Mark and I have a Saturday morning routine – when we’re actually both in town, that is. Cranky and generally dysfunctional without coffee (double that uselessness for the two of us), we brew up a strong pot of French pressed joe and queue up several TED talks. A well-edited selection can be more than entertaining and often serves as our inspiration for the weekend (and for our lively, often heated debates about what we’re going to do when we grow up).
TED talks have their critics, but I’m a definite fan. Brilliant, creative people around the globe sharing their ideas and inspiring projects and achievements? How can you go wrong with that?
Imagine my elation when I learned that Hong Kong hosts their satellite series, TEDxWanChai, right here in our own awesome, bustling, constantly evolving ‘hood! Mark and I went to the main event last year, and just the other day, TEDxWanChai hosted an even better event, TEDxWanChaiWomen, centered around the theme of Momentum. No, I’m not saying that just because this particular event was focused on women, although that’s admittedly pretty cool. The presenters and performers were all just pretty damn great – both the women, and the men who were there to also unabashedly celebrate or champion women.
Between a post-cold fog and (somewhat ironic) technical glitches with the TEDx LiveStream, I unfortunately missed the first couple of talks. But the sound did pop up in time for me to hear Laurel Chor implore listeners to get out and explore Hong Kong. Now, that message sounds perhaps obvious and not all that meaningful – until you realize that Laurel is a ridiculously bright and accomplished young photographer, conservationist, National Geographic Young Explorer, Ambassador for the Jane Goodall Institute Hong Kong, and documentary filmmaker (believe it or not, I’ve left several achievements off this list, and I think she’s still in her 20s!). As she reminded us, 3/4 of Hong Kong is actually protected, undeveloped land. Most people don’t know that, and even those locals and residents who do know that rarely take advantage (guilty as charged). HK is comprised of over 200 islands, and the vast majority of us only visit maybe 2 or 3 at most. Even on the main island, overwhelming numbers of locals and tourists alike spend almost all their time in the dense northern area, ignoring the mountains and beaches scattered about other parts. It’s a shameful waste, considering there is so much natural beauty to be discovered, including some endangered and even endemic species of creatures.
Carol Reiley focuses her brilliance in a different direction, surgical robotics. Seeking to improve the relationship and interaction between people and robots, Carol is working to alter stereotypes and perceptions about robots, and at an early stage – with successful projects like ‘Squishybots’ encouraging children to change how they play and read. Carol advocates for both genders to embrace coding and potential careers in engineering and tech. A significant focus for her is on advancing biomedical engineering and computer-integrated surgery, enhancing the already-formidable skills of surgeons to improve the precision of various procedures and outcomes of surgeries for patients.
Leonie Valentine, Google’s Director of SMB (small and mid-sized business) Customer Experience in APAC, made a similarly compelling argument that it’s time for tech to have a makeover, and for girls and women to embrace it and not eschew it as unfeminine or uncool. After all, females dominate social media – so why shouldn’t they be more involved in relevant work?
The most articulate and polished speaker I’ve observed in a long time is Su-Mei Thompson, CEO of The Women’s Foundation, an NGO dedicated to the advancement of women and girls in Hong Kong through research, community programs, education, and advocacy. Su-Mei spoke thoughtfully and passionately about the dangers of media’s perpetuation of negative female stereotypes regarding beauty and sexuality on especially young girls – sometimes contributing to or even supporting eating disorders, sexual harassment and abuse. She and her organization are partnering with Women Helping Women Hong Kong to produce a powerful new documentary on the topic entitled She Objects, a clear play on words highlighting the imperative to actively combat the all-too-frequent objectification of girls and women. And in a very genuine expression of motherly love at the conclusion of her talk, Su-Mei tearfully promised her own 10-year-old daughter that she loves her just the way she is. The photographer in me so wished I caught that moment in a still image. But in the bigger picture, I was just grateful to witness such a powerful woman – amidst a few tears and a movingly broken voice – become even more powerful in that moment.
Jo Farrell is the talented photographer behind Living History, a fascinating black-and-white photography project dedicated to documenting and celebrating the last remaining women in China who had ‘bound feet’. If you’re not familiar with this phrase, it refers to a tradition in the mainland whereby women had their feet literally bound to keep them small and as a sign that they would be good, subservient wives. If you are familiar with this practice, you likely view it as a horrific atrocity to women, as I always have. But Jo is exposing a different side to the tradition – that perhaps this was just a time-and-culture-accepted practice not that different from body modification that takes place today around the world for purposes of self-expression or conforming to local standards of beauty. I personally remain quite mixed on the topic, especially since my own grandmother was subjected to foot binding. In the interest of keeping an open mind, I must admit that Jo’s compelling images capture proud women who are also survivors of so much more, and are not to be defined by their bound feet (just like my grandmother).
