Loretta Lou is a sociocultural anthropologist with an interest in environment, health, and science, technology & society (STS) studies. She has recently received her DPhil in Anthropology from the University of Oxford, where she now works as a Postdoctoral Researcher for the Forum on Health, Environment and Development (FORHEAD) at the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies. In this post Loretta tells us about her research on Hong Kong’s green living movement and how she became interested in the history of the ‘Clean Hong Kong Campaign’ during her study of green living.
I have been following the development of ‘green living’ in Hong Kong for almost 10 years now. My interest in the subject dates back to 2008 when I was studying for a master’s degree at the University of Edinburgh. The master’s programme I enrolled in is a research programme that prepares students for PhD study. Although I wasn’t sure about doing a PhD at that time, my time in Edinburgh did get me thinking about ‘green living’ as a potential research topic. After completing my master’s degree, I went on to work as a public health researcher for the NHS before accepting the offer to do a DPhil at the University of Oxford.
In Hong Kong, ‘green living’ is promoted as a kind of ‘good living’ that is beneficial to both human and the Earth. It is a grassroots movement that encourages people to take personal responsibility for themselves, the environment, and the community they live in. Green living first caught my attention when I noticed that there is an increasing demand for ‘green’, ‘natural’ and organic commodities in Hong Kong. But as I investigated further, I realised that consumption is only a very superficial aspect of ‘green living’. Admittedly, the spectrum of ‘green’ in Hong Kong is very broad. While for some people green living means a visit to the farmer’s market every Sunday, for others it’s a way of life of social, political, and spiritual significance. Knowing that there is more to the story, I decided to study the implications of green living for self-nature relationship, social dynamics, and political mobilisation through ethnography.
During fieldwork, I was intrigued by the fact that people who practise green living in their lives don’t fit neatly into the ‘well-off middle class’ box. They seem to have different priorities than the Greens’ in the West. In fact, the Greens in Hong Kong come from all walks of life. The one characteristic that they share is they are looking for change, more precisely, hope. Unlike previous studies that focus predominately on the mobilisation strategies and lobbying tactics of environmental NGOs, my research focuses on the personal story of individuals. What motivates people to ‘go green’? Why are some people more committed to environmentally friendly practices than others?
Of course everyone has their own story. But I am particularly fascinated by the life history of (Simon) Chau Siu-Cheung, a leading figure of Hong Kong’s green living movement. Originally an Associate Professor of Translation at Hong Kong Baptist University (1989-2005), Chau chose to retire early so that he could focus 100% on the promotion of green living. Since he came back to Hong Kong after obtaining his PhD in Scotland in 1984, he’s been an ardent advocate for recycling, organic farming, alternative medicine, and what he calls ‘spiritual renaissance’. In the past 30 years, Chau has founded many influential green groups, including Green Power, Produce Green (the first organic farm in the city), The Vegetarian Society (first of its kind), Club O (a.k.a. Green Living Education Foundation), and most recently, Greenwoods.
Although Chau is the ‘trend-setter’ of Hong Kong’s green living movement, he wouldn’t have founded all these groups without the help and support of other people, mainly the intelligentsia at that time. Until the green living movement gained momentum in the early 2000s, many of Hong Kong’s green groups were run by the expats. For instance, both Friends of the Earth and the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) were established by Western businessmen and the upper-middle colonial class. The Chinese used to call these environmental NGOs ‘gweilo club’ because they were so isolated from the Chinese community. In view of this, Green Power (est. 1988) is really an exception as it was founded by local people who were born and bred in Hong Kong. It was the first environmental organisation that had made serious efforts to localise global environmental discourses for the Hong Kong Chinese. Under Chau’s leadership, Green Power also managed to mobilise more local people to participate in the green movement, even though the majority of them were overseas educated middle class people.
There is no doubt that the intelligentsia at that time was aware of the global appeal for sustainability. But was this awareness alone enough to get the Hong Kong Chinese to go green? This explanation assumes a simple theory of cultural diffusion, which has been proved problematic by many anthropologists and historians through different case studies. In searching for a different explanation of how green living has taken roots in Hong Kong, I decided to look farther back into history by tracing the genealogy of the green living movement through two distinct endeavours to promote ‘modern living’ in Hong Kong. The first one being the government’s efforts to transform Hong Kong into a clean cosmopolitan of modern hygienic standards. I borrow Ruth Rogaski’s concept of ‘hygienic modernity’ (2004) to demonstrate how cleanliness and weisheng have become key notions through which Hong Kong established herself in the 20th century Asia. Focusing on the ‘Clean Hong Kong’ campaign in the 1970s, I discuss how this campaign has successfully forged a sense of community while instilling a rudimentary understanding of waanbao (protecting the environment) into the minds of Hong Kong citizens.
What I found most interesting is that the idea of ‘protecting the environment’ (保護環境) is constantly changing. For example, protecting the environment in the early 1980s simply meant ‘keeping Hong Kong clean’ because Hong Kong is your home. To protect Hong Kong’s environment, you put everything in the bin. But by the late 1980s, the intelligentsia was no longer satisfied with the kind of environmental protection that only aimed at creating a hygienic urban environment. In the wake of a growing sense of community, Green Power wanted to introduce Hong Kong people to the idea of sustainability—a difficult concept for a city that was known as ‘a borrowed place living on borrowed time.’
When I presented this sub-project at the University of Bristol, I was very surprised when Professor Robert Bickers told me that my presentation had brought back his childhood memories in Hong Kong. Three months later when I presented the same paper at the University of Brighton, Dr. Harriet Atkinson said the same thing to me. It’s amazing to know that the Clean Hong Kong Campaign is not only the collective memory of the Hong Kong people, but also many expats who have once called this city their home.