We need to keep the international status of Hong Kong as well as nurturing its local culture. You cannot be international without having strong roots in your local culture.
– KITH TSANG
Interview and Illustration by Tara Tang
From Kith Tsang’s history of being a design professor at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University to being an organic farmer at SangWoodGoon, it would be quite fitting to call him a modern renaissance man. I was looking forward to finding out about what he thinks about the coronavirus pandemic. The COVID-19 19 interview series focuses on the perspectives of professionals in Hong Kong from all walks of life. The aim of this series is to collate and memorialise the experiences of different Hong Kongers during 2020 so that we can reflect now and later on in life look back to remember these times to serve as a reminder for the future. We sat down and had a chat at the newly renovated OMAK near Prince Edward, a Buddhist centre that fuses spirituality and creativity. Kith enlightened me about the art of Hong Kong organic agriculture and the need for a local produce revival, especially in times like this. Everyone in Hong Kong has their own memories of SARS and now COVID-19, and this is Kith Tsang’s:
T: Reflecting on the past, what was your understanding and experience of SARS in 2003?
K: In 2003, I was still a professor teaching classes at university. Initially, I did not think that SARS would be such a big deal. Then university classes stopped and all the students had to stay at home. The internet and other means of digital communication back then were not as accessible as nowadays. We used email to communicate with friends and co-workers. We could not see each other in real life, but to be able to keep up with friends like this was already great. I remember emailing to my co-workers, “I need my students!!”. I wanted to see them again because I had no way of finding out what they were up to since we were all cooped up at home.
I wanted to find out how Hong Kong ended up like this. I always thought Hong Kong was in pretty good shape, whether it be with hygiene or in the medical field. But then the city found out that the reason why SARS spread so rapidly was through poorly made drainage systems. It made me reconsider what city life meant. On the surface, everything looks organised but all the things hidden underneath the city an ordinary person will never really know. So when we encounter a crisis like SARS, we think that we can contain the situation with ease and continue our normal lives. But it is the hidden details in city life that can worsen problems like this. I started to notice the small things in my life, and I got to know some very inspiring friends. There is a Hong Kong Inventors Association, and one of the inventors during SARS was working in Beijing and could not return to Hong Kong. So he started to research about the drainage systems in Hong Kong. Was there other drainage options or alternatives that would not use as much water waste? He developed a new eco-friendly drainage system that used sunlight and air to sort out waste and ever since his invention he has been in that business. He was able to use SARS to invent a fantastic new way of living.
So these are my thoughts on the experiences in 2003 and onwards. I feel like it helped build what it means to be a Hong Konger and what they wanted to see in the city. So I gradually learnt more and more about the city. As a part of the Anti-Hong Kong Express Rail link movement, people started to protest against this rail link because of the environmental and social implications. Choi Yuen Tsuen, a village of about 500 people in between Tuen Mun and Yuen Long was to be cleared to make way for the express rail. I then became aware about the importance of land. So some of my friends and I became extremely interested in becoming organic farming. So in 2009, about ten years ago I started to become an organic farmer. This is another hidden change in Hong Kong that perhaps most people do not notice, our consumption of local food produce in the 70s was about 80% and these days it is looking more like 2%. This is another crisis in itself! When you go down to the supermarket, it looks like you have a lot of choice. But if you look closely, most of these goods are imported from abroad. If Hong Kong were to go through political or environmental complications, the city would become a lone island. So I believe it is important for me to continue my local farming. At the start, my friends and family were confused to why I ended up in this path. They would say, “You live such a comfortable life as a university professor!”. Even my mom was like, “Are you crazy? You have a great job, you could just do this until you retire and travel to whatever country you wanted afterwards or even just move to another country!”. I guess its hard to explain to my parents, since I was the first generation in their family to be born and raised in Hong Kong. My identity compared to my parents is so different, its something we call “refugee mentality”. My parents had to go through a civil war, so whenever they sense a sort of threat they will flee. To them, as long as they have a home they can adapt to any sort of external extremities. But to me, I have a strong cultural root in Hong Kong.The British only came here to build up their economy, so the older generations of Hong Kong are more inclined to think pragmatically. They would rather prioritise money over other attributes in life. So for my generation as well as the younger generations, we have to consider what Hong Kong was born out of. Nowadays, we see Hong Kong as such an international city but all of a sudden there is also an international level pandemic…we need to think about a new way to live. The whole world to an extent sought for internationalism, so even with that we need to consider its pros and cons. With that in mind, we need to keep the international status of Hong Kong as well as nurturing its local culture. You cannot be international without having strong roots in your local culture.
