AS BOBSY GAIA REQUESTED all audience to close their eyes for 30 seconds during his TED Talk at the Victoria Harbor Conference Hall on May 11, 2013, an astute smile flickered over his face.
“This excites you!” he said. “No cheating!”
Under the spotlight of the stage, Bobsy glanced around the audience sitting in the dim light off the stage, as everybody complaisantly did what he just said.
As the conference hall gradually went quiet, Bobsy’s breath appeared more distinct through the lavalier microphone attached to his collar.
A recent issue of the program on local, self-organized events was recorded live in the conference hall with Bobsy as the guest speaker, delivering a speech on “slow food”.
Expectations began to accumulate among the audience towards the somewhat unexpected little mystery, popped up at the climax of his speech.
“Would you believe … ” Bobsy made a little pause as he awoke the audience to deliver his promise. “Would you believe that there are well over 500 million people who share a similar worldview?”
For a moment, silence lingered as no one came to realize or react.
“You are not alone!” The words appeared on the screen to meet their thirty-second expectation, but in vain.
Silence went on with confusion, if not disappointment.
Bobsy seemed to have anticipated the situation. After a short interval, he continued with his speech, sharing his philosophy on “slow food”.
“This movement is the largest which history has ever recorded or ever known. It does not have leadership; it does not have religion; it does not have government; it does not have demographic; it does not have social status; it does not have ethnicity … ”
Despite the eloquence, not all people seemed to immediately buy his words.
“This movement is growing exponentially … it’s a non-stopping movement because there is no Martin Luther King to assassinate; there is no Muhammad Gandhi to kill; and there is no country to bomb … ”
He went on talking, eyes wandering among the auditorium in different directions. If anyone happened to bump into his eyes — the somewhat deep-set, brown eyes glowing with genuineness and sincerity — the one would most probably apprehend his conscientious countenance, even unconsciously empathize with him. However, not many people seemed to have noticed.
His formal attire — especially donned for the occasion — didn’t look so comfortable or congruous with his bohemian appearance either: champagne-colored, bouffant hair with little curls — usually matched with a colorful kerchief on ordinary days — casually worn high up at the back of his head, a broad face with heavy beard … the Lebanon born environmental activist might just be better fit into a more hippie-styled dress code.
“This is an idea worth spreading.” With the program’s classic ending slogan, Bobsy brought his speech to an end, winning a fair amount of applause considering previous responses from the audience.
The lukewarm reactions did not come as a frustration to Bobsy. He understood that it would take time to get the concept through to people’s minds — though it has been in existence for many years — and even longer to inspire genuine, sincere consciousness and accomplish actual realizations.
SLOW FOOD MOVEMENT IN HONG KONG has been slow to catch on, as the campaign has been propelled by a small group of people, trying to lead a food revolution and make a change in people’s lifestyle.
THE CONCEPT OF “SLOW FOOD” first appeared in 1986 when Carlo Petrini — an Italian gourmet who later became founder and president of the Slow Food Movement — put it forward as an alternative to fast food, aiming to defend regional traditions, encourage ecological farming and lead a slow pace of life. Concerned with the risks of fast food, Petrini and a group of activists initiated a campaign in Italy against the opening of a McDonald branch in central Rome.
The campaign, which sparked the formation of a local slow food organization with the activists as pioneers, gradually penetrated beyond national borders and inspired initiation of the international Slow Food Movement. Today, having evolved for over 20 years, the global movement involves thousands of projects and millions of people across 160 countries .
For advocates of the movement, slow food is essential to, if not slow life itself. Food has been escalated to a position so primary that Petrini once observed in an interview : “Our food is produced and actively supporting those who produce it, we become a part of and a partner in the production process.”
Food, in this sense, no longer merely acts as building blocks of human bodies, but conspires with human beings throughout life. It thus relates to everything that life itself relates to: economy, culture, environment …
“You are what you eat!” As the household saying becomes increasingly penetrating and meanwhile repeatedly exploited by the media and advertisers, it might as well be rephrased into “Your life is what you eat!”
