We can now make a better and better guess at the number of blackholes. It’s like being in one street, and you count the number of cars that come by. From that, you can roughly guess how big the road is, then you can roughly guess how big Hong Kong is, and you can roughly guess how many cars there are in Hong Kong. In our case, we see how many gravitational waves come past, and we know, roughly, the size of the universe, so we can start guessing. The longer we stay there, the more signals we will receive, the more we can guess the number of blackholes in the universe. Nobody has a definite number, but we definitely know there’s more than one. 

What is the significance of being able to study blackholes?
Blackholes are, theoretically, the most compact and extreme objects. Everything about blackholes is extreme: the gravity is so extreme, in fact, that space and time gets curved up, and that’s why nothing can escape from a blackhole - spacetime is just bent so much that you can never escape from a blackhole. Extreme things, things that we typically can’t imagine, happen closely or inside the blackholes. And that’s the perfect way to test a physicist: Do we understand physics? Because, in ordinary circumstances, we know how physics works, but we don’t know whether the physics that we know on Earth still applies to very extreme environments. Do clocks still go the way that they go? We think - we have evidence - that that is not true. Time goes very differently from inside to the outside of the blackhole. Have you watched Interstellar? They kind of played with the same concept: two astronauts were placed on two distant planets, and they stayed there for half an hour, but outside, time goes so much slower. It’s these things that we can further study. It’s one thing to study physics on Earth, and it’s another thing to study the physics of extreme things. One of the reasons I study physics is that physics is extreme, because the universe, as a whole, is extreme. And to test and study these extreme things, you need to study blackholes.

Do you think it’s possible for humans to ever have a clear grasp of the expanse of the universe? 
There’s a lot of things we think we know, for some people that is sufficient. We do think that we know a lot of things about stars, about the size of the universe…but there are always more unknowns. For scientists, they want to go further and further. Take the detection of gravitational wave. For scientists, it’s amazing, this is the holy grail that scientists have been looking for for a hundred years before we found it. In 1916, Einstein predicted it; in 2015, we found it. For society, this may never have an impact. This is why scientists can be very detached from society. I think it is safe to say that within our lifetime, and for the person who reads this article, gravitational waves will never have an impact. The impact is so small to be felt, and we don’t expect to be communicating with aliens through gravitational waves anytime soon. From a scientist’s perspective, I don’t think we’ll ever know enough, because I always want to know more. 

Has it ever occurred to you how Einstein came up with the concept of gravitational waves 100 years ago?
Einstein came up with this simple set of equations, he wondered what he could do with them, what the consequences of the equations were, and one of those things was gravitational waves. It wasn’t any physical intuition, it was purely mathematics, there wasn’t that stroke of genius, yet in coming up with the set of equations was a stroke of genius. This equation describes the behaviour of the universe, it describes how the Earth moves around the Sun, it describes gravitational waves, it describes stars, it describes how stars come together to form galaxy, so many things. Simple equations like these are one of the reasons why I like science - there’s very little to memorise. I don’t have to memorise names, what happened and where. Here, I only have to memorise four or five formulae, and things just flow out for me. Science is for lazy people! (laughs)

What was that stroke of genius that led to Einstein’s creation of this formula? 
This theory of Einstein’s is called the General Theory of Relativity, and the important part is relativity - everything is relative. The stroke of genius is to understand that gravity is…you can make gravity disappear. If I was in an elevator, and someone snaps the wire, and I’ll fall. But because I’m inside the elevator, I can’t see the outside. Till I hit the ground, I’m just floating. There’s no difference between that and me being in the outer space - I’m just floating. So gravity, in this sense, is just how you look at it. That is perhaps one of his strokes of geniuses to take this concept, and formulate what gravity is, and this concept of relativity. The moment you hit the ground, though, the situation changes. Gravity is not absolute, and there’s no way for you to find out, because if the elevator is closed, you could be in outer space, or you could falling to your death - you don’t know, and there’s no way to find out, until you hit the ground, and then you’re dead. It’s through experiments like these that led Einstein to formulate what gravity is, based on the notion that spacetime is curved. And that, in my opinion, is a stroke of genius. He has many strokes of geniuses, this isn’t his only contribution, and that’s why he’s such a legend. I’ve taught these equations to both undergraduate and graduate school, it’s not something that students are incapable of understanding. But to come up with the equations is definitely a stroke of genius.  



How did it feel to be part of the team that proved Einstein’s prediction is correct? 
When you’re working in this field for so long - I’ve been working in this field for six years prior to the detection - at that point, it was nothing special. It’s become so normal to do these studies and analyses and other things that physicists do that once you’ve found it, there’s no profound moment that would make you go ‘Wow!’. There was some excitement, because it was the first time to see, but on the other hand, it’s also become a routine, because you’ve been doing it for so long. 

But when we talked to the media and I had to explain to the press, that’s when I took a step back and realised what a special, amazing thing our team has done. But that was many months after the actual detection, by then we were all so tired after getting all the results out. Those two moments were so far apart, they were four months apart, that it was a little bit of an anticlimax. There was never this eureka moment because we were so well-prepared with everything. Even the moment when the finding was internally confirmed came weeks later. There was the team of 50 to 100 of us, looking for all possible ways to chip away the rest of the doubt. Everything takes time, there was not this one moment, like in a sports game when there’s the final whistle. It all happened very gradually: We started something, we saw something that may look real, a couple of weeks later we thought this was real, and more possibilities that this was not real, and then came the moment when we realised that this is real. But overall it was a very good experience. 

Surprisingly, the Hong Kong press was very interested. There were colleagues who told me that the press won’t care, so even when they were organising the press conference, one of the professors told me that there might be 10 or so journalists attending, coming in to ask a few questions and take pictures. It turned out the whole place was packed, and I stood there for three or four hours. It was much bigger than I’d expected.

Could it be because of the fact that you were born in Hong Kong?
That’s my suspicion, yes. And most of the reporting was more concerned about that aspect, that someone from Hong Kong was participating in the research, rather than the discovery itself, or even the accuracy - there was a lot of things in the press about not what I said. There was one part, I still remember, where one journalist asked me if this discovery was going to win me a Nobel Prize. I said, yes, 100% sure, but I added that it was not going to be me, because I’m such a small cog in the team - I’ve only done it for six years, others have been doing it for 30 or 40 years. But then the next day, it was on the newspaper, and it literally said, “Hong Kong Scientist: Sure to Win the Nobel Prize”. I said every word in that, but I also said it’s not going to be me! I only knew because my dad called me, and asked if I thought I should go and rectify it, because I wouldn’t want to be the guy saying that he’s going to win the Nobel Prize, especially because I’m not going to win. But I’m like, if I have to chase every journalist down for misrepresenting me on something, I might have to spend the rest of my career doing that. So I told my dad not to worry about it. As long as nobody holds it against me when I don't get the Nobel Prize - which is always! - then I’m fine. 

What do you think are the things that make a good physicist? 
A good physicist, in my opinion, is a little bit immature, a little bit crazy, and a little bit like an artist. You have to do the crazy things, you’ll have to be willing to shut down what the environment thinks of you and expects of you, and go your own way. The reason I say that is that funding agencies, where we get most of our research fundings, really want us to go the other way, to be in this industrial complex where we churn out things that could benefit society. My impression, and also from history, the people who have made the biggest contributions to the world were always these outliers. Einstein was a complete lunatic: he flunked out of class just because he didn’t think it was interesting. So it’s people who are a bit outside the box.

