• cynthiaccheng

Why I do Hong Kong Shifts

Updated: Mar 7


Photo by Hong Kong Shifts

It started off as a little fun side project — we met Mei Fung; Maxime’s caretaker at the building in which he lived for 10 years. We invited her to a Cha Chaan Teng and chatted over some soupy noodles. I didn’t quite know what to ask her at first; I didn’t prepare any interview questions. I had never had lunch with a security guard before. She started to tell us about her work, her daily routine, the people she encounters, what her hobbies are, her childhood. That was the first time I met Mei Fung but we were able to build a connection pretty quickly. I could sense her positivity, generosity, humility and, most of all, her kindness. I soon realised that, although we had little in common and our daily realities were so distinct, a meaningful human interaction often requires no other common denominator than a blend of mutual respect, curiosity and kindness.


And so it began. We started to approach others in different neighbourhoods; we met an old mechanic repairing brakes in his workshop who spoke of shielding from tear gas at the Hong Kong riots in the 60s; we met a cleaner at an office building who teared up as she recalled her late husband; we met a bartender who spoke about his battle with brain cancer as a child; we met a street cleaner with the warmest of smiles and sweetest of hearts; we met with a charity worker who spoke of a decade of homelessness and time in prison; we met with a sailor who recounted his first solo Star Ferry ride as a 5 year old kid to look for his father.


The more we heard these stories the clearer it became — Hongkongers are renowned for their toughness, sassiness and impatience, but what is buried under all this is an overwhelming force of resilience, positivity, energy, the undying “can-do” attitude coupled with an admirable work ethic. In the midst of all the uncertainty, aggression, negativity and obstacles that Hong Kong has faced in the past year, this project makes me proud to call this city my home and Hongkongers my people.


I grew up as a privileged child in a Hong Kong Island bubble — where venturing up and down the blue MTR line between Sheung Wan and Causeway Bay was about as far as I got for 18 years before I moved abroad. This project has truly opened my eyes to the richness, diversity and amazing history that this city offers; the spectacular contrast between the glossy and the gritty; the stunning landscape complete with regal mountains and turquoise waters. There is no place in the world like Hong Kong.


Through this process, what struck me was that if we bothered to take one small step to begin to notice, acknowledge and connect with people around us in our communities — we will soon realise that the invisible barriers, assumptions and stereotypes start to dissolve. What would happen if we truly respected everyone around us as equals with an openness of mind and heart? If we expressed more gratitude to those who are helping us get on with our lives? If we took the time to interact and connect and lighten baggage that comes with the rhetoric around “us” and “them”?


I am a fully-fledged introvert — approaching complete strangers and engaging in conversation is no easy feat for me, especially when there is often time pressure (these people are at work in the middle of their busy days). But what has kept me going and what is keeping me going, one year on, is the spark of joy that emerges when a human being opens up and shows a genuine part of themselves, when they expose their strength and vulnerability in equal measure, when they laugh and joke, when the ice thaws, and when we are able to tap into the delightful and witty Cantonese language to connect, engage and communicate. Such human interactions are rare and beautiful — and ones that I had only made the effort to really enjoy in the past year.


And this is why I do Hong Kong Shifts: to portray workers in our living communities with authenticity, dignity and respect; to seek out teachings and philosophies that are learned not from books, but from life and living; to highlight that, if only we made the effort to look, heroes are all around us. I hope that Hong Kong Shifts continues to be a project of positivity, strength and resilience — and that it brings a few sparks of hope and pride to everyone who calls this gem of a city home.


First published 16 July 2020