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, when Bobsy was still in his twenties, he woke up one morning as usual in his residence in Bangkok, a place he was soon to move out since he could no longer afford the rent. For the first time in years, he awoke to find nothing to rush into — literally nothing to rush through, and nothing to go into.
Sun shone through the windows, casting shadows of the wide tree leaves and mullions into the room, leaving silhouettes extending from the bed to the floor. Breeze aroused occasional flickers of the shadows. Among others, everything was silent and still.
Without even a single movement, Bobsy closed his eyes again.
Having just bankrupted his business, he lost all his money, also himself. However, the failure gained him freedom, allowing him the time to meditate, a process Bobsy would later described as soul-baring.
In retrospect to past years as a businessman, Bobsy seemed to see those days — when everyday was hectic and everything around was profit-oriented — flashing like reels of films winding in his brain.
He once made a lot of money, and had been striving to make more. However, the market was always turbulent and unpredictable. All could be lost all of a sudden, as the situation he was reduced to at the moment.
He began to question himself on the meaning of his previous daily rush, even the meaning of life. It might not be easy to retrieve the lost investments, but even harder to retrieve the lost self, he thought to himself.
Amazed by the ideas surging in his brains, at one moment, Bobsy was even grateful for the bankruptcy, without which he might never slow down to contemplate on what he had been doing and how he had been living.
“Just by sitting for 10 to 15 minutes everyday doing nothing, you can do so much. You can change yourself.” Today, Bobsy tends to tell the “magic” to everybody he come across.
That’s how Bobsy determined to initiate a change, so big that it later turned out to be a revolution.
That was the year 1989, when the Cold War had just ended while the Berlin war had collapsed. The tremendous change in world pattern brought dawn to humanity, raising hope for a great number of people, especially young people, who had long been deliberating on some humanitarian movements.
Bobsy knew he couldn’t continue his previous way of living, in which he found no meaning. Even if he went back to try his luck in business, he would consider a complete different path, however, he was still quite uncertain about his future. He felt totally lost and could find no immediate relief or temporary place to consign his minds.
On the other hand, the humanitarian movements that gradually developed both locally and globally, began to grasp his attention. Among participants of the movements, most were about the same age as him.
ONE MORNING AS BOBSY WOKE UP to meditate, he decided to try a different way of thinking, to escape the self-perpetuating circle all around “me, me, me, me … give me, give me, give me … ”
Zooming out from the previous myopic visions, Bobsy seemed to conjure up mirages in front of his eyes, “Human beings today are eating up all fish in the sea; chopping down all the trees … excessive consumptions are alarming.”
Visible and tangible are the profits, while invisible and intangible are costs beyond estimation, he extended the thought to its consequences.
“It is not sustainable,” he thought, thinking that overconsumption would one day cost the earth and it was an issue confronting no single individual, but all humanity.
Along with the incipient idea brooded during his meditation, Bobsy sensed something meaningful, something worth fighting for. That’s when he decided on the a new direction.
However, with barely any research or previous knowledge, the embryo of the idea was no more than a vague outline at the moment.
OVER 60 BILLION ANIMALS are killed annually for global meat consumption, according to statistics reveled by the Food and Agricultural Organization of United Nations in 2007, and previous trend has suggested a continuous increase within the foreseeable future, as revealed in a report titled “How to feed the world in 2050?”.
Hong Kong consumes more meat per capita than anywhere else in the world, 38 percent more than the United States, the world’s second biggest consumer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture .
That’s where Bobsy chose to take the challenge, but it actually took the collapse of his business, a second time, before he made up his mind to leave for Hong Kong and started out his environmental campaigns.
Prior to that, he also started an eco-business in Bangkok under the inspirations from local environmental movements. Through selling eco-friendly clothing — T-shirts printed with quotes or slogans to raise awareness of environmental concerns from the public — he also advocated the beauty of nature and significance of environmental protection. Nevertheless, the eco-business didn’t fare so well.
