Personal activism is the catch for South Lantau resident Keilem Ng, Hong Kong’s lowest-key environmentalist and feminist. Elizabeth Kerr reports
“A hundred, hundred-fifty years ago Hong Kong was this little, tropical paradise… and Lantau is one of the last remaining green lungs,” begins Keilem Ng, simultaneously taking up all the space and none of it at a table in a Tung Chung pizza joint one sunny afternoon a month or so ago.
Keilem is one of those disarmingly gentle types – soft-spoken, polite, obviously listening when others talk. But that first impression envelops a steely dedication to telling you what she thinks if you ask her opinion – say, of the Hong Kong Government’s unshakeable determination to reclaim land around Lantau.
“I understand the political agenda… but I don’t think we need to keep growing to compete with Shanghai or Shenzhen,” she says. “We’re never going to be 20 or 30 million… There’s this thing about ‘competing,’ that we need the biggest airport and the biggest port. I don’t think we need to compete like that, and that’s the model we have right now. But that’s just me.”
‘Just Keilem’ is a native Hongkonger and Yale graduate who studied physics and maths in university before switching to architecture. She started working in architecture and development but later gravitated to investment banking, and finally to her current career – still investment, but focused on areas that interest her, like social issues, the environment, green finance and senior housing.
Sometimes she regrets dropping out of the science department because that could be our ticket out of our current environmental mess, but through the combination of green organisation Eco Marine and her corporate day job, she’s doing her little bit to make Lantau, and Hong Kong, a better, greener place.
“It’s difficult to find that middle ground, so I find myself working from both ends. I think that suits me quite well,” she says.
Keilem drifted towards Tong Fuk in South Lantau four years ago after giving in to her preference for living in the “country.” While born in the city, she spent time as a kid in Singapore and Taiwan, returning to live in Tai Po at around nine years old. After coming home a second time (after university), she eventually settled in Lantau for good. “If I didn’t have these options it would be very hard to live in Hong Kong,” she says.
And yeah, you read that right. Keilem is a Yale grad, something she admits she downplays unless asked point blank, as most people still boggle at the idea of anyone actually attending such a prestige school. “It’s isolating, and I’m trying to reach everyday people,” she laments of the unfounded intimidation or bitter dismissal talk of her alma mater too often engenders.
Even more irritating for Keilem is that niggling gender divide. “But you know, being a woman and being successful is always challenging,” she says. “I shouldn’t be downplaying my achievements or my hard work.”
No, she shouldn’t, particularly the work she’s put into Eco Marine and Exchange and Empower (E&E), co-founded with Nepali trail runner Mira Rai.
The newly formed (2018) E&E was created in Mira Rai’s native Nepal to sponsor disadvantaged women in sport, language training and professional development. E&E is already sourcing new candidates for 2019, so plenty of chances to help with fundraising will pop up.
The idea is to help women define their own destinies – women like champion ultra-runner Mira Rai (“not good marriage material”) and participants like last year’s Chhechi Sherpa Rai, a wife, mother and stellar athlete who got zero respect for her natural ability, and Rashila Tamang, who started backbreaking labour as a pre-teen.
“Unlike Eco Marine we actually need dollars for this,” Keilem states.
Everyday choices and efforts
Eco Marine is familiar to anyone who cares about the SAR’s beaches and the overabundance of plastic on them and in the water. The non-profit community organisation has had a hand in more than a few beach clean-ups since its foundation in 2012, and for Keilem it’s the perfect way to preach without preaching. She’s not much of a lobbyist, and leaves the major advocacy work to bigger organisations with bigger voices.
“There are different ways for everyone to help and make change – from mums to politicians to artists to single consumers,” she says. “I enjoy working with people on a more personal level.”
Over the course of an average Eco Marine event, Keilem prefers to stand back and let the environment do the talking. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then plastic detritus washing up on the beaches speaks millions.
Ask her, and Keilem will point out Hong Kong’s continuing reliance on fossil fuels (approximately 70%) and anaemic attempts at renewable energy production or consumption. She’ll give props to the very public Starbucks (among others) initiative to stop offering customers plastic straws – which became a mainstream menace when videos of a sea turtle having a straw pulled from its guts went viral last year – as a great tool for change. And she stresses that we need to be aware of how much plastic is behind the scenes: single serving foods, commercial kitchens, standard shipping, luggage wrapping, the way supermarkets wrap single lemons… The list goes on.
“Eliminating plastic straws is just one small step. But it’s a start. One thing’s for sure, now that I’ve tried to reduce my plastic, I eat a lot less potato chips,” Keilem cracks.
Keeping it real
Eco Marine is hands-on activism, and it’s become a stalwart on Hong Kong’s ecological landscape because Keilem’s realistic approach simply asks that we consider what we truly value – be that clean water, reducing waste or general wellness. She wants her coffee that probably comes from a plastic bag, flown in on a pallet from halfway across the globe too.
“We need to live in the world,” she says. “Go ahead and live on a commune in an undeveloped area, but plenty of good has come from progress and technology… I know people who’ve come close to nervous breakdowns because they’ve gone to extremes and have had to say ‘No’ to every single activity. It’s about making change in your own way.”
So ahead of the next Eco Marine clean-up, what three things would Keilem recommend anyone interested do to get greener? She suggests starting by going outside and experiencing nature on some level to get a grip on what we’re losing. Then pick something you can personally change with little effort. Maybe that means cutting back on meat or actively avoiding plastic bags. Finally, spread the word, which is why Keilem’s three steps came so fast. “That’s an easy question for me,” she finishes. “It’s what I tell people every day.”
Tags: activism, feminism, environmentalism