With COVID-19 this time round, there was not much of an impact this time round because I have been consistently readjusting my lifestyle since 2003. A lot of people were desperately fighting for food in the supermarkets, even my relatives called me up to ask if we had any spare rice! And I had to explain to them that it was not the season for rice. I knew some suppliers that still had a lot of stock, which also led my relatives to realise that there were also small stores supplying organic goods. Hong Kong has the capacity for our own local products, but we as consumers also need to go out of our way to find and support these stores. After the Choi Yuen Tsuen movement and my time spent as an organic farmer, this was the first year where i saw a lot more orders. It seems that people are now very interested in organic local produce, whether it be because of COVID-19 or not. If you are buying a batch of vegetables for like ten dollars at the supermarket, it is basically poison. Even if the vegetable looks fine on the outside, non-organic vegetables are not good for you. I feel like this pandemic has inspired many people to reconsider and adjust their lifestyles.
T: What are your other perspectives on the COVID-19 pandemic this year? Please elaborate on your experiences in the earlier months.
K: Before the pandemic, we were still embroiled in the Anti-Extradition movement. I have attended these sorts of protests before, so I understand the merit in protesting. But we also have to strike a balance between protesting and our daily lives. I have seen friends fully invest their lives into the movement, but not realise the breadth of politics. To me, protesting is an acknowledgement of power, whether it be from the government or the people like a game of tug of war. So even I need to realise in this movement, the people we are supposedly questioning; who are they and what sort of power do they possess? Who am I and what sort of power do I possess? Only then can you assess a strategy to carry out. It would perhaps be more damaging to suddenly rush out into the streets, without any regard for your life. You do not exist just for yourself, but also for your family and friends. It is important to also maintain a stable daily life. It is painful to see trauma lived out on the streets every day, so this slowly makes people lie to themselves as a way to numb their feelings. There is a concept called ‘Fail Better’, where it is about continuing despite whatever circumstances. If you fail you need to acknowledge where you went wrong, you need to fix it and then continue with a new strategy. But if you continue doing the same thing, it is just a slow process of numbing yourself to what is actually happening in real life. There will be a point in which you will realise the deterioration of your mental state and physical body. Even if we win, we still need to maintain the stability in our lives. So when the pandemic started, I had to centre myself. Even though there were people snatching up surgical masks and rice, as long as I was mentally stable I knew I would be fine.
T: Now you are working on OMAK and also your organic farm, so how has the pandemic affected your work and industry?
K: Extremely positive! As I stated previously, city life cannot avoid technology. Even when I was growing up we had the television and radio, which is still a form of media broadcast through technology. But now the spread of coverage is super different with the internet, you can post what you want to let the world know. For us creatives, this is a super important channel. When I first used Facebook, I started playing around with it and realising the power of social media. So now with this opportunity and the new centre, I want to create better learning relationships with younger artists. I do not want to be like, “I’m older so therefore whatever I say is correct” but rather hear and learn from what other designers have to say! Fortunately, it has been a generally positive experience in terms of my work life.
T: How has you and your personal circle been coping with COVID-19?