After a second bankruptcy in 1992, he packed up his life in Bangkok, leaving behind a ruined eco-fashion business, and moved to Hong Kong almost penniless.
He used to visit and sold his eco-designs to the city, where he found very organized and attractive, and soon after he arrived, he began to join environmental movements and work with people like-minded to appeal to more support.
Years of efforts gradually paid off: Bobsy began to pioneer socially responsible business in Hong Kong after several campaigns in 1992, co-founded ABLE (A Better Living Environment) Charity in 1994, led the reforesting campaign of the Lamma Forest since 1997 … After a serial of environmental campaigns, he also became more focused on “slow food”, as he discovered the seemingly easy approach promised enormous potential.
MOST ADVOCATES OF SLOW FOOD, including Bobsy, do not expect everyone to go to extremes by going vegan, though they do make frequent references and comparisons to relevant data, making their statements more convincing.
A vegan diet requires 300 gallons of water per day, while a meat-eating diet requires over 4200 gallons on average, according to Vegan Peace, a global veganism organization.
Among all natural resources, water only accounts for a small portion. Therefore, when it becomes a trend, veganism, vegetarianism, even a slight change in diet promise great environmental changes, according to further information on their website .
Bearing the concept in mind and with capital gains and experience from previously co-founded Bookworm Café (in 1997) and Life Café (in 2004), Bobsy opened MANA! Fast Slow Food in 2012, a slow food restaurant in Central with the motto “Eat like it matters”, aiming to inspire and include more people into a new way of eating and living.
“Don’t change the climate! Change your diet.” Echoing the core concept of “slow food”, Bobsy made it a central idea in his promoting film “Save the Human; don’t eat the Planet”, a environmental clip directed in 2009.
HOWEVER, A SIMPLE CHANGE in diet might not be simple, or at least not so simple as it seems to be.
Before he came to realize and conducted further research on the issue of overconsumption, Bobsy was a big meat consumer: Two Whoppers, with French fries and a chocolate milkshake for lunch might be unthinkable for him today, but that’s what he used to frequently consume, along with Big Mac, chickens and all suchlike food, which has long disappeared in his recipes today. Starting from organic food, it took him years before he gradually became a vegetarian, and finally vegan.
“It doesn’t come all of a sudden. That’s not sustainable.” Despite gratifications in noticing the slightest sign of people becoming inspired, Bobsy warns everyone who’s hot-headed and so enthusiastic to take quick actions. “You do it slowly.”
It’s difficult to become a veggie, even more challenging to become a vegan, but slowness does lead to sustainability, said Bobsy.
“To give up so many of your favorites is difficult, especially in the beginning,” said Matt Smith, a frequent customer of MANA!, and who’s been a vegetarian for over three years, “Meat intake used to be something inseparable, and I still miss the tastes sometimes. But the further you go, the better you sustain. As long as you survive the first a couple of days, you won’t fail to live up to the initial suffers afterwards. ”
However, Bonnei Lam, another customer who’s just started going veggie, said that the food choices were really limited and there were many temptations and drawbacks. “Dining out with friends becomes a problem. After all, there are far fewer vegetarian restaurants than those are not, and they are not so popular among non-vegetarians.”
CURRENTLY, THERE ARE ABOUT 150 vegetarian restaurants in Hong Kong and only about 2 percent of the city’s current population are vegetarians, a ration far less than Taiwan (6 percent) and the U.K. (8 percent), even the U.S. (3 percent), a country of substantial meat consumptions, according to a report by Simon Chau , founder of the Hong Kong Vegetarian Society, who undertook annual surveys on Hong Kong food consumptions.
It is thus conceivable that the population of people going vegan — doing not only without meat, but also eggs, dairies and honeys — in the city is even smaller.
