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Don’t look down: Hillian Siu

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Documentarian, filmmaker, kitesurfer and environmentalist Hillian Siu is determined to clean up our oceans, one surf at a time. Elizabeth Kerr reports

Virus-mania has gripped the city, but Hillian Siu and Neil Godbold sit without extra gear at an ifc café. Neither looks inordinately worried for their safety: the mall is nearly empty. And it’s pretty quiet in their corner of Lantau. A short jaunt to Central doesn’t pose too much of a risk. “I live in Tong Fuk village and Neil lives just down from Pui O,” says Hillian. “We never see anyone.” Everyone admits the public health scare and resulting xenophobia has been worrying, but there’s joking about the great toilet paper rush of 2020. “I can’t wait for the film about the armed toilet paper robbery,” quips Neil.

A filmmaker and TV documentary producer by trade, Hillian grew up splitting her time between Tsuen Wan and her dad’s native Cheung Chau. It was weekends with extended family and various “uncles” that gave her a taste for the water. “When I was young, I hung out with an uncle [Lai Gun] who ran a windsurfing centre and outdoor café. That was probably the first one ever in Hong Kong – they call him the windsurfing godfather,” she says. The fact that Olympic gold medal-winning windsurfer Lee Lai-shan hails from Cheung Chau helped spark her interest. “So, I worked in the café and helped out – I still do when I visit sometimes – and Uncle Lai took me under his wing.” Hillian picked up kitesurfing while attending university in Melbourne.

Now 34, Hillian relocated to South Lantau just over two years ago, and though she’s somewhat reluctant to admit it, the move was for the kitesurfing. “I like living across the road from a beach, and that’s where I go kiting. It’s the only place in Hong Kong where you can be assured of wind on a windy day.” It may sound flip but kitesurfing became more important for Hillian after a devastating motorbike accident involving her brother a decade ago.

“Kiting changed my outlook on life. After my brother’s accident, kitesurfing was… something I needed for my mental health. It really has helped me through moments of depression,” she says. “When I was younger, I was all about adrenalin, and windsurfing and kitesurfing are about speed. But as I grew older the test of determination drew me in. And the power of the wind and the waves, of nature, when you feel you’re mastering it – not in a cocky way, because the waves can destroy you just like that – there’s something spiritual about it, about being out there all by yourself.”

Hillian became Asia’s first-ever women’s Kiteboard Tour Asia champion in 2009, and she has spent a lot of time on the waters around Hong Kong, witnessing the growing plastic pollution problem first-hand as she trained. This led her to a personal challenge in March 2019 – a kitesurf from Hong Kong to Macau  (she was the first person ever to do so) – in order to raise local awareness of the ocean plastic issue and launch For a Cleaner Ocean (FCO).

For a cleaner ocean

For the uninitiated, kitesurfing is precisely what it sounds like, a combination of traditional surfing and a propelling accoutrement: a paddle, powerboat or sail. “You’re always wobbling on a board somehow,” chimes in Neil, who’s not sitting there for the sake of it. Neil is accompanying Hillian on her mission to drum up awareness for the pair’s relatively new venture: FCO.

The pair (he calls himself project consultant, she calls him FCO co-founder) met when Neil relocated to Hong Kong with his partner, and he “needed a job that didn’t involve being a pilot, a teacher or in finance.” Like Hillian, Neil has been in the watersports industry pretty much all his life, as a competitor, trainer, event organiser and through the media. Hillian’s dad was a merchant marine, his was in the Royal Navy, and both grew up on water. Enter FCO.

Hillian’s idea is a deceptively simple one: “FCO aims to raise funds for the betterment of our oceans by mobilising the power of kiters and allies around the globe. Its mission is to inspire and promote awareness of ocean pollution, its impact on ecosystems and marine life, and contribute to the global response by combining advocacy and action into a single action.

“When I moved to Lantau, I could see the Macau ferry leaving and I thought… let’s get 30 kiters to kitesurf to Macau and raise funds to support ocean recovery projects and innovations,” she adds.

The grander scheme pivots on tapping the substantial watersports community: Finding a way to fundraise and get those funds into the hands of people who can affect practical change on the deplorable state of our waters. To that end FCO’s first partner is Ocean Recovery Alliance, a Hong Kong- and California-based charity focused on education, community events and solution-based summits, that has been battling the ocean plastics problem for the past 10 years.

Surfers and divers are on the proverbial frontline of marine pollution, but Hillian and Neil both admit they don’t want to go out and clean beaches in their spare time – with all due respect to those who do. “Part of me would rather go kiting, another part of me just doesn’t believe the act is making any difference or is effective,” Hellian says ruefully. “Of course, many people would ask how much impact we’re actually going to make with FCO. But it’s not about debating whether it is the most effective way to solve the problems. Sometimes it is simply about choosing a medium that you believe in, running with it and doing it wholeheartedly. Because every little bit helps.”

Neil signed on because he liked the idea of playing to their personal strengths, which were not science, political hobnobbing and making strangers pick up trash. “Hillian’s idea was, ‘Why not do what we always do, get some money for it and give it to people who can do those things?’ Rather than setting up a charity it was about setting up a funding source,” he says. Anyone who ever funded a kid for a sponsored walk will recognise the idea. Kitesurfers get personal  sponsors – HK$10 each hour they’re on the water, HK$250 for the trek to Macau – and the money goes to Ocean Recovery.

Combining wind and paddle power

FCO’s first event in January was supposed to be a 55-kilometre kite from Hong Kong to Macau. When Hillian made the crossing a year earlier, she did it in just over two hours, but the team realised early on that they lacked the resources to get a large group of kiters across. As it turned out, the wind also refused to play ball, failing to make an appearance on the day – it made no difference.“In the end, we realised people were there to raise money, and they were quite happy to paddle instead,” says Neil. “We had kiters who absolutely hate stand-up paddleboarding, but they did it anyway.”  Twelve challengers gritted their teeth and took on a two-hourpaddle endurance course off Cheung Sha beach, completing a total of 139 laps to raise over HK$90,000 for Ocean Recovery Alliance.

If nothing else, the paddle proved the will for change exists. It  was also a good learning curve for FCO, as the team realised the combination of wind or paddle power will help them achieve their fundraising event goals going forward.

In addition to the involvement of local kiters, Lantau’s business community has been supportive, with Long Coast Seasports donating a venue and safety boat support, Coffee Bay Roastery staff donating its tips every month (tip your servers, people), and Gallery Bar & Restaurant supplying food and a venue for a launch party last October. All of it gave Hillian and Neil the momentum they needed to continue sculpting a sustainable fundraising model that would work in watersports industries both here and abroad. “We hope the January event is the first of many and that it marks the foundation of FCO as a future international movement,” Hillian says.

Hillian, who has competed in the Philippines, Vietnam, China, Thailand and Taiwan, counts northern Portugal as her current favourite spot for kiting given the combination of the sun, the glorious coastline and the clear water. It’s why she decided to do something about our water. “A good kiting day in Hong Kong is superb. Looking up at the mountains, it’s just beautiful,” she states, before a final lament. “But when you look down, it’s heart breaking.”

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