“The stakes for me weren’t really high”, he says to me, “I didn’t have a career before this anyway.”
Chuah Chung-Xi is one of three young apprentices who recently joined Li Kwai Lin’s Happy Green Farm two months ago.
After graduating from Hong Kong Baptist University in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in humanities, majoring in professional and creative writing, Chuah drifted between jobs at the Hospital Authority of Hong Kong and the Jockey Club Sarah Roe school, filling roles like that of a receptionist and research assistant.
He stumbled upon farming a year and a half ago, through a camp that included a basic introduction to the declining agriculture industry in Hong Kong and some hands-on farm experience in the Ping Che village area in Fanling.
Now he wakes up every morning around daybreak, sometimes later if one of his friends wakes up first to receive orders from Li, whom they call Po Po, which means grandmother in Cantonese. They eat breakfast bought from a cake shop in Fanling that she visits everyday, and get to work by 730am.
They spend the morning performing a variety of chores including pulling out weeds, wrapping and protecting the produce from fruit flies, and harvesting by hand when the time is right. Everything is done by hand, except for a machine that helps them plough the land.
“I used to go way out of line,” he says “I would be really, really slacking off when I was just living at home. My previous job didn’t require me to go into the office as a research assistant so farming has actually made me more motivated to work.”
Like many students who go into a degree in university right after high school, Chuah had no idea what he was going to do when he graduated and lost motivation and drive to seek out something he enjoyed.
Which is why when he told his parents he would join a farm, they were eventually happy to see him find some drive to take action. His two peers however, who gave up more prestigious jobs in big companies to work at Happy Green Farm, met with much more opposition.
“It’s a thing for myself, more than I’m trying to change the world, I’m just trying to change the way I live,” he explains his passion, “I find that I consume less, I grow what I eat and generally it’s more environmentally friendly.”
“It’s straightforward to me because we all need to eat. I’m not saying that everyone has to be farmers, but I see this kind of lifestyle as more sustainable. I’m balancing out what I’m consuming.”
As one of the handful of farms in the historical Shui Lau Hang village, Happy Green Farm occupies about 50,000 sq ft of land. The small operation has been around for 40 years under Po Po.
She was persuaded to switch to organic farming seven years ago by government officials to remain profitable in Hong Kong’s changing agricultural scene – produce consumed in the Special Administrative Area was increasingly being imported from China.
The young trio, including Chuah, was introduced to her after a group of camp-goers reached out to the Ping Che villagers for volunteer farming opportunities. After some time, they saw a chance to come help on the farm, following the death of Po Po’s husband. For their work, they take a small cut of the vegetable sales revenue that barely covers the rent of their housing unit nearby.
“We sell our vegetables at the Star Ferry Pier on Sundays, that is kind of our main source of income so it’s not much,” he says, “Since [the three of us] have come here, we’ve started selling veggies online, started a Facebook page, and we also have collaborations with the Chinese University and an organic shop.”
“We’re not seeing the effect yet, perhaps because there hasn’t been many produce from the farm for the past couple of months, but we expect things to improve in the winter.”
Unfortunately, the youth might not have sufficient time to turn around the business, as the land Happy Green Farm stands on, like others in the Shui Lau Hang village, is included in the town development plan in the New Territories that was approved by the Executive Council this June.
The project, that was fiercely protested by local villagers and activists, such as the Land Justice League, is projected to provide over 60,000 new housing units to solve Hong Kong’s housing shortage.
“In ten years, this entire area will be buildings just like the rest of Hong Kong,” Chuah says with a sigh. But he does not intend to stop farming now that he’s found it, he says, “If possible, I’d like to start something on my own.”