BUT DESPITE THE LAG behind other countries and regions, slow food movement has been catching up in the city after all, though at a slow pace, as indicated in Chau’s report.
Besides Bobsy, founders of many other vegetarian or organic restaurants in Hong Kong have also been actively propelling the slow food movement, each having a relatively stable group of customers and supporters, among which Grassroot Panty, Veggie SF, Pure Veggie House Lock Cha Tea House, along with MANA! are most popular in the city, as revealed by Lifestyle Asia , an online media on lifestyle.
Meanwhile, slow food movement in the city has also been promoted in various other ways.
Currently in Hong Kong, there are a number of organizations and communities devoted to promoting the concept, while an increasing number of environmental organizations have also included a “slow food scheme” into their plan.
John Wedderburn, a medical doctor who has been involved in animal rights and welfare, founded the Hong Kong Vegan Society in 1994 and has been collaborating with congenial people and relevant organizations to promote veganism as a noble lifestyle in the city; Chau has also been advocating the benefits of raw food and vegan dieting in establishing the Hong Kong Vegetarian Society.
Other organizations such as Hong Kong Vegan Association, Hong Kong Markets Organizations, Slow Food Hong Kong, have also been active in carrying out slow food campaigns in the city to get the concept across.
In addition to veganism and vegetarianism, organic food that is focused on clean and sustainable consumption, has also been promoted as a part of the slow food movement.
Todd Darling, founder of Homegrown Foods — an organic grocery delivery business and co-owner of Posto Pubblico — an restaurant popular with organic food with local ingredients, initiated contacts with local farms to reverse Hong Kong’s current fast-food trend by advocating the benefits of premium, sustainable clean food produced with organic ingredients; Pui-Kwan Chu, chairman of Sustainable Ecological Ethical Development Foundation (SEED), also runs a small organic farm in Hong Kong and has been promoting organic consumptions and sustainable lifestyle.
Besides, organic markets in Hong Kong such as the Island East Sunday Market, Central Star Ferry Farmers’ Market and Former Farmers’ Market, also offer platforms for further promotions of slow food.
According to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservative Department (AFCD), there have been 480 organic farms in Hong Kong by the end of 2013, and ever since the department introduced the Organic Farming Conversion Scheme (OFCS) in 2000, the number of participated organic farms had expanded from 15 to 225.
Organic food has become increasingly popular with the public in the city, as revealed in a report on food safety and nutrition by the Hong Kong government . As most consumers pay more attention to the potential benefits of organic consumption, many also regard it as an easier way to join the slow food movement as they don’t have to get rid of meat, fish or dairies to engage in the more eco-friendly and sustainable way of eating and living.
LAPTOP IN FRONT — with the earth’s image standing out of the dark blue, mysterious desktop background — Bobsy sat beside a wooden table on the attic of Teakha, a lifestyle tea café in Shuang Wan, silently reviewing his notebook on recent activities. Music lingered, mingled with jingles of glasses and plates from downstairs. Among others, everything was quiet.
Since he became an active environmentalist in Hong Kong, Bobsy had been involved with a lot of campaigns, activities and interviews. Right now he was about to discuss with Iris Van Kerckhove an upcoming speech on LOHAS (life of health and sustainability).
Sitting next to Bobsy, Iris, Brand Manager of MANA!, was waiting to discuss the subject with him. Born in Hong Kong, she had just been back from her studies in New York on sitology and had worked with Bobsy for only six month. She used to frequent nutritionists and counsel on her diet before coming up with her own food philosophy during her studies. When she was still in New York, Iris had never expected that she would come back to work for a vegetarian restaurant, but now she had come to love her job as she found it interesting and inspiring. She also found she herself congenial to Bobsy.
At the moment, Iris was studying the ingredients on the package of a new brand of organic food that Bobsy gave to her on her arrival.
“See what’s Iris is reading? People should be conscientious about what they are putting into their body.” As Bobsy looked up and happened to notice what she’s doing, he called for my attention.