A few years ago, a guy called Andre Geim, at the University of Manchester, found a new type of material called graphene. It is widely hailed as a revolutionary material. The way he found graphene was with a pencil and sticky tape. He wanted to isolate some carbon from the tip of the pencil, with sticky tape. On the coloured layers of the sticky tape, he found a single sheet of carbon, which is graphene. A pencil and sticky tape were literally what he used to discover graphene, nothing more. And it’s really people like that that sometimes stumble upon things that are of major impact. But because funding agencies want research to be driven more towards having impacts on society, having measurable things, science has now become more plan-able, to provide incremental improvements to things, or immediate impact to society, and that kind of goes against the quality that science should have, which is a little bit of craziness and creativity. 

I’m happy to say that I’m not one of those good physicists - I’m not yet, because I have to make sure that I don’t get fired first, so I can’t do very silly things yet. Maybe in the future, I can go very silly. The same guy who discovered graphene from pencil and sticky tape tried to levitate frogs - it’s completely crazy, but sometimes you would stumble on something useful, and you get the Nobel Prize. We need more people like Geim. In universities and funding agencies, there’s very little room to do that, because every dollar is accounted for. We’re not encouraged to take more risks. They want to be sure how many papers we publish, how many patents we get, with metric-based evaluations involved, and that sometimes kills creativity. It’s surprising how creativity our job was, but how quickly funding agencies take that away from us. But I understand that, it’s taxpayers’ money. Imagine telling someone on the street that their tax money is going to someone playing with sticky tape and pencil. Still, I think a lot of outreach should be focused on the fact that science is not planned, that sometimes it’s the random, silliest things that give you the major breakthroughs. Because I’m employed on tenure here, the university can’t fire me, and that’s the time to go crazy! Maybe in about five or six years, I would have gone completely mad, you’ll visit me again, but I will be in a crazy asylum, all strapped up. With some of the greatest scientists, even the scientists at that time didn’t understand them, so it’s hard for society to do so, but I do hope we could go back to more grassroots science.



When and why did you come back to Hong Kong? 
In September 2015, the Chinese University of Hong Kong offered me an opportunity to work here, as an assistant professor. For someone with my experience - which was very little at the time - it was a very good opportunity. Another reason I came back was that I wanted to discover a little bit about my history. I was born here, I look Chinese, I speak Chinese, but I’ve never really felt Chinese. I wanted to see the city where my parents came from, to get to know about myself, the culture behind. We used to come back here once a year or once every two year on holidays, but those were like family visits, a lot of yum cha, but not living here. So I wanted to be part of this society, before Hong Kong changes too much. 

What were the things that amazed/surprised/shocked you about Hong Kong then?
That it has changed so much already! I’ve always known that there are a lot of people in Hong Kong, but when you’re only on holiday, you’d think that’s quaint, that’s fun. But now I’m living it. Like the local education system. I knew that people of my age were doing crazy amounts of homework, it’s always school, school, school. If you come second in class, you’d be asked why you aren’t doing better. I knew that, but I couldn’t fully grasp the portion of it until I was here. When I’m interacting with my students, I understand that this is the way they were brought up. So these are my major discoveries. And then there’s the MTR, which is good because it’s very convenient. Before I came back I was in the United States, and I had to do everything by car. Here, you can literally just go into the MTR system and get to anywhere anytime. And since the MTR stations are usually connected to shopping malls, I’m spending so much more time indoors that I think I’m actually getting paler! The MTR can also be a ‘bad’ thing during rush hour, when even the grannies feel the need to fight with you over space - I wouldn't dare to take her spot! I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing, but it just reflects how society is. Like the Occupy movement, it’s much easier to grasp why that has happened, and why that hasn’t happened X years ago or that wasn’t to happen X years in the future, when you’re actually living in the city. Before coming back to Hong Kong, I was very neutral about CY Leung. But after coming back, I understand why certain people hold certain views about him. 

Your favourite aspects of Hong Kong? 
Convenience. Let me put it this way, maybe it’s not something that I really like, but it’s the perceived convenience. Everything is open till very late, and the MTR goes everywhere, but surprises me that it takes me an hour to go everywhere! I can probably get to places faster by running. The MTR is very convenient, for instance, but somehow it takes me an hour to get anywhere. I don’t know why this is so. So it’s this kind of contrasts that you find in many places, but it’s nice. 

What do you think needs to be done to make Hong Kong a happier city? 
One of the key things, from my very limited time here, is Hong Kong people’s low sense of security, not necessarily job-wise, but just, you know, it’s always about money. Hong Kong people are always like, if you get ill, something can happen; you need to buy a house, because you’re going to get married. It’s things like these that show that there is very little sense of security in Hong Kong. I grew up with the Dutch sense of security, which is about doing something that you enjoy, nobody cares, nobody would force you to become a doctor, but if you want to become a doctor, you could. The lack of security also applies to healthcare, and buying things. When people buy things they are worried if they’re being scammed, if they’re paying a higher price. If you go to a market, some women would be asking for free spring onion, people haggling everywhere. I’ve learnt recently that you can actually haggle at Fortress the electronics chain - one of my foreign students has successfully haggled at Fortress, and then I read online that Fortress does have a range of price for the same product.

So any measure that can help increase people’s sense of security, whether it is better social benefits or more online shopping so prices can be compared, so that people will be less stressed. I often see these senior citizens collecting used cardboard boxes. It’s not just the money that they need, because even if I give them money, they aren’t going to stop doing it, because they don’t know when the next portion is going to come. So maybe a little bit more socialism. It’s a bit weird to say this, because Hong Kong is super capitalist, they don’t even care if you die on the street. Having been brought up and raised in a very socialist country, taking care of the people is one of the things that I would like to see more of in Hong Kong, and I think that could alleviate some of the stresses in society. How could we achieve that, I don’t know. I’d be more than happy to give up half of my salary, if it helps 10 people in need, but that isn’t the silver bullet. From my own perspective, if I could help alleviate the younger generation of Hong Kong from the education-related stress, that would be my 30-year plan. The mentality that kids need to go to cram schools in order to get into universities is awful, because that means the kid comes home from school to go to more schools! Personally, I hope that’s an area where I can influence. 

What’s the best thing about being Tjonnie Li right now? 
My students, and my students doing well. Many of my students are actually doing exceedingly well, and I think that’s something that I take pride in, at this very moment. 


Tuesday, 6 June 2017

La French Cut: Handcrafted Elegance, from Strap to Heel



Alice Sachot is an interesting lady. She is both athletic and artistically inclined, fascinated since a young age with sports and Japanese aesthetics. The young Sachot’s idea of ‘fun’ was to stay home and knit while her friends preferred, naturally, to spend time in the playground. Upon graduation from university, she packed her suitcase and went to Japan, where she found work in a traditional Japanese setting, learning the social etiquettes and language from the locals she worked with. For a long time she thought she was going to marry a Japanese man. Yet as life’s twists and turns would have it, she met a fellow French hailing from not far away from her hometown, and the knot was tied. 

After spending two years in Hong Kong making everything from her own dress to decorative items for her wedding, Sachot thought it was an auspicious moment to start her own business in hand-crafted shoes - her way of eschewing the wasteful and characterless fast fashion. 

Four years on, she is still very much in love with Hong Kong, the birthplace of her business Le French Cut. “Being an entrepreneur is not easy - you need a motivation. My motivation is doing what I like, and to see people happy with the results.” 




How was Alice Sachot like as a child? 
I was energetic, I loved sports and arts, I was always day-dreaming, making things. Provence, in the south of France, where I came from, is very rich in terms of arts and culture, which has always offered me sources of inspiration. 

I’m interested in gymnastics, and for six years now I have been practising aerial silk, a circus art; I’ve done a few competitions in Hong Kong. I learnt the art of aerial silk in Japan. I’m glad I got to train with the locals here at the aerial silk studios in Hong Kong, people from all walks of life and yet we share the same passion. 




