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Top of her Game: Woman Empowered!

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Landscape architect, outrigger competitor, artist, adoptee. Polly Snaith is a juggler first and foremost, adept at keeping many different balls in the air. Elizabeth Kerr reports [PHOTOS BY Sarin Ale & courtesy of Polly Snaith]

As the great philosopher Yoda once said, “You must unlearn what you have learned.” That comes close to summing up 25-year Discovery Bay resident Polly Snaith’s life right now. She’s standing in the shade near what was once Pacific Coffee looking as sporty as she claims she is not. A light sheen of sweat dots her forehead. “I’m still not accustomed to the heat,” she cracks. “It’s embarrassing. I go someplace and I’m the only one sweating buckets. It’s ironic, because genetically I’m from here. Both my birth parents are from Hong Kong.”

A stroll back to Polly’s home goes along DB’s water front, from the ferry pier to the beach, and if you enjoy that little jaunt, you can thank Polly.

Raised in the UK, Polly landed in Hong Kong in 1992 to take up work as a landscape architect, which she would do for the next 30-odd years, contributing to MTR stations, Hong Kong Disneyland and Ocean Park’s expansion, as well as DB Plaza. Now “knocking on 60,” Polly is doing an about face, back into her first love – art – as well as hitting the open seas for some high-profile outrigger racing.

Oct 2023

CHAMPIONING WOMEN IN SPORT
“I’ve gotten to a station in life where I’m happy to advocate for certain things, and one is women’s health and strength,” Polly says. “Too many people think exercise isn’t for them – or they feel marginalised. They’re self-conscious about going to a yoga class full of young, beautiful, bendy women. But the paddling crew I was with at the Worlds [more on that later], I have to say, we have a bunch of kickass 50- and 60-somethings.”

Polly’s been paddling in various forms for a while now: a founding member of Lantau Boat Club’s (LBC) Outrigger Paddling Section in 2004, and a keen dragon boater since 1999. She claims an early aversion to water, explaining she’s only recently started paddling alone. “I wouldn’t say I was particularly sporty, but I got a bike when I was a girl and suddenly my boundaries were that much broader. Just doing a little bit of adventure lit the fire.”

Lately, paddling has led Polly down a fresh road stumping for women’s health and visibility in sport, with a focus on older women. The “kick-ass women” she referred to are a crew drawn from five paddling clubs scattered across the SAR. They’re just back from the 2023 International Va’a Federation World Distance Championships in Samoa, the so-called Olympics of outrigger canoeing. The Cathaysponsored Women’s Masters 50 OC6 Team of Hong Kong placed sixth. They are already looking ahead to a race in New Zealand in 2024, and a return to the IVF in 2025 – in Brazil.

“Regardless of our seemingly lofty athletic aspirations, we are normal busy folk, juggling career, home, family, as well as devoting time to our clubs, building community and promoting inclusiveness and diversity,” Polly says. “Outrigger canoeing is such a fabulous low impact sport that is truly suitable for all ages and abilities, from juniors all the way through to people in their 70s, even 80s!”

ADVOCATING FOR ADOPTEES
Polly is also busy advocating for adoptees – “bringing better awareness to the realm of adoption, and imploring people to educate themselves” – and it’s similarly personal.

Polly grew up the only Asian kid in a white family in Leeds, so it was obvious she was adopted. She located her bir th mother about a decade ago right here in Hong Kong. She admits it was rocky emotional terrain, but a switch flipped when she had her own child and a lot of relatives of that generation started to pass away. “I thought if I don’t do something about it, I may not have the choice,” she says. “There will come a time when it’s too late.”

Polly got the ball rolling on finding her bir th parents with help from a social worker, which gave her mother veto power. She didn’t consider retail DNA testing or ambushing the woman on Facebook. “That’s a bit of a bull-in-a-china-shop approach, which is intimidating,” she says. “I don’t necessarily agree with that.”

Polly was particularly curious about racial experience as a transracial adoptee – transracial being an adoption-related term: parents of one race adopting a child from another. While gender is a construct and one we’re increasingly understanding is a choice, you don’t choose race. Sadly, the word has been hijacked, most famously by renowned race relations idiot (and welfare fraud) Rachel Dolezal. “She’s confused people as to what transracial is. It’s a privileged voice,” scoffs Polly, who was already considering identity when the Black Lives Matter movement exploded in 2020, and then broader gender, history and representational reckonings. “Racial experience is a thing. We need better allyship in the whole arena.”

INFORMING THROUGH ART
Polly’s transracial status now informs her art, which transcends pen and ink (a medium she likes) to be more installation-based relational aesthetics. She wants her work to be interactive, tactile and thoughtprovoking – like The Bog Log, which demands “participants” stand in certain way that makes it seem as if they’re cleaning a toilet. The idea, of course, is to interrogate class and labour distinctions. It’s a crude analogy but in the way history is written by the victors, adoption narratives have been written by adopters. As adult adoptees connect and discover common ground, they’re finding their own voices, like Polly.

“So now, my mission as an artist is to try and understand how I experience the world through a transracial adoptee lens, so that I can understand what I see and be more purposeful in how I disseminate,” she says.

Polly is active with local groups – Adoptive Families of Hong Kong, Mother’s Choice, Hong Kong Adoptees Network and the British Adoption and Fostering Association – that are helping not just her figure things out, but adoptees across the city. She says she still feels like an outsider in Hong Kong, and probably always will. “I’m just a Yorkshire lass,” she quips in her gentle lilt. “I can navigate that; I can tell you when you’re about to get your head kicked in.” But in advocating for better understanding of the issues surrounding adoption, Polly has found a comfortable space where game recognise game.

“I’ve bonded quite quickly with the transracial adoptees I’ve met, because there are just so many things we get to the core. It’s funny because white siblings or friends just don’t get it, but then you sit beside another transracial adoptee and it’s all, ‘Oh, yeah, I know.’ You don’t need to explain.” She’ll be willing to try, though. Artistically. Watch this space.

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