Opposite to them, I was reading the introduction section of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book Bobsy just handed to me. I began to appreciate the time here, slow and relaxing. Early spring sunshine through the little window of the attic made the space just cozy. The surrounding light music was so pacifying to minds that I even made inadvertent simple moves to accompany the rhythm.
“This is a nice place,” Bobsy said, as he slightly leaned back to have a break. “It’s very slow.”
“Slow is consciousness. It doesn’t mean we move slowly, or can’t get our work done,” he added. “Slow is a lifestyle, a way of looking at the world.”
HIS WORDS ENLIGHTENED ME on further implications of the concept of “slow”.
As a world metropolis, Hong Kong has long been renowned as a fast-paced, multi-tasking city. As I moved to the city last year, what I experienced seemed to have verified the common perceptions towards the city: Wherever I went, I saw people juggle different things: skimming newspapers on the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), chatting on the phone while dining, responding mails while attending lectures … I saw no unfairness nor inappropriateness in labeling the city as “hectic”.
Therefore, I frequently asked myself: “Why couldn’t people slow down a little bit and be more attentive?” I also thought that I comprehended the concept of “slow living” very well and could identify with it in large degree. But as it turned out, I solely grasped the surface. “Slow” in this sense is by no means a simple matter of pace.
“Slow embodies cooperation, respect, sustainability, gratitude and resilience.” The explanation by Slow Living Summit — an international slow living organization — might sound a bit metaphysical, however, it does signifies its multi-faceted implications.
What proclaimed by Slow Movement, another international slow movement organization, might be more constructive:
“The solution is self-explanatory. We slow down and connect with our life. … If we don’t listen to our bodies and to that little voice in our head that is telling us to slow down we may succumb to the myriad of health conditions that are a result of leading fast, stressful lives. … To be simplistic, the solution is to pay attention, on purpose, in a systematic way, in the present moment. That is, we need to be mindful.”
The idea of “mindfulness” happens to coincide with that of Jon Kabat-Zinn — Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School — who emphasized mindfulness and awareness to bodies and senses. As he observed in his book, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness: “If we learn how to inhabit now more, with awareness, then it’s almost as if the universe becomes your teacher.”
Black Su Hei, a Hong Kong writer and psychological therapist, who also endorsed slow, mindful living, once observed in an interview : “The essence to ‘slow living’ consists in minds. Slowness in actions or slowness itself means nothing without adjusting lives from inside.”
Therefore, what slow food brings about could be a complete change in lifestyle, even a revolution in life itself.
ALONG WITH A CHANGE in the way of living, practitioners say that slow food also brings about practical benefits that are more visible than abstract.
Initially is a lighter body. In fact, to loss weight or keep fit has been the initiative for a great number of people to start a change in diet and many did succeed.
“I’ve lost more than 10 pounds since I started going vegan eight month ago,” said Amy Heseler, a Hong Kong resident and frequent customer of local vegetarian restaurants. “I’ll just keep on going, and it doesn’t seem that difficult to me now.”
As researches increasingly add testimonies to the many benefits of going veggie or vegan , opponents hold that such a diet might easily lead to nutritional deficiencies or overall imbalances of the body.
In this respect, organic dieting, rather than vegetarianism or veganism, arouse fewer disputes.
Anna Zhou, an Australian student who works with Bobsy during her vacation, said she had adopted organic dieting and gradually consumed less meat, fish and diary under the influence of him, though she was not a vegetarian. “It’s healthier. You can feel it.”
MANA! SEEMS QUAINT, even a little out of place with its somewhat Rastafarian decorations: Balinese statues, bamboo ladders, raw wood … especially in Central, the center of the business district.
At the entrance is a big blackboard with casual but artistic scribbles, among which “Live Simply” stands out. Melody of Reggae floats out of inner space and the upbeat rises in a crescendo as you step inside. Light in the restaurant is a bit dim, but in perfect match with the environment —quaint, simple and relaxing — somewhat like a finely decorated underground shelter. When it gets late, the atmosphere also resembles that of a bar against darkness. The meditating statue right beside the entrance to the backyard — along with the words “ALL IS ONE IS ALL” on the wall behind it — adds to mystery, even sanctity of the place, reminiscent of a temple.