K: With different people, comes different emotions towards the pandemic. I feel like my daughter and her generation is a lot more concerned with things like hand washing and sanitising everything. People like me, who remember SARS also carry out measures but not to the level of people like my daughter. I am not saying one generation is better than the other, but I am very interested in the contrast between the two. For some reason, I assumed that the youth don’t care about hand washing or sticking to rules but you guys can do it perfectly. There is also more cooperation and care among friends. Friends asking their friends whether they need masks. Friends who make masks, even if they did not know what materials to make, when they start making the masks it becomes a great passion of theirs. I think it reflects the Hong Kong spirit of unity and love. I can also see that because we are now in a digital age, people can instantly get information from the news. Because of the internet’s accessibility, it also affects the speed at which people carry out things. People will see the news, immediately purchase fabric, then sew fabric masks to sell or gift to people through Facebook. I really do feel like the best part of Hong Kong is that it is extremely small if you do something it is quite likely that a lot of people will end up also knowing. Hopefully, if someone does something good, I hope that it is broadcasted to the city so that it can be an influence for good.
I have been noticing Hong Kong’s food habits and supply chain since SARS. This time around, my relatives asked me for store recommendations that still had all the pantry essentials stocked. I gave them all the store suggestions I knew that still had rice and all the other essentials, but it turns out they already knew those stores existed. For some reason, I guess they start to panic when they see shelves being cleared out in the supermarket. When I mentioned these stores to them, it reminded them that they could still shop at these places to get all their groceries. So hopefully when the pandemic ends, maybe we can reconsider ways to broaden people’s usual grocery shopping habits. I will also mention in front of my students, like me during SARS, you have to realise what is not working in your life to change it and be more prepared for the next crisis down the road. I do not think it is beneficial for us to think that after the pandemic we should just go back to our usual lives. I think it is better to reconsider what was not working in our lifestyle then and actively carry out ways to change. For example, encouraging buying from organic and local farmers to ensure that in the future if another pandemic happens we have a lot of options for our local food supply chain. So this is what I think about in terms of myself and my inner circle during the pandemic.
T: How can Hong Kong as a community learn from this situation?
K: If we compare Hong Kong during the pandemic with countries like the US and the UK, you can clearly see that the latter countries have dealt with it horribly. We need to look at how those countries function in their daily lives, and what ends up happening when they face a crisis. For Hong Kong, the pandemic was proof of our city coming together as an act of solidarity. And in future crises, we need to use this strength to our advantage. I have a lot of hope for Hong Kong.
It also makes me think about how Hong Kong should rethink the image of organic farming. Because now, I feel like organic farmers just go, “HEY! HERE! FRESH VEGETABLES!”. Maybe the reputation and aesthetic is not enticing or visually pleasing for the current Hong Konger’s taste. When I am at a farmer’s market in Australia, the atmosphere is completely different. I guess this is something I will have to also work on, the rebranding of my organic farm so that more people feel compelled to buy from local sources.
T: Speaking of foreign countries like Australia, what do you think about the cultural differences between Western countries and Hong Kong in terms of how people personally reacted to the pandemic? More specifically, what do you think about the political nature of the mask that has got people in the West so divided?
K: These are some interesting questions! It also somewhat links with my MA project, where I used post-colonial theory to describe the identity of Hong Kong people. I did this project before the 1997 Handover. I studied how Hong Kong people had changed over the years. This identity could also be applied towards the pandemic. Why do westerners not feel like COVID-19 has nothing to do with them? It is a colonial mentality, so when it spread all across the west, their immediate reaction is to single out and discriminate asian people. When it first happened in Asia, all they thought was, “Oh, well you guys are not as developed as us so its your fault.”. Maybe they are not familiar with their own history, but in the 19th century when they tried to colonise Asia they also brought a lot of diseases. From a historical dimension, even this current state of internationalism could be interpreted as a continuation of colonialism. There is nothing in the world happening right now that is not happening because of them. In Buddhism, when we talk about cause and effect, this is precisely the cycle they are talking about. Throughout all these years, the west cannot pick and choose like they only want to do business with us and take all the profit. So culturally, mask wearing in asian countries like Japan is super common. There is a more empathetic culture, where the mask wearer wants to protect others from having the virus. But for cultures in the west, if you are wearing the mask you are the sick one. It could be seen as a form of discrimination, so they are less willing to wear a mask.