Meaghan McGurgan, art critic (as she says, not of the ‘dream-crushing’ variety) and founder of HKELD, a site dedicated to all the shows in English in Hong Kong, made an impassioned plea that we recognize Hong Kong is not a cultural desert. This is a stereotype that I must admit I’ve been guilty of believing, at least for a while after I relocated here. Coming from NYC, I made the all-too-easy leap that the arts scene in Hong Kong is lacking at best. While I still think there is room for growth, modernization, evolution (and editing), I agree with Meaghan that this city is indeed not a cultural wasteland. A significant problem is that great art can be challenging to find here, especially that of local artists who may be incredibly talented but remain largely undiscovered by wanting masses due to lack of a proper venue or medium to showcase their work.
One artist who has worked extremely hard to hone her skills and given audiences around the world the opportunity to witness her gorgeous performances is Canadian Valérie Inertie. A Cyr wheel artist, aerialist, and circus choreographer who has worked with Cirque du Soleil and many others but stands rightfully on her own, Valérie brings admirable strength, grace, flexibility, and control to her craft, infusing her sheer physicality (just look at those arms!) with artistic flair. Her performances are so much more than a balancing act – one of the most sophisticated and unique dances I have seen in quite some time. No idea what a Cyr wheel is? Be sure to take a few minutes to watch the video clip on her site.
On a much more somber note, there are few topics more sobering and horrifying than slavery. And lest you think that is a distant chapter in history, Matt Friedman, one of the world’s foremost experts on anti-human trafficking and modern anti-slavery efforts and CEO of Hong Kong’s The Mekong Club (which harnesses the power of business to help fight slavery) wasted no time putting that myth to rest. Matt shed clear light on the magnitude and depth of this very much ongoing epidemic issue, with a shocking 21 million people enslaved around the world today. Delivering the most incisive talk of the day, Matt began with the chilling story of Gita, a young girl who was smuggled out of Nepal and sold into sex slavery in India – and subsequently raped an estimated 7000, gut-wrenching times in the course of her young life. Unfortunately, there is no silver lining or happy ending to Gita’s story. Indeed, her whereabouts remain a mystery – although Matt suspects she likely contracted HIV and died of AIDS years ago, similar to many other girls with horrifically parallel lives.
Of course, the natural reaction to this talk is..what can I do? There’s no question that fighting slavery is a massive effort, and it can seem overwhelming for individuals. But awareness and education are the first steps. One of Matt’s pleas was for us to share this information. This is one of the ways that social media truly has power, and I am just playing my tiny part. But it has to start somewhere. Educate yourself on the issue and spread the word. If you can, volunteer at a local organization or donate to a reputable organization supporting anti-slavery efforts. And be a conscientious consumer. As both Matt and Archana Kotecha, also a counter-trafficking expert/activist and Head of Legal at Liberty Asia, highlighted, it is vital to research the brands you purchase to ensure they are responsible and not contributing to the problem (3/4 of all modern slavery victims are sold into forced labor).
Bringing the house to its feet at the end of a thought-provoking day, chef and culinary entrepreneur Lori Granito, delivered sage and highly personal advice on a topic that resonates so profoundly, especially in Asia. Appealing to all the entrepreneurs (and those aspiring to be) in the audience, Lori warned against using fear of failure as a reason or excuse to tread the cautious path in life instead of one much braver and less traveled. Somehow able to come across genuinely as a mentor to everyone in the room within about a minute, Lori humbly shared that she herself worked through numerous missteps and failures in her own career, even to the point where, with her daughter at home, she withdrew 97 HKD out the 100 HKD remaining in her bank account (that’s less than 12 USD).
Lori made the absolutely logical case that if you venture out on your own, you will fail. You must embrace this, learn from it. Not be ashamed or afraid of it. And families and friends in failure-unfriendly Asia need to do the same for their ambitious loved ones.
Fast forward, and you can now directly benefit from one of Lori’s highly successful businesses, whether dining at her popular private kitchen, Magnolia, or participating in her culinary incubator, Kitchen Sync (to name a couple). There is never a guarantee of success when you put so much on the line – but Lori proves that strength of conviction, relentlessly hard work, and of course talent, can lead you in the right direction.
“Safety is the enemy of greatness.” Those words that Lori uttered still echo in my head and likely will (I hope) for some time. As will many of the words of wisdom that were shared at TEDxWanChaiWomen.
Sure, these talks were inspiring. Speaking frankly, it’s difficult for me to not also simultaneously spiral into a place of questioning myself. There’s nothing quite like a birthday chased by a day of hearing wildly accomplished, brilliant, multifaceted, personable, insightful women speak about their (at least eventually) wildly successful careers and lives – to make one (me) have a few second (and third) thoughts. But then again, that is the point, isn’t it? While I think it can be paralyzing to wax and wane in a state of feeling ambiguous or unsatisfied, I would also say that a certain degree of discontent, or at least questioning the status quo, can also be highly motivating.
While you deliberate your own future and continue on your path to your own version of greatness and happiness, take a step right now and check out these lovely ladies (and gents) and support them, celebrate them and their game-changing projects and lifework. And most importantly, support, encourage, and mentor the girls and women in your own lives!
All images © 2015 deb fong photography