Tell me the story of, when you were seven years old, that your mother introduced you to sewing and knitting? 
In France - and I believe in many other places as well - people from my mum’s generation were taught and used to serving their own needs by making things. By my generation, the tradition began to disappear because people don’t find making your own things useful anymore. My mother taught me how to sew and knit when I was seven years old, and I loved it. All my friends then were wondering why I would prefer to sit still and sew and knit, like a grandmother, while the rest of them were out playing, but I’ve always felt a misfit with strange interests. I later learnt to make patterns, and so I was able to make a dress from scratch. I also learnt to work with leather and to make shoes. I have always wanted to make that my career, but my parents didn’t want me to go to fashion schools, so I had to make it happen in my own ways. My parents said, “Art is not a job.” When I said I would study business, they were okay with it. I believe that if your’e meant to do something, you’ll end up doing it anyway. 

When I was in Japan, I knew that if the opportunity arose for me to create my own business, I would take it. It wasn’t so easy to start your own business in Japan, so I picked up experiences in business as much as I could. When we moved to Hong Kong, I felt that I was ready to start my business; the timing was perfect. When I discovered the places that sell fabrics and materials in Sham Shui Po, I was very excited. I’ve spent so much time in the area that I now know it by heart.



What is the appeal of making things by hand? 
It’s relaxing, and it gives me peace of mind. There’s something calming about being able to focus on the one, single task on hand. 

Why do you think slow fashion is necessary in this day and age? 
It is necessary because the fashion industry has gone too far - too far in terms of mass production and mass consumption, and now there is the huge problem of waste all over the world. I think people are increasingly realising that we need to go back to the root of fashion, which is making clothes for needs and style, but not for cheap production costs. People sometimes buy 10 pieces of clothes without even trying them on, and if they don’t like the clothes, they’ll just throw them away. 

Making clothes for needs is a no-brainer for me. If a woman wants her clothes and shoes handmade, I can discuss with her, understand her needs and preferences, and then I can come up with something that is unique for her. It means a lot to me to have customers coming to me, finally having a pair of shoes that fit her size or preference or style that which, for some reasons, she wasn’t able to find before. That’s what keeps me going, because being an entrepreneur is not easy - you need a motivation. My motivation is doing what I like, and to see people happy with the results. 

Things that are handmade are unique and different, yet, unfortunately, many people find it difficult to go back to the good old way of thinking that values craftsmanship. For me, it takes two to three weeks to make a pair of shoes, because my maker makes it one by one, but some people think the whole process should be faster - but hand-making a pair of shoes in two to three weeks is fast! I like to think that what I’m doing is a bit of consumer education on slow fashion.




What are the challenges of making shoes by hand? 
It’s a long process, with a lot of materials involved. I’m constantly looking for good makers, because the handcraft industry is shrinking - not just in Hong Kong, but elsewhere in the world too. And then there’s the sourcing of materials, which I usually do by myself. Every time I travel, I make sure to look up places that sell materials and fabrics. I would pick a small quantity, and try it myself, so that I can check the quality of every different piece of material. 

I try to make my designs elegant and timeless, with a hint of originality, so that my customers can wear them with a dress or jeans or whatever that suit the occasion. 

Were you originally from Hong Kong, or did you come to Hong Kong as an expat? 
I left France 10 years ago. I first went to Japan. I was living in Tokyo for six years, and after that I came to Hong Kong. I travelled to Hong Kong a few times while I was living in Tokyo, and I loved it here - the energy, the mix of cultures, which I found very interesting. 

I met my husband in Tokyo. Strangely enough, he is French. I wasn’t expecting that, because I was so into the Japanese culture that I thought I would marry a Japanese man one day and live in the country. (laughs) Turns out my husband is from not very far away from where I came from - sometimes you just have to go to the other side of the planet to meet somewhere who lived so close by! We had the opportunity to come to Hong Kong, I was very happy. When we left Tokyo, he proposed to me. The first two years I was in Hong Kong, I was making things for our wedding - I made my dress, my mother’s dress, my shoes, all the decorations…everything was handcrafted. I spent two years completing everything, and I felt that it was an accomplishment of something that I have always wanted to do before. 

Once the wedding was over, I sat down and thought, maybe it’s time that I started my own company. Having made everything for my wedding by hand, I realised that I didn’t really like the idea of hand-making over 100 pieces of the same item. So I decided that I would do the design, and to have makers doing the repetitive production work for me. I have been living in Hong Kong for four years now. The first two years were spent preparing for my wedding, for a year and a half, I did custom-made shoes - I took measurements and did fittings all by myself. Back then, it took me two months to make a pair of shoes. In the end I decided to make shoes with the same pricing, but also to keep the whole process simpler for my customers and myself. Now, I produce shoes in a range of sizes, and adjustments can be made according to the customers’ needs and preferences. 



Why the move to Japan? 
I have been a big fan of Japan since I was a kid, watching anime, and fascinated by the Japanese aesthetics, culture and history. Once I got my college degree in France, I packed my suitcase and moved to Tokyo! When you’re young you don’t think much about the future. I didn’t know how long I was going to stay there, but if everything failed, I could always come back to France; I thought I just had to give it a try. I got a student visa, applied to a Japanese language school to learn the language and the culture, found my first job at an entirely Japanese company. 

Your first impressions of Hong Kong? 
The Japanese culture is very specific, and I knew that as a foreigner, I had to conform to their culture. And I wanted to learn more about the culture, as I didn’t want to stand out as a foreigner. But sometimes that could be a bit too much, so coming to Hong Kong was very relieving. I know there are certain codes of behaviour here, but I didn’t feel such a big need to conform. I definitely felt that Hong Kong is more cosmopolitan, that I’m more at ease, not so afraid of doing something ‘wrong’. I also love the mix of city life and nature. In Tokyo, if you want to see the nature, you’d have to drive quite a distance, so it is quite a trip if you want to go hiking somewhere. But in Hong Kong, you can be at the Peak, the beach, the hiking trails in 10 minutes to half an hour. Hong Kong is one of my favourite cities, I’m so happy here. But it would be difficult to choose between Japan and Hong Kong, because there are things that I love and love less in both places. 

What’s the best thing about being Alice right now? 
That I’m able to do what I love, while making people happy. 


Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Keith Chan: Interior Design by the Misfit



The time was 1980s Hong Kong. At the after-school yum cha session he went with his mother, a few of his mates from the same kindergarten, and their mothers, the first thing Keith Shing-hin Chan would do - after greasy, used cups and bowls and chopsticks from the previous punters, together with the tea-stained tablecloth, were briskly hurled away, the round table now replaced with a clean tablecloth, and chipped ceramic tableware distributed in a speedy fashion - was to flip open his blank note pad, asked his friends their idea of their dream home, and began sketching unit layouts in earnest, meticulously incorporating desirable elements into floor plan after floor plan, according to his friends’ request. In hindsight, one can safely say that it was as if Chan was destined to be an interior designer. 

“When I was young, family relatives made it known that their future vision of me was a civil servant just like my father, and I remember feeling extremely dreadful at that very thought: me in suit and tie, making a living with a nine-to-five job. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do when I grew up, but the one thing I was certain of was that I would not be happy with an office job,” said Chan. “Things began to pick up for me at university. Most of the students at the design faculty were weirdos of one type or another, and it was their acceptance - or even celebration - of weirdness that I finally felt I was in the right place.”

And a ‘weirdo’ he is, to many. Getting all sentimental about the timeless design of the St Mary’s Cathedral in Tokyo, and being overwhelmed with gratitude to London’s signage and roadsigns with sensible kerning and typography is not easily comprehensible for many. And, if you seek his help in redecorating or furbishing your home, you’ll be expecting an additional person in the know of the private aspects of your life, from your sleeping pattern to even illnesses. Indisputable, however, as evident in the plethora of press coverage on his interior design projects, is that projects entrusted in his hands rarely fail expectations. 



