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Running the world: How Lantau runner, teacher, activist and mother Zein Williams finds time for it all

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Lantau runner, teacher, activist and mother Zein Williams somehow finds time for it all. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

There  is no such thing as sitting down with Zein Williams for a quick cup of coffee. In her packed 38 years – 34 in Hong Kong – the Jordanian-born, UK-educated, Chinese literate, Cantonese-speaking, endurance-running mother of five has stockpiled countless stories and anecdotes that make time fly. She’s incredibly fit looking – wiry, not gaunt – decked out in what could be either running gear (which explains the lean fitness) or mother-wear. Three energetic girls sit at the next table, occasionally demanding attention.

Zein bounces from subject to subject, from travel (“It’s all about the towels for me when I go to a hotel!”), to being precious about coffee (“I was going to ask ‘Regular milk, or something fancy?’ But I thought better not make fun of that yet.”), to philosophising about otherness. “When I went to England for university, for the first time I looked like most people, but I really felt alien,” she says, sounding curious rather than entitled. “I didn’t get the jokes, the culture. It went way over my head. And now I’m a foreigner here. It’s so weird.”

The backstory

A true third-culture kid, Zein landed in Hong Kong as a four-year-old, arriving here from Jordan where her theatre professional parents had based the family for a couple of years, largely to escape northern England’s cold climate. “My mum said to my dad one day, ‘Open the paper and apply for a job in the hottest country you can find.’ It just so happened they were looking to build the first Royal Cultural Centre in Jordan,” Zein explains. “Dad applied for stage manager and mum applied for costume designer.”

The couple and three young boys promptly packed up and drove – yes, drove! – to Jordan, where Zein was born in 1980. “With five kids now, I don’t know how they did it,” marvels Zein of her parents’ gumption.

Though they loved the Middle East, the Williams had their eyes on Hong Kong, a goal finally realised when Zein’s dad secured a gig at the (then) relatively new Hong Kong Arts Centre, and her mother work at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

Discovery Bay was their first home, followed by Shek O. They’ve all stayed on. “No one wanted to leave,” Zein says with a smile. “My mum won’t go back to England.”

The activism

Zein considers herself fortunate that her parents not only put her in a local public school (hence her Cantonese fluency) but that their adventurous spirit guided her childhood – and in many ways dictated her career path.

“Growing up, my parents always took holidays in… the three-legged hotels we called them, the ones that were collapsing. We really saw a lot in the Middle East and in Asia,” she says. “By doing that you see the haves and the have-nots as well. As a kid you see it – you see the kid on the street with nothing. I wanted to understand that a bit more. I had an amazing development studies teacher during my IB programme and I decided I wanted to study that at university.”

After graduating in development and economics at the University of Sussex, Zein connected with Douglas Maclagan’s Nepalbased Child Welfare Scheme (CWS). She spent a year teaching in Nepal, but was disheartened by the idea that she’d leave a vacuum when she left and wouldn’t really help solve any Nepalese education problems.

At 23, Zein returned to Hong Kong and was convinced to work in fundraising at CWS’s Hong Kong office, largely because of the organisation’s commitment to action over just writing cheques. CWS focuses its work on education, empowering parents, skills training and job placement.

“Change can happen so quickly, and for so little cost,” Zein says, citing working toilets as an example of an easy, impactful fix. Menstruating teens in Hong Kong take the bathroom for granted, but not so in Nepal… “Nepalese girls miss a week of school every month, then they’re too embarrassed to explain why. Their grades drop, they drop out, and then they’re trafficked,” Zein explains, clearly flabbergasted. “By building a toilet you’re preventing trafficking.”

In her bid to create change, Zein has refused to be deskbound and, in fact, it was her work with CWS that first drew her to endurance running. In 2007, CWS chair Gordon Oldham convinced her to sign up for the Gobi March – the 4 Deserts/ Racing The Planet race for charity that covers 250 kilometres of the Gobi Desert – and that was it, a new passion was born.

zein williams

The running

Mui Wo-based Zein is probably best known to Lantau readers as a runner – the one who’s been winning all the high-profile local races for years. She’s a regular competitor (and podium topper) at series like Action Sprint, HK Stairmaster, HK 50, King of the Hills, Lantau Vertical, LBC Valentines Race, MoonTrekker and Oxfam Trailwalker to name but a few.

Zein’s running, though she’s slow to admit it, has often hit the headlines. Notably in 2015, when she became the first woman in Action Sprint series’ history to secure six wins in a row in two consecutive years, and in 2016, when she conquered the grueling Lantau 2 Peaks in three hours 20 minutes. “There aren’t any other races in Hong Kong that have more than 2,000-metre elevation in 23 kilometres like Lantau 2 Peaks,” she says.

For the past year or so, however, Zein has put her running career on the backburner, admitting that she finds simply “getting out of the house and going for a run a bit challenging.” Not surprising, when you consider that in addition to the girls in the coffee shop – 10-year-old Bella, Zoe, 7, and Skye, 5 – she has year-old twins Robbie and Tyler at home.

These days, when Zein does run, she says, it’s simply to enjoy the trails and get some time out. “It’s escaping. I’m running away. It’s my sanity zone,” she jokes. “And because I have no social life now, it really is my social life.”

That said, race season is just about to start and, with Zein looking this fit, it’s doubtful she’ll be able to resist taking part. In one breath she says, “I’m going to take a break and just enjoy the trails.” In the next, she reveals that she’s considering entering November 10’s RUN Charity Race in Tai Tam, which raises funds for refugee aid organisation RUN (Rebuild, Unite and Nurture).

“I was always into sports,” Zein muses. And it turns out she plays rugby too, which in a roundabout way was how she met her husband, banking counsel Garrett… in the notorious south stands during the Hong Kong Sevens.

And more besides

Whether or not she’s stepped back from competitive running, and CWS to a degree, Zein has plenty on her plate. This month, she’s focused on the Lamma Fun Day, which she helps organise on behalf of CWS and which all proceeds go to. Taking place on October 27, and now in its 18th year, the event kicks off with the Lamma8 charity run, followed by market stalls, food, music and activities for kids starting around noon.

“It’s a day where the community comes together to donate time and goods,” Zein explains. “The day ends with music on the beach.”

Zein is doing all this while getting ready to head back to teaching full time after a 15-year detour. As a bonus, she’ll have the added challenge of switching from secondary to primary school. It sounds like a lunatic workload, but Zein doesn’t see it that way. “Because I love everything I do, it’s manageable,” she says.

“Living on Lantau, it’s hard not to be optimistic,” she adds. “You look out and it’s beautiful. ‘Of course I can do it all! The key is making sure whatever you put on your plate is something you love.”

Photos by Andrew Spires

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