Interview with JRP Borthwick: Author of Punks & Lubby: Explorers What Does Mummy Do at Work?

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Interview with JRP Borthwick: Author of Punks & Lubby: Explorers What Does Mummy Do at Work?

Christopher KL Lau

Up and coming Hong Kong based author, JRP Borthwick, is adding a new angle to his children’s books which explores the world of adults and work.

In these modern times, children are growing up much faster and the gap between childhood and working life is now much shorter, especially as the world becomes more technologically advanced.

Borthwick’s debut book Punks & Lubby: Explorers What Does Mummy Do at Work? explores the world of adults and their daily routine and how children perceive adults and their jobs around them. The book provides another unique perspective of Hong Kong’s fascinating daily life.

In an exclusive interview, JRP Borthwick describes the concept of his book (and future books), what his inspiration is and how children’s books are changing.

                      Punks & Lubby: Explorers What Does Mummy Do at Work?

What is the premise of your book, Punks & Lubby: Explorers What Does Mummy Do at Work?

Explorers is about two little girls who love exploring the world in which we live. They explore what people do, they explore the places we go and where we live, they explore everything. In this first book in the Punks & Lubby series they follow their mummy to work. Pretty much everything is based on real life with the odd pinch of salt. Mummy does work in Kowloon but she doesn’t actually take the Star Ferry to work. In fact, I am the one that takes the Star Ferry to work. I am old skool (with a “k”)!

Where did the inspiration come from? Who is your muse?

Explorers as a concept came about on a Saturday morning as my wife and I were out walking in the hills around Pok Fu Lam, Hong Kong. We were talking about the idea of creating children’s books that focused on what people did at work. We were joking that it could be a way of kids to learn vocab that they may not otherwise learn. Every child pretty quickly learns “dog”, “zebra” and “lion”, but maybe not “calculator”, “stapler” and “excel spread sheet”. I decided, however, that the first ever incarnation of the concept would follow Punks and Lubby’s mummy as she went to work in the office. Therefore we don’t look at a specific role or job like accountant, lawyer, judge, astronaut, waiter, comedian etc, we simply start with the idea of going to work at the office. I see it as Punks and Lubby’s soft launch!

Punks & Lubby are real people… I see them each and every day!

What sets this children’s book apart from all other children’s books?

I really wanted to create a children’s book concept that enabled kids to learn about things and places that they may not otherwise learn about and in a way that is different. I thought: wouldn’t it be cool for a mummy or daddy to be able to sit down with a kids’ book that is all about going to work so that they could show their children what they get up to during the day. You know, like having a working lunch, going to a presentation, having a conference call, working on the computer or writing emails. This kind of stuff dominates so many of our daily lives but so many of our kids have absolutely no idea about this side of what we get up to during the day!

As the world becomes seemingly more chaotic, is it time for children’s books to become more ‘realistic’ or should children still be shielded away from reality?

I think that it is all about reading and holding and loving real books. That’s the important thing: getting parents interacting with their children over a book and getting kids into books. Learning about real things is great but at the same time imagining, dreaming and letting your mind wander are vital for the imagination and general development. There is a place for all children’s books, from classic fairy tales, to modern stories and books about real everyday things and places, like Punks & Lubby love discovering!

You grew up in Hong Kong and have a third culture background. Does this give you an unique insight into the world and does this come across in your writing?

Hmmmm, some people would question whether I ever did in fact grow up. I am really not sure about this one. Maybe a different insight, but possibly not unique. Dunno, you tell me.

As this is a series of books, what will your next stories cover?

The next one is going to be a roller coaster adventure with plenty of thrills and spills, a rag tag group of outsiders fighting to prove their innocence, numerous high-speed car chases, a bit of BASE jumping and plenty of crazy pixies. Just kidding.. sort of. I am actually currently working on one that sees Punks & Lubby explore Hong Kong, but for kids. It is taking ages though and I am driving my current publisher crazy. What ya gonna do though, the day job has to come first… at least until Punks & Lubby take Hollywood by storm! (or something like that…)

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Kathryn Tse-Durham: Hong Kong Based Publishing Sensation and Creative Force Behind ‘Ellanor and the Search for Organoth Blue Amber’


By Christopher KL Lau

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A dreamer with a social conscience and mission, Kathryn Tse-Durham, armed with the power of the pen, sensitivity and a great deal of empathy is slowly becoming a literary force and the voice of an entire generation.

Tse-Durham, always had a passion for writing and through dedication, persistence and sheer hard work, her small inkling of an idea has morphed into her first critically acclaimed book “Ellanor and the Search for Organoth Blue Amber”.