The founder of Hintegro admits his journey in entrepreneurship is a humbling experience, and he believes the function of design is as much problem-solving as story-telling. “When I started as an interior designer, I envisaged myself to be one of those Porsche-driving interior designers, who earned quick bucks in the rapidly expanding market in mainland China. I would still like to own a Porsche one day, mind, though not out of vanity, but my respect for the brand,” said Chan. “It used to be my goal to create residential projects that would win awards of some sort, but now I know that residential projects don’t have to be one-of-a-kind, because I am not the inhabitant. Just this morning I had a meeting with a mixed-race couple, with Japanese heritage, currently based in Hong Kong. They have both inherited some antique furniture from their Japanese grandparents, furniture pieces that are over 100 years old. My project partner and I sat there and wondered, what would these traditional Japanese furniture pieces mean to the couple’s children, who have descended from mixed racial and cultural lineage and who go to international schools - would the furniture even mean anything to them? Our task, then, is to help the family create a home that would accommodate the diversity of cultures inherited by each of them.”

Like many Hongkongers, Chan feels disheartened by the disconcerting changes that have been taking place in the city, but the optimist thinks patience and perseverance will go a long way in making Hong Kong a happier place. “It will have to be something we start from the grassroots level. Recently, I have taken up an interior design project for a British chef, who shares my desire in preserving quintessential local culture. I was lamenting how even the locals don’t give much thought on cultural preservation anymore, and the chef consoled me by saying that maybe, in 100 years’ time, things will change. So yes, even if it is probably going to take a long time, I’m glad I’m trying to make small changes now, and hopefully they will become something big in the future, whether I’ll live to see them or not.”



What was Keith Chan like as a child? 
I’ve always felt ‘different’ - different to my schoolmates. I remember wondering why people my age were constantly chasing the latest trends or felt compelled to be in the know of latest happenings. People my age then were fans of the Dragon Ball cartoon, I wasn’t, and recess time became awkward because I wouldn’t be able to contribute to conversations among my peers. The feeling of being an outsider wasn’t very comfortable back then, but now that I come to think of it, I like to think that might be why I have become part of the creative industry. Growing up, I didn’t have much self-confidence, because the way I was, the way I thought about things, didn’t get me any recognition from my peers. 

Things began to pick up for me at university. Most of the students at the design faculty were weirdos of one type or another, and it was their acceptance - or even celebration - of weirdness that I finally felt I was in the right place. 

When I was young, family relatives made it known that their future vision of me was a civil servant just like my father, and I remember feeling extremely dreadful at that very thought: me in suit and tie, making a living with a nine-to-five job. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do when I grew up, but the one thing I was certain of was that I would not be happy with an office job. 

I’m an only son. And while I’m lucky to have an open-minded mother, with whom I can talk about all and sundry, I never really had a taste of the fun and camaraderie that siblings have, and that’s where my passion for drawing came in to fill the gap. Whatever thoughts I had in my mind, I put them on paper with my drawing pencils. Drawing, and calligraphy, were ways through which I communicated with myself; they still are, just at a lesser frequency. Back when I was still at school, I would always reserve three hours each day to write down my thoughts with the brush pen and ink pad. That was back when few would speak of mediation as a therapy, but drawing and calligraphy and Chinese ink wash painting were strangely ‘therapeutic’ for me. 

Why and when did you become interested in interior design? 
At around 16 or 17 years old, I had a feeling that I belonged to the design industry, though not specifically interior design. That my passion for art was nurtured even before university owes a lot to my secondary school, where options of ‘electives’ were limited to what are considered by the conventional sense ‘worthwhile’ subjects. The school policy at my secondary school stipulated that I could only pick an additional elective subject - art, in my case - if I were one of the top 10 students academically speaking. Thankfully, my art teacher at the time was quite anti-establishment and actually fought with the school principal for my right on my behalf. In the end the school policy and the principal won, but my takeaway from that incident was that if I really want something badly enough, I should persevere in my pursuit of it. I got a B for art at the Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination. I also have my then-math teacher to thank, because he was the one who introduced me to Wallpaper* and Wired magazines and lent me the magazines, he was the one who encouraged me to open my eyes to the art scene outside of Hong Kong, knowing that I intended my future to be in the art and design industry. 

Why do you think it’s important to open your eyes to see the world? 
I went on my first-ever backpacking trip to Tokyo when I was around 19. I went with a friend, neither of us spoke a word of Japanese. I was yet to learn about the eminent architects and interior designers in Japan; my grasp of aesthetics was very immature then. But even so, my time backpacking in Japan made me realise just how big the world is. 

Anything you see or encounter in an unfamiliar city or country can be an eye-opening experience, because you’re naturally curious in a place where you’ve never been. But I think just as important is keeping your eyes and mind open in your home city or country, which is something I constantly remind my students (*Keith Chan is a part-time visiting lecturer for BA (Hons) courses in Design (Environmental and Interior at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University). Many who have grown up in Hong Kong wouldn’t even have heard of the Lai Tak Tsuen estate in Tai Hang, had it not been because of Ghost in the Shell

To be very honest, one of the reasons I took up the responsibilities as visiting lecturer at PolyU was to promote my interior design practice, but there is a lot of joy in this job as well, personally, as I now know I could - and would - impart positive influence in my students. I remember a student asking how I managed to memorise the history and the names of the architects who built certain architectures, and I said, I didn’t memorise it, I’m just passionate about it. I also remember telling my students how moved and sentimental I became when I visited the St Mary’s Cathedral in Tokyo by Kenzo Tange; two years later, one of the students wrote me a postcard and said, “I now know what you meant about St Mary’s Cathedral.” He isn’t even religious.

What was it that touched you about St Mary’s Cathedral? 
The cathedral was a restoration by Kenzo Tange that completed in 1964, with vision and thoughts given to create a cross of light within; there is a sense of ambiguity that is quintessentially Japanese. The design is timeless, and futuristic from the time it was built. 

How do you create something that is timeless? 
That would require depth and profundity, accumulated over time. There’s no rushing it, no crash course for it, and it has very little to do with your skills and know-how. Take my understanding of the concept ‘less is more’. I used to think of minimalism as something cool and avant-garde, but now I know the ‘more’ is about spiritual contentment. Essentially, minimalism can only be appreciated by a mind not cluttered by materialistic desires. 

It’s interesting how our perspectives and priorities change as we change. Whilst I used to gladly dig very deep in my pocket for clothes, believing in the need to ‘dress the part’, just like fellow interior designers in the industry did, now I’m happy with respectable but comfortable clothes.



Why did you open your own interior design practice at the relatively young age of 26?
It was my sixth year working at the company where I first interned and later was employed as interior designer. That it was a small company of just four staff, including the owners, means I learnt really fast. By the sixth year, I felt that I had come to a flat-line state in terms of learning, that my passion started fizzling out. Going to work became such an ordeal, and so I resigned. For a while I debated between looking for a job or founding my own company. My departure somehow coincided with a residential renovation project for a friend’s family home. I did some math and realised that the amount I was paid for that project could get me going for half a year or so, and it was right there and then that I decided to start Hintegro. I ‘consulted’ my mother, knowing she would be supportive of my decision, and she said, “Of course you should give that a shot. You’re still 26 or 27 even if you fail, but if you succeed, you would have done so before you even hit 30!” Eight years on, although I won’t call it ‘success’ just yet, Hintegro is still going strong. I have my parents to thank, as, although I never borrowed a cent from them to start or run my business, they make sure I understand that I have a safety net to fall back on, should my business fails. It makes a lot of difference to know that your parents actually have your back. 