The atmosphere and decorations also reminded me of the implications of the restaurant’s name. MANA, as an ancient word with the root of “Ma” meaning “Mother” in one of the world’s oldest spoken languages, also implies “life force”, “sacred of food” and “mind heart connection”.
AT AROUND 6 O’ CLOCK, several people were dining at MANA! while chatting, and more people preferred take-away. Some were queuing to get their orders, but not many.
Looking through the menu, I found most food and drinks were labeled with a humanitarian or environment-related names: MANA! Love, MANA! Bliss, MANA! Joy, Earth, Green, Sky Juice … I saw people come and leave, making orders and leaving with disposable packages, most spending HK$100 or so per capita, some more.
It appeared to me a bit expensive for just a simple, single meal. A flat — a kind of organic oven-baked bread that is a specialty of MANA! — with a soup costs 115 dollars, and the price goes up to 130 when you change the soup into a small salad.
ORGANIC FOOD IS EXPENSIVE, and it costs about 20 percent more than conventional food on average, according to Organic Consumers Association . Higher production costs account for a major reason for the high prices, as revealed by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations .
Organic production in general calls for greater labor input per unit; more over, despite an increase in recent years, supply of organic food pales in comparison with conventional food, making economies of scale difficult to realize. With no feasible or effective ways to drive the costs down for the time being, higher prices seem inevitable.
“With costs of rents, greenhouse and other facilities taken into considerations, organic food costs much more to produce than conventional food,” said Martin Wang, a coordinator at Jambu Buddhism Center, an organization with a major branch specializing in organic farm operations. “With no chemicals applied throughout the whole process, organic products are more susceptible to losses as well.”
Organic advocates and environmentalists frequently argue that conventional food is actually no cheaper considering its hidden prices, what economists call “externalities” — costs that affects a party who did not choose to incur them — such as damages to environment. However, consumers do not have to pay for the amounts after all, at least not immediately or imminently
“There is a relatively fixed group of organic food consumers in Hong Kong, but relatively limited,” Wang said. “Most people are unaware of the benefits, or think it unworthy to spend the higher prices.”
Coexisting with obstacles that hinder people from slow food consumptions, are temptations that keep luring them away, and such temptations appear especially appealing in Hong Kong: Meat is cheaper than many other places with the government’s subsidies.
“The government and businesses collaborate to maximize profits despite the costs to the environment,” Bobsy said. “It’s difficult to break the tie.”
However, Bobsy never thought about giving up on his environmental campaigns. Along with a group of congenial people and communities, he had been furthering the cause and trying to come up resolutions to such difficulties.
AS BOBSY DISCUSSED A RECENT CAMPAIGN with Iris on slow food and environmental protection, Anna was sitting opposite to them, combining news clips of Bobsy into a portfolio for publicity, while occasionally joining their discussions to offer ideas.
“What’s your ambition?” I asked Bobsy as they stopped for a snack.
“No ambitions,” he replied almost without thinking, but soon regretted. “The ambition is to open a chain of MANA!s.”
It suddenly reminded me of the restaurant’s vision statement — “This journey begins with the opening of our first branch of MANA! Fast Slow Food.” — just echoing his so-callled “ambition”.
At one moment, I felt that he had been trying to live out his dreams with MANA!. He had been trying to live out his beliefs in slow eating and slow living — beliefs that had never changed.
That’s what he had repeatedly mentioned in his talks and interviews:
“This movement is unstoppable … because it is a humanitarian, ecological and spiritual movement lives with these lifestyles, lives by hundreds and millions of people … ”
The movement is unstoppable, as Bobsy believes. With the belief, he’s still on the way for a greater change.