The novel reflects aspects of Kathryn’s own life as the book touches upon many different issues such as identity, confidence, self-esteem and multiculturalism. Behind this fantasy novel is quintessentially the development and evolution of a person’s identity and place in the world as life and society keep evolving. It delves into how people have to adapt and change with the times to keep apace, yet still being able to maintain a sense of individualism and confidence in, what at times, can be a very difficult world to live in.


Being the creative wordsmith that Tse-Durham developed into probably has to do with Durham’s unique upbringing. Tse-Durham grew up in Australia and has spent large tracts of her life in Hong Kong; it was this fascinating blend of East and West that has given Durham such a unique outlook on life; at times, being part of the overseas Chinese diaspora can make a person feel like an outsider in both societies and cultures but it can also give a person a vision of life which can motivate them to go further and beyond all their expectations.

Tse-Durham has always loved writing and like all aspiring writers, her ultimate goal was to share her view and vision to a wider audience. Not one to simply sit around, she was proactive and took the first few steps to making her dream a reality so she completed a creative writing course through the University of Oxford. Like all writers, simply putting out work to be noticed and getting content published is difficult yet she found an outlet through her day job of being a speech therapist; she got articles published in educational magazines and her university honors thesis was published in a European academic journal. The rest is history.


The novel itself delves into a mythical land of magic, mystery and heroes / heroines. The story revolves around Elly Celendis and is set in the far away land of Alendria. The book is aimed at teenagers up to adults and can be best described as a ‘coming of age’. The content subtlely covers the trials and tribulations that all teens grow through in the tough transition from being a child to becoming an adult. Durham’s writing style and appeal is universal and speaks to all and this is reflected in the interest she has gained from all around the world. The struggles, trials and tribulations and sense of adventure that her main character “Ellanor” has, resonates with many and there is no doubt that word of mouth will spread and her novel’s readership levels will grow even further.

Be prepared to be amazed as you step into an incredible world created by the vivid imagination of Tse-Durham!

Kathryn Tse-Durham Interview

What is the general premise behind ‘Ellanor and the Search for Organoth Blue Amber’? Which age groups and types of readers would like it?

My book is of the fantasy and adventure genre, and it is sort of a coming-of-age tale, too. It is about a unique young elf named Elly who lives in the realm of Alendria. She has big dreams to become an explorer, and she struggles with issues that plague most young people – problems with self-esteem, bullying, learning to stand up for herself, first pangs of love, and so forth.

This book is the first installment in a planned short series, and this first book tracks her adventures as she masquerades as a human after she is fooled by a goblin and pushed through a portal into the human realm. She is desperate to find her way back home, and to do so she must find an elusive blue amber which she hopes will repair the damaged portal. Her experiences lead her to discover dark secrets about her homeland, much more sinister than she had imagined. So basically, it is about a youth who finds herself out of her comfort zone, and her experiences really force her to grow up.

My book has been categorized as a “Young Adult” novel, and it is meant for readers aged 10 years – adult. I hope this story would appeal to a large audience, both male and female readers. I believe that a good story can appeal to a wide audience. For example, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is categorized as a Young Adult novel, too, but it has been widely read by a huge audience – teenagers and adults alike. That’s what I want for my book. I don’t want to pigeon-hole it. I hope that readers from all age groups and backgrounds will enjoy my book.

Are there little bits of you in the main character, Ellanor?

I would say there are little bits of me in all the major characters in the story, especially Ellanor and her human best friend, Lily Wong. I think that when we create characters, it is important to draw from our own experiences, too. I also think that authors tend to live vicariously through our characters. Elly has a daring streak, which isn’t initially apparent as she struggles with feelings of insecurity, inferiority, and contends with bullying at school.

These are all issues I also contended with in my youth. But despite all that, I have always loved adventure, and through Elly I get to become a globe-trotter and travel to places I’d love to visit. The character of Lily Wong is loosely based on me, or rather, she is what I wish I could have been like back in my teenage years. Lily is feisty and stands up to bullies, and this is something I wasn’t good at when I was young. It’s a different story now!

Does the book have subtle lessons about self-esteem, confidence and identity? Would the readers identify with the book?

Yes. I wanted to create a character that young readers could look up to, but not somebody one-dimensional and too ‘goody-goody’ – although the main character is an Elf, a fantastical character, she also has very human qualities that we can identify with: Elly has many strengths, but she is also flawed – she is an insecure young girl who is grappling with growing pains, struggling with bullying at school, experiencing her first pangs of love, having to deal with loneliness and isolation in the school setting, desperately wants to impress others, comes to learn the true value of friendship, and eventually learns to stand up for herself…These are timeless issues that are all relevant to what children and teenagers experience in our society everyday.