Hintegro is a humbling experience. When I started, I envisaged myself to be one of those Porsche-driving interior designers, who earned quick bucks in the rapidly expanding market in mainland China. I would still like to own a Porsche one day, mind, though not out of vanity, but my respect for the brand. It used to be my goal to create residential projects that would win awards of some sort, but now I know that residential projects don’t have to be one-of-a-kind, because I am not the inhabitant. 

The basic, primary function of design is to solve problems, but design can and should be more than that, and I believe a good design should be able to tell a story too, and as an interior designer, I have the responsibility to co-create the story with the inhabitants. 

Just this morning I had a meeting with a mixed-race couple, with Japanese heritage, currently based in Hong Kong. They have both inherited some antique furniture from their Japanese grandparents, furniture pieces that are over 100 years old. My project partner and I sat there and wondered, what would these traditional Japanese furniture pieces mean to the couple’s children, who have descended from mixed racial and cultural lineage and who go to international schools - would the furniture even mean anything to them? Our task, then, is to help the family create a home that would accommodate the diversity of cultures inherited by each of them. 

One of the things I love about residential projects is that I really get to know about my clients - anything from their illness to sleeping patterns, I would know, and it’s this closeness and trust that get me excited every time. 



What does it take to be a good interior designer? 
You’ll need to be observant, liberal-minded, to be able to think critically, and to think outside the box. 

Your favourite aspects of Hong Kong? 
Food - not just the availability of good-quality of foreign cuisines, but also Cantonese cuisine. Cantonese cuisine is among the most refined and complicated cuisines in the world, it definitely deserves more respect from the locals. 

Architecture - many architectures in Hong Kong carry with them mixed cultural heritage. Tong lau, or shophouse, is a romantic, modernist, organic creation that was born to adapt to local circumstances, such as the Japanese invasion and British colonisation. 

People - I consider myself very lucky to have met a great deal of good people in my life. My former boss, for instance, would send me on fully reimbursable trips. I remember booking myself into a budget hotel in Japan, thinking that would help my boss save on the budget, only to be told off by him. He told me I should be looking at Hilton or Park Hyatt instead, because we were working on luxury apartment projects back then, and staying at these hotels would give me an idea of what a luxury apartment should look like. Despite the changes Hong Kong has undergone in recent years, I have been able to meet many likeminded individuals, with whom I believe we can create something great to make Hong Kong a better place. 

What are the things that you find disheartening?
When I travelled to London last year, I realised I’ve somehow got used to the downward trend Hong Kong is going, culturally speaking. I was grateful for the clear signage and road signs in London, with sensible kerning and typography - design elements that actually serve the function of aiding motorists - compared to what seems to be random selection of typography for signage and road signs in Hong Kong. My trip to London has woken me to the regrettable fact that as a designer, I have somehow allowed myself to get accustomed to thoughtless designs in Hong Kong. 



How to make Hong Kong a happier place then?
It will have to be something we start from the grassroots level. Recently, I have taken up an interior design project for a British chef, who shares my desire in preserving quintessential local culture. I was lamenting how even the locals don’t give much thought on cultural preservation anymore, and the chef consoled me by saying that maybe, in 100 years’ time, things will change. So yes, even if it is probably going to take a long time, I’m glad I’m trying to make small changes now, and hopefully they will become something big in the future, whether I’ll live to see them or not. 

What’s the best thing about being Keith Chan right now? 
I’m no richer than before I founded Hintegro, but the creation of this company, this platform, has enabled me to see my ability in imparting positive influence, and to meet likeminded individuals, who like to work here as much as I do.


Wednesday, 26 April 2017

David Bishop




David Bishop, Principal Lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Business and Economics, wears many hats. He is the founder of the non-profit organisation called Soap Cycling, co-founder of Fair Employment Agency and Migrasia, Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking American father of three, and one of the handful who turned down a Presidential Scholarship, went instead to a small university in Hawaii, where his perspective on life changed ever since. 

In suburban Georgia, the US, then-18-year-old Bishop decided to learn Mandarin, knowing it wouldn’t be long before China rose as a world power. At 23, he and his wife entertained the idea of calling an Asian country permanent home, which happened a decade later. After a couple years working as a lawyer at an international law firm, life’s twists and turns landed him a job as a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, where he founded companies to provide his students with better internship opportunities and relevant life experiences, among them Soap Cycling, which recycles single-use hotel soaps to be redistributed to underprivileged communities that lack access to hygiene and sanitation. 

In addition to the typical list of things that people like about Hong Kong, the city’s youths is one big reason that Bishop is still staying in Hong Kong, and trying to make it a better place. Simply ‘awesome’ is how Bishop describes the city’s youths, and he’s doing the best he can to equip them for our future. “I love them. They’re amazing. The problems that they face are not of their own creation. They are being held back, but they are being held back by their parents, by society, and by other commercial opportunities that are being taken from them. If I were to give advice to anyone - parent, teacher, or company - it is to give the youths more responsibility, because you’ll be shocked and surprised and pleased with what they can do with their responsibility. Until we put our young people in a position to fail, they’re never truly going to be able to succeed. Sometimes it means physically scratching your knee, and being way less concerned about the way they play. In the school system, they can’t run during recess time in local schools, and that’s insane! Allowing them a longer leash to make mistakes, to help them to take more risks, because otherwise, we’re all kind of screwed! Whether it’s politically speaking, economically speaking, socially speaking, we need our young people to be way less concerned about risk.”

From a man who used to “make rich people richer”, Bishop has shifted his priorities in life over the years - feeling immensely grateful about his job at HKU today is a man who sees the importance of integrating into and serving his local community: “If you want to be happy, connection to community is absolutely essential. We just tend to ignore those things in Hong Kong, where you have these large monopolistic companies that don’t have to abide by the same rules, which is, again, one of those things that traps us. Working, providing, and a2serving in your community is not going to give you a bigger flat, it’s not going to give you a raise in your job, but it is going to give you empathy, it is going to help you understand what other people are going through, it is going to give you opportunities to expand your network, not in an artificial way, but in a very real way, and then amplify those things that truly give us long-term happiness.” 

Tell us a bit about yourself? 
I was born in the US, I was raised in near Atlanta, Georgia. My parents were not wealthy. My dad grew up as a farmer. When I was 18 and graduated high school, I sat down and thought about the world, and realised that I didn’t know anybody that spoke Chinese. This was in the mid-90s, and I thought, China is going to be really important, and I didn’t know anybody that spoke Chinese, that was really hard, and I thought I was smart, so I decided then that I would learn Chinese. 

My freshman year in uni, I had a four-year full-ride to my top university of choice - they would even give me extra money to live, it was the Presidential Scholarship, and my mum came to me, and she was like, “I just don’t think you’re going to be happy there. I think you should go to this little school in Hawaii.” I had never heard of that school before, I had never been to Hawaii before. It’s a very small school with just a little over 2,000 students. I said to her, “You’re crazy!” She said, “No, no, no. Look, I’ll fill out the paperwork for you. If you sign your name on it then I’ll take care of everything else. I just think you’re going to be happy there.” I agreed, filled out the paperwork, got into that school. I remember thinking, my choice for university was just wrong, it just didn’t feel right. I called the admissions office of the university of choice, my hands were shaking, and told the lady that I was not going to accept the scholarship. She’s like, why? And I said, “I don’t know! I’m sorry, just give it to somebody else!” I was genuinely in tears, and then I hung up the phone. 