I believe my story reflects some important issues that are relevant to today’s society. For example, issues relating to prejudice and racial equality, bullying, family, friendship, multiculturalism. I also make references to environmental pollution, autism, divorce, and child abuse – which are all issues relevant in today’s society.

I was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Australia, and I am very much a ‘third-culture’ kid. As a Hong Kong-Chinese person, I really wanted to create a story in which Chinese and other Asians are featured prominently in a fantasy tale. In other mainstream fantasy or science-fiction books, I’ve found that Chinese or Asians are usually peripheral or minor characters. We live in an international, multicultural world where people of different ethnic backgrounds mingle on a daily basis, and many so-called ‘minorities’ are prominent contributors of society who ought to be featured prominently in fiction! I wanted to create a story which exemplifies and celebrates this.



With so many distractions these days, do you think reading has become less popular with young people?

Yes, I think so. To be honest, I think reading has become less popular with all people, not just youths. Reading requires one to sit down and concentrate. With such busy lives, and so many other forms of entertainment these days, many people don’t find the time to sit and read so much anymore.

There was a lot of hype over the Harry Potter books apparently having revived the love for reading in young people, but then further research found that in reality, it didn’t really create a significant change after all, which is a bit disillusioning. But despite this, I still strongly believe in the value of books and the value of reading and learning. I think the Harry Potter books are great. I think a good education is the backbone of society, and good works of fiction should educate and entertain. I think it is important that writers continue to create good stories that are both entertaining and educational.

I’ve been working as a Speech and Language Therapist for the past ten years, and from experience I really do find that children learn best when they’re interested and having fun. I have a primary school student who was struggling with Language Arts at school and he had almost zero interest in the books he was asked to read.

But then I thought: well, what does this kid like? He likes things to do with espionage, groovy high-tech gadgets, detective work, conspiracies….So, I went to the bookstore and came across the Alex Rider books by Anthony Horowitz. I bought the first book in the series, and asked my student to try it out. A few days later, his mother texted me and told me how much her son was loving the book and how he had already finished it in one week! I was astounded and utterly pleased! So you see, a good book can do that for you.

How much of your day job has influenced your writing?

I run my own private practice as a freelance Speech & Language Therapist. Since I run my own business, I tend to have some control over my work schedule. I go from place to place all over HK Island, and in between classes or on lunch breaks, I would rush off to a coffee shop or cafe to work on my book.

If I didn’t have a job like mine, but an office job where I had to sit at a desk all day confined to one building, I probably wouldn’t have been able to work on my book effectively. I find that I can work much better at a coffee shop than at home, where there are many distractions. So I’m pretty grateful for the type of job that I have.

But because some days are busier than others, I don’t get to work as much on my writing on those days. On a good day, I could spend a couple of hours on my book. But no matter what, I tried very hard to work on my book EVERYDAY, even if it was just for twenty minutes during lunch or before bedtime.

Another way that my profession as an SLT has influenced my writing is that it has kept me young at heart. I work with children, I adore children, and I really think that being around them keeps me young at heart, which then inspires me to write what I write.

As Roald Dahl said…those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. By magic, I think he was referring to a child’s sense of curiosity, their hope in miracles, their wonderment at all the little things in this world that jaded adults take for granted. I believe in that sort of magic, because it’s that sense of wonderment that keeps us young at heart and helps us appreciate all the small things that can give us joy. And that’s one of the reasons I love spending time with children, especially my adorable nieces Chloe and Mikayla. They keep me…unjaded! One day, I hope I can share that magic with my own children!

Many people dream of becoming published writers but few make it a reality. When you started this project, did you ever imagine that you would finally become a recognized published writer?

For as long as I can remember, I had always wanted to write a novel and have it published. I’ve loved books since I was old enough to read. There were times during my teenage years when things just got really dark and lonely – not uncommon in adolescence! – but books were always my one solace. Without my books, I think life would have been much harder! Back at school, English Lit and Art were my two favorite subjects. I especially loved creative writing.

Several years ago, I took up a creative writing course through the University of Oxford which was a real eye-opener for me. I got to interact with a group of wonderful, creative, and intelligent aspiring writers, most of whom were based in the UK or Europe. I was the only Chinese participant, and the only one from Hong Kong. But strangely, I didn’t feel singled out. I actually felt like I belonged, because we all had one thing in common – the love for writing! It was exhilarating. I just loved that course, and I learned so much. It was also incredibly encouraging to receive positive feedback for my writing, to see that people actually enjoyed my stories and ideas. It was a real confidence booster.