So I went to Hawaii, and my mum said to me, “Everyone needs to know what it feels like to be discriminated against.” It was a really weird thing for a mum to say to her son. My family was not wealthy; in fact, we were quite the opposite of wealthy at the time - my dad had lost his job. They scraped everything they could get just to get me a suitcase, and then sent me to Hawaii. That decision changed everything in my life, it was super influential to me. It was an incredibly small campus, but it was also the most diverse campus in the US: there were more than 80 first languages spoken, 120 countries represented. The first experience I had, coming from suburban Georgia, where although there were diversities, they were more like American diversities - it was great, but there were just African Americans, some Asians, some Hispanics, and then a lot of white people. Growing up in that environment, in a middle-class family, as a white male, I had a lot of privilege that I didn’t understand before. When I got to Hawaii and I talked to people, it just opened my eyes to the world. I remember asking this one girl where she was from, and she told me the name of this country that I had never even heard before, and I was like, can you show me? And she said, “No, it’s not on most maps.” It was a really small island in the Pacific. I remember thinking, this is unbelievable! I started learning Mandarin, I quit school after my freshman year, went to Taiwan and did a two-year service mission. That’s where I really learnt Chinese well, and was able to speak to people in Chinese. I decided, when I was almost done in Taiwan, that the best marriage of my skills and interests was law. So I decided to go to law school.

I met my wife when we were freshmen. When I came back from Taiwan, we got to know each other better again. When we got married, we were, by Hong Kong standards, very young - we got married when we were still in school, at 22 years old. When I went to Georgetown for law school, I had this family dynamics already, and we had our first son when I was still in law school. Interesting little side note here: one of the things I tell the most to young people in Hong Kong is to plan for their long-term relationships. It’s amazing how much time we spend on planning for grad school, and zero time thinking about family. It doesn’t make sense to me. If you ask me, what are the non-tangible equations that show me that Hong Kong is kind of messed up right now, it’s the idea that young people in Hong Kong are not even thinking about marriage and children. I’m not saying that everyone needs to get married and have children, I’m just saying that it is a very natural conversation that humans, biologically or instinctually, are programmed to think of. And so if we’re not thinking or planning about that at all, it’s just super imbalanced. I always tell my students, “Think about what you would give at the end of your life: imagine yourself in your death bed, and imagine you could do something and they would give you 10 more years of life with the people you love the most, what would you give up for that? I would give up anything for that, then why are you sacrificing that right now? 

I directed my law studies for the intention of coming back out to Asia, and studying or practising law out here. But I was given a very wise counsel to start my career in the States, so that I’d always have a backdoor if I need it. I started my career in Atlanta, my hometown. After two years, in 2007, immediately preceding the financial crisis, I took a job here in Hong Kong with a big international firm. Again, another great and humbling experience that happened to me, and I like sharing this with my students as sometimes they perceive success in the wrong way - most of the students at HKU have never been put in the position to fail, and you can never succeed until you have really failed, a lot of times. In 2009, I was let go from my job. It was fine, because my wife and I are good planners, so we were actually in a good position. Thankfully, I had been looking for a teaching opportunity immediately preceding that anyway, and it worked out with HKU, and I was able to teach almost immediately after. I’ve been teaching here ever since, for eight years. I have three kids now, one of them was born here in Hong Kong. They love it, it’s all they know. My kids go to local schools. I think that’s a rarity - not many people send their kids to local schools, even the locals always ask why. We feel it’s important for us to be part of the community. Chinese language is a big, important part of my development. Not that I think my kids are going to grow up and get jobs speaking Chinese - maybe they do, that’s an option - but more about connecting with others in the world. I think it’s important to understand that language is part of that process. 



How did you find the Chinese language when you first learnt it? 
If I’m honest, people are going to be angry with me, but I found it really easy! I was very lucky. I learnt it the way you’re supposed to learn it. It turns out, whether rightfully or wrongfully, that I have a gift for certain elements of the language, so I picked it up very quickly. I went to Taiwan knowing some, but within six months, I could hold basic meetings, and I could teach basic lessons in Mandarin. After a year, I was doing pretty high-level translation; by the end of two years, I was translating for doctors in hospitals, as in real-time translation at large gatherings, real-time speeches, either way from English to Chinese and Chinese to English. My reading and writing were never that great, but speaking and listening were pretty solid. So I went back to the States and I was actually a Chinese teacher, which sounds crazy. For two years I taught Chinese, and I was one of the translators for the Chinese Olympic Committee, for the 2002 Olympic Games. That was really cool. I was there when China got its first gold medal, and I got to intermingle with the athletes and officials, so that was fun. 

So you speak Cantonese as well? 
A little bit, yes. Cantonese is really hard, you can write this for sure! People in Hong Kong - this is my announcement to them - they want so badly to preserve their language, and yet they are not supportive of foreigners who want to learn their language. It’s so frustrating. In Taiwan, people are happy when a foreigner wants to learn Chinese, and it’s the same in China - if you say “Ni Hao”, they freak out. If you say anything in Cantonese here, people freak out too, but they also ask, “Why are you doing this?” They would immediately switch to English, and they are very, very not supportive of people that want to learn Cantonese, to the point where they’re kind of offensive about it. When I tell them my kids go to local schools, they’re almost angry. They would be like, “Why? We’re doing all we can to send our kids to international schools, why would you send your kids to local schools?” And I’m like, “Why not?” That’s something that’s very surprising to me. I really, really, really want to learn Cantonese, I’ve got a solid foundation as I can read Chinese characters, and I can understand a little bit of it, but they’re very unsupportive! (laugh) I came in pretty fluent in Mandarin, and now, 10 years later, couldn’t even hold a basic conversation in Cantonese, even though I’ve taken lessons, just because no one wants to speak to me in Cantonese! 

Could it be because Hong Kong people would want to practise their English too? 
Hong Kong people don’t have to practise their English - their English is great! It’s actually quite the opposite in China, where people still very much want to practise their English, but all the secondary school students here in Hong Kong, their English is great. Even if people wanted to practise their English with me, they could have said, “Hey, why don’t I speak English to you and you speak Cantonese to me?” 

Your first impression of Hong Kong? 
I’ve loved Hong Kong since the day I came here. My wife and I got married in 2000, and we wanted to go on a honeymoon, which is what a lot of people do, but we had no money. Our parents are great, but it’s not like they were going to give us money for things. We saved up for a whole year, and came to Hong Kong and Southern China. It was like an intro tour to Asia for my wife, and I was like, okay, we might want to live in one of these places in Asia one day, let’s see if you can handle it. We loved Hong Kong, from the day when we first got here. We were 23 years old. We didn’t move back here until almost 10 years after that. From the day we set foot in Hong Kong, we felt very natural, very much like home. Unlike a lot of our friends, who see this as a stop on their journey, we’ve always felt that if society and the government would allow us to, then we would love to make this our long-term home. We’ve been very committed, as much as we can, to the local community, in terms of serving in the non-profit space, in terms of my job at the university, and also in terms of our kids going to local schools - we’re really trying to integrate into the local community. Now, I say that, but I live in Discovery Bay (laugh), it’s not exactly the most integrated thing to do, but we are definitely making a conscious effort to not just be here, but be of here as well, which I don’t think is the typical mindset, but that is fine.

This is backed up by a lot of research: If you want to be happy, connection to community is absolutely essential. In terms of every single aspect of moral and ethical and just good living, it’s all based on how connected we are to the people around us. And that’s true, by the way, for economic principles too. We just tend to ignore those things in Hong Kong, where you have these large monopolistic companies that don’t have to abide by the same rules, which is, again, one of those things that traps us. Working, providing, and serving in your community is not going to give you a bigger flat, it’s not going to give you a raise in your job, but it is going to give you empathy, it is going to help you understand what other people are going through, it is going to give you opportunities to expand your network, not in an artificial way, but in a very real way, and then amplify those things that truly give us long-term happiness. Almost everything that gives us long-term happiness is relationship-driven, and yet because of these smartphones, social media, and the nature of modern-day society, especially in a place like Hong Kong, we’re inherently pulled away from those relationships. I wonder if you’d ask your readers - and this goes for me as well - what percentage of people knew the names of their neighbours?

Your favourite aspects of Hong Kong?
There are so many great things about Hong Kong. We love the international, intercultural nature of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is way too disparate in the way the communities are operated - the Nepalese are with the Nepalese, the South Asians single out themselves, local Hong Kong Chinese single out themselves, the mainland Chinese single out themselves, the expats are always very separate themselves. We have been lucky to meet a broad spectrum of people, because we force it. My teaching at HKU, the service that we do, the local school connection - it kind of forces us to be with the local communities, and quite frankly, it’s not always comfortable, because integrating into different cultures is hard. But that has definitely been the best thing for me, meeting people from literally all over the world, and not just meeting them, but becoming friends with them, engaging with them, and learning about where they’re from - that, to me, is so great, it’s like living in a library, where you can just talk to people about their experiences. I have all these exchange students, and I love talking to them about where they’re from, what their life is like, what their families are like, and they often think of me as weird when I ask them about their parents and stuff. But I think it’s so cool! You have all these different migratory stories that are just really quite interesting. Probably my greatest shame about Hong Kong is that we are not capturing all these amazing stories. You have this centuries of Chinese history, which is one of the most interesting timelines in world history, in my mind. The massive amount of change is just insane. And yet I don’t feel that we’re doing a good job capturing that, that history and those stories. 

My favourite aspects of Hong Kong would be the typical list: the food is great, the skyline is beautiful, you can fly three hours in any direction and you’ll be in a completely different environment, with a different culture, food, language, everything. And its youth. One thing that has kept me here is I genuinely believe in the idea that Hong Kong’s youth, whether rightfully or wrongfully, they’re going to be a big part of the future of the entire region. We either set them up to succeed, or everyone will fail. No matter what your particular issue of choice is, global warming, environmental issues, income disparity, warfare type of conflict, they all centre on the idea that we need this current generation to step up, and to be better than the previous three generations have been. We’ve introduced a lot of problems onto them, so they’re going to have to make sacrifices that we were unwilling to make, and I think that’s unfair, but it is the reality. Whether that means cutting back on consumption, or being more responsible in the way that we deal with migrants, whatever it is, it boils down to the fact that we have the ability here in Hong Kong, because we attract so many young and talented people, I think we have the obligation, then, to set them forward to make the world a better place. 



If you have to generalise Hong Kong’s youths, how would you describe them? 
Awesome. I love them. They’re amazing. The problems that they face are not of their own creation. They are being held back, but they are being held back by their parents, by society, and by other commercial opportunities that are being taken from them. If I were to give advice to anyone - parent, teacher, or company - it is to give the youths more responsibility, because you’ll be shocked  and surprised and pleased with what they can do with their responsibility. Until we put our young people in a position to fail, they’re never truly going to be able to succeed. We have to be willing to let them fail, we have to be willing to let them fall down. Sometimes it means physically scratching your knee, and being way less concerned about the way they play. In the school system, they can’t run during recess time in local schools, and that’s insane! Allowing them a longer leash to make mistakes, to help them to take more risks, because otherwise, we’re all kind of screwed! Whether it’s politically speaking, economically speaking, socially speaking, we need our young people to be way less concerned about risk. 

And so you founded Soap Cycling to give your students better internship opportunities. How did that happen? 
In 2011, I had been teaching at HKU for a few years, and thought that some of our students, even though they worked really hard and they were really smart, didn’t really have enough relevant life experience in order to - in my estimation - put them in a position to succeed or to lead in the job environment. And so my decision at the time was, because I had attempted to get other companies, like banks, law firms, to give my students better internship opportunities to really take leadership of projects. But the companies in Hong Kong, for the most part, they tend to not view interns in that way. And I knew that if I was going to provide them quality internship opportunities, then I would have to create them for the students. I went to a group of students, and I said, “If I start a company, will you run it for me?” There was one student in particular, and she said, “I like soap!” And that was it! So they took the soap idea and we ran with it. 

The basic idea for Soap Cycling, from the beginning, was that it has a kind of tripartite mission. What I do for actual work at HKU, obviously I was looking for leadership opportunities for my students. So from an educational standpoint, I wanted to provide an educational leadership opportunity for them. But in terms of the company’s actual operation, what we do is we collect lightly used hotel soap, and then we process it, so that it has an environmental function. And every bar of soap that we distribute then goes to disadvantaged communities where they lack access to sanitation and hygiene. Unlike many organisations where they said they have multiple missions but they don’t exactly all fit or work with each other, it’s truly a tripartite mission where every single bar of soap that we remove from the ecosystem, chemical waste removed from the landfill, so it has a very direct environmental impact. But 80 to 90% of that soap can then be immediately transferred, with a little bit of processing, and put into the hands of the people who really really need it. Now, a lot of people may not realise that soap is actually the most cost-effective and efficient way to save lives. As we put the bars of soap in the hands of disadvantaged communities, where they lack access to basic sanitation and hygiene, then it does have a direct impact on the number of kids that can go to school, their health, women and children, at the time of birth, are able to survive, at disaster times, after an earthquake or typhoon, people then don’t get sick.

Do you believe it’s important for young people these days to learn more about social entrepreneurship? 
I do not believe that it is necessary for young people to learn, specifically, about social entrepreneurship, because I don’t believe in social entrepreneurship as a concept. This is a very theoretical and analytical discussion, but let me change your question. I think that all people need to understand that every entrepreneur should be a social entrepreneur. Every company is given the right to limited liability, because we as society give them that right. What that means is, if you look at the historical context and legal context of how companies were created, and why we created these corporate chargers, it was for the betterment of society. And so yes, the purpose of the company could be to generate profit and revenue, but it needs to have some societal impact, a positive social impact. Otherwise, we as society should not allow those companies to exist, because we give them a lot of benefits: we do taxes, limitation on liability, so they can do all these really bad things, and never personally be responsible for those things. So if we’re going to give them that right, then they should be putting something back into society. It could be as simple as providing jobs, or it could be more specifically social, the way that social enterprise is currently operated. But I don’t want students to think about becoming social entrepreneurs. If they choose that, that’s great. Instead, I want them to see the world a little bit differently, and understand that everyone should have this focus, either full-time, professionally, part-time, on a voluntary basis or whatever.

What were the initial challenges faced by Soap Cycling? 
There were so many initial challenges, just as with starting any business. A lot of people think that when you start a social business, it’s somehow going to be easier than starting a traditional business. That is totally wrong. When you have a social business, you’re inherently restricting your company’s ability to grow, because you have a social aim. Even if you generate revenue, you might have restrictions on distribution of that capital, you have restrictions on your ability to fundraise, you have restrictions on the types of partners that you can work with.

When we started, we had tonnes of problems. We’ve had ‘competitors’ in a non-profit space coming in and try to destroy us, like hire away our GM, in contraventions to hurt non-compete agreements, convince people to not give funding to us. So many issues. And obviously, operationally, when we started this I had no idea how to recycle soap. The students said that they wanted to do it, it was an idea that I had, and we thought, okay, it can’t be that hard. But when we first started talking to hotels, they said, “Sure, we’re interested.” We did a feasibility study. We sent out an email and said, “Hey, who would be interested in this?” Not “Who wants to do this?”, just “Who would be interested?”. In two weeks we had 60 hotels responding, saying yes. We were very excited about that, and for us, that meant, okay, now we can begin.

A month or two later, we got contacted by the Shangri-La, and Shangri-La said, “We’ve been storing soap for over two months. When are you going to come and collect it?” And I was like, oh crap! We didn’t have a space, we didn’t have a company, we didn’t have any money, we didn’t have any employees. And so I said to the students, either we collect the soap now, or we’ll burn this bridge, and we may not get it back, so let’s just figure it out. And our motto at the time was “Don’t worry, be crappy!” So we went and collected those boxes, the next month we heard from another hotel, saying “We’e been collecting for three months, when are you going to come and get it?” The next month, another hotel, until we’ve got all these soaps, they were piling up in my office. And within three or four months, it was stacked so high that you could only get from the door to my desk, and everything else was stacked, completely full of soap. And so obviously, being here at HKU, everyone was complaining about the smell.

Now we have a bunch of soaps, so now we’d need a warehouse space. We went out, paid for it out of our own pocket, took the students out, and went and got a warehouse space. Getting commercial space was something I had never done before, something the students had never done before. And obviously we had to figure out how to fund this, how we’re going to fundraise, how we’re going to expand the impact, how we’re going to staff everything. In addition to these external challenges that we had, from so-called ‘competitors’, the social nature of our mission, we just had to figure out step-by-step how to do it. It was really hard, really fun, I think it was a very viable experience for the students, and hopefully it continues to be so, because every day we’re figuring out something new.

We work with local organisations like elder care homes or homeless organisations, and we try to keep as much soap here and donating to individuals and families in places like Sham Shui Po. We have recently begun to expand our offerings to the hotels, and for some hotels we are cooperating with them to collect the bottle amenities as well: the shampoo, the bath gel, and the conditioner. We’re working with volunteer groups, especially corporate groups, to create hygiene kits, which are then distributed locally, so that way not only the chemicals are not going to the landfills, but also the plastic bottles and things are being redistributed, so they can at least be fully used before they are thrown away.

Abroad, we work with a number of organisations across Asia, where they have what are called ‘WASH programmes’, so water, sanitation and hygiene programmes. At these existing programmes they teach about sanitation, they teach about hygiene, they teach about clean water, they might even provide them with clean water through well-digging, and things of that nature, but typically, but they don’t have is the soap. So I tell the students that we’re like ‘Intel’ for the WASH community. Intel doesn’t make the computers, it just makes them run better. So what we do is, with the little bit of extra money, little bit of extra work, we provide a significant value-add to all these other WASH sanitation and hygiene programmes.They can teach about washing your hands, but until they can actually provide the soap, you can’t get the behavioural change you need to really get people to get that habit, especially young children in schools or pre-schools.

Why is it important to nurture leadership in Hong Kong’s youths? 
My goal, in terms of setting up the course and allowing these internship opportunities, is that, if this is the ‘Asian Century’, as people say, we need a bigger, stronger, deeper source of leadership. Everyone agrees that if this is going to be the ‘Asian Century’, this is probably the most important generation of youth that has ever existed, because it’s by far the biggest. We need young people that are not just ready to step into employment - anyone can do that - we need people that are ready to step into leadership. The students don’t always have comfortable conversations with me, because I challenge them, I challenge them to be a better version of themselves. Sometimes, growth only comes on the backsides of some pain, but that’s what I feel like my role is: to push them to be the type of leaders that we need. Hong Kong needs better leadership, I think we can all agree on that.

Why does Hong Kong need better leadership?
Hong Kong needs better leadership for a lot of reasons. We are a city that has everything that you need, and yet almost nothing that people want. Hong Kong is one of the most successful societies, in terms of your traditional moniker of ‘success’: it’s wealthy, it’s industrialised, it’s the first generation in terms of technology and banking, the transportation is amazing, we’re a destination for hospitality and movies and so many expatriate workers, everyone wants to be here. And yet all you have to do is to walk around for a couple of hours, and you’ll see that people are genuinely unhappy. There is massive income inequality, there are really big challenges revolving around population growth rates, which is obviously not that important by itself, but it is an indication of family issues, there’s so much trouble in terms of housing and real estates, and inflation. How do you survive as a normal person in this great place? 

In the eight years that I have been at HKU, I’ve had thousands of students. I’ve spoken with hundreds of them. I’ve asked in variations of the same question: What do you think the future of Hong Kong is? Quite frankly, I’ve never once in eight years had a positive response, and these are local students. It genuinely concerns me, because I think, here we have the very, very best and brightest to offer, not just in Hong Kong, but in the entire region. HKU attracts amazing students. And if you have these students, who are largely fairly privileged, either based on god-given traits like intelligence, or based on the ability to have families that can afford actual education, to get them into university. You have the most privileged set of students, and they have a negative perception on their future in Hong Kong.

I think a lot of the political strife we’ve seen, or just emotional outcries, are very natural responses to a situation where they feel completely hopeless. And I feel that’s quite sad, because we have everything you can want here, it’s a beautiful, wonderful place - I choose to live here. But the reality is, we need people that can take the opportunities that we have, and turn them into genuine sources of success, which are happiness, and long-term relationships, and really delving into what it means to be a successful society, in the true form of the word, not just looking at wealth and GDP, and other things that typically look at.

How has Soap Cycling benefited you as the founder?
That is a question you should ask my wife! Soap Cycling has benefited, I wouldn’t say just me, but really also my family and my direct community and my friends, a lot. It has changed my entire direction in life. The things that I did before, the things that I taught before were really quite different than what I focus on now, and I owe that all to Soap Cycling. It opened a completely new and different channel to me, and I found some talents that I didn’t know I had, but more directly some needs that I felt that there was a gap that needed to be filled.

Today, we have probably close to 700 and 800 interns that have worked with Soap Cycling and all of our other organisations. They put in tens of thousands of hours of work into building these organisations in Hong Kong and elsewhere, and I think the greatest blessing to me has been working with these young people very directly, trying to inspire them to be better versions of themselves, but in return, being inspired to try to be a better version of myself. That’s been a very direct takeaway. As a father of three small children, I never really thought about what I’d leave my children, in terms of legacy of anything, but I think now my hope is - and they probably don’t want to do this - they can kind of take some of these organisations and these projects on, because they’ve been working on them now since they were six or seven years old, some of them since they were born, they all have their Soap Cycling shirt. My hope is that they can see my definition of success for them is very different than society’s typical definition of success, and it deals with things like building communities, being of value, and creating an impact. My hope would be, as a family, we can continue to - whatever small impact it is - try and have an impact, and make the world a slightly better place.

I think the thing that excites me and keeps me going is the idea that we are - whether we’ll be successful or not is a separate question - genuinely trying to solve very big problems. I guess that would be the one thing that I’ve taken from this, of things that I’ve learnt, or I had but which I didn’t know that I had, was the ability to see these big-picture problems, and work backwards and reverse-engineer a market-based solution for them.

What’s the best thing about being David Bishop right now? 
I’ve got a really cool and supportive family, a great community, amazing friends who, time after time, stepped up and helped create these companies that were born of my many crazy ideas. When I was a lawyer, every single day, when I came home on the ferry, I’d think about what my role in my life was. I boiled it down to one sentence: as a lawyer, my job was to make rich people richer. That’s what I did, and there’s nothing wrong with that, it was a great career. I’m not opposed to people being wealthy, but I couldn’t help thinking that that can’t be my role in society, that can’t be the ultimate thing that I do. I remember, a couple of years into teaching here, being really overwhelmed with gratitude, thinking that - I’m not going to over-emphasise the impact that I’ve had, because I don’t feel successful yet - I get paid to try out all these crazy ideas, and throw students at it. Some ideas stick, some ideas don’t, and I think it’s cool. I get to buy all these equipment and figure out how to use it, I need to figure out how to recycle stuff, I need to figure out how to transport migrants, but these are all amazing things that I get paid to do.