It took a few years to get the ball rolling, but finally, in 2012, I decided I would make a start on my novel. And then that ball just wouldn’t stop rolling. I became immersed in the whole writing process. I can’t stress how much hard work it took, how much discipline and self-motivation I had to muster everyday…I just pushed and pushed myself, and there were days when I would really second-guess myself and ask, “What in the world am I doing? Who am I kidding? What if people hate my book?”

But I finally accomplished it. So no matter how things pan out with this novel, I would know that at least I had the courage and strength to fulfill my dream, to try something new and scary. The fact that I’ve written and published a novel cannot be taken away from me, no matter what people think of my book. When I held my published book in my hands for the first time, it was a truly surreal moment. In the past, I could only imagine it. Now, it’s happened.

From the initial idea to the final product; just how hard was the publishing process and how long did it take?

The initial idea of what I had in mind for Ellanor has pretty much stayed intact throughout the whole process, from beginning to end. I started off wanting to write about a young Elf who would explore the human realm and encounter fantastic adventures. But the final product is very, very different from what I had started off with. My very first draft hardly looks recognizable now!

I must have revised the whole manuscript over a 100 times. I started off jotting down ideas, brainstorming on pieces of note paper that I stuck in my schedule planner..then those notes morphed into sentences, paragraphs, then eventually chapters. I wanted an artist to help me create some concept art for the story, and over time those ‘concepts’ morphed into full-blown illustrations for my story, which have been included in the published book.

Raquel Diaz is my illustrator, and she is incredibly talented. Working with her was just amazing. She is Spanish and lives in Sweden, I live in Hong Kong, but somehow we just clicked and managed to communicate really well. She was able to produce the artwork pretty much as I wanted it. She worked extremely hard, and she was very professional. I was often very pedantic about what I wanted! So that process alone took a lot of work, but it was totally worthwhile.

Writing a novel is a huge feat. There are plots to be created, analyzed, revised, critiqued, and as the author you have to make sure that everything falls into place, that every plot hole has to be accounted for, every little nook and cranny gets looked into. It is an enormous undertaking, but one that I enjoyed immensely. So much planning was involved, coupled with research and the actual execution of the story on my faithful I-Pad and blue tooth keyboard, which I took everywhere with me.

It took over a year and a half to complete the entire manuscript. I would go over it constantly, obsessively, and I would literally work on it whenever I got a spare moment. Just ask my husband! I would even work on it standing up as I waited in a queue for something, typing away on my iPad. I didn’t care how crazed I must have looked! I finally mustered up the courage to show the manuscript to a couple of people who acted as my critics.

Then after I got their feedback, I revised some more. The revisions and rewriting took many months, day after day. It took much longer than I had expected. Then my editor edited the manuscript …and even after that, I went over the edited manuscript countless times to ensure everything was in order, because it is the author’s responsibility to submit the final manuscript and make sure it is all OK to go. The tweaking just seemed to go on endlessly.

Overall, the publishing process was a tremendous amount of work, and it was a lengthy, complicated process. But if I had to do it all over again, I would. It was an amazing and rewarding experience.

Which writers have influenced you? And what were your treasured books as a child? Can creativity be taught?

I have read many good books, and I would say that there are many excellent writers and story-tellers out there. I would say that several writers have really influenced me, especially J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote the Lord of the Rings and Silmarillion. He created this amazing world that I just fell in love with the first time I read about hobbits and elves and Middle-Earth when I was 16. What’s amazing about Tolkien was that he created this beautiful literary work that was based in a fantasy world, and yet his story and the characters managed to evoke such empathy.

Years ago, I had this fleeting idea that one day I would write a story about an Elf girl named Ellanor, in honor of the beautiful golden flower ‘elanor’ that grew in the elven realm of Lothlorien in Tolkien’s fantasy world. I wanted to write about an Elf girl with human connections who could take the reader on wonderful adventures. Through Elly’s expeditions, I hope that the reader’s curiosity about the world would be piqued.

As a young child, I loved reading Enid Blyton, all the fairy tales I could get my hands on, and I especially loved the Baby-sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin! As a teenager, I was really into Christopher Pike.

As I got older, other writers that influenced me are Haruki Murakami and Kazuo Ishiguro, both wonderful story-tellers. Murakami, especially, is very good at creating extraordinary and surreal stories. Kazuo Ishiguro, well, I just love his writing style and the way he creates these poignant, memorable characters and story lines that often don’t end with an obvious conclusion.

I believe creativity can be taught, in the sense that people can be encouraged to think outside the box and not just follow the crowd and do what is ‘safe’. I do think that some people are more creatively inclined than others, but sure, I think that everyone can be creative, it also depends on whether they want to be…because being creative is also a choice, and you gotta have the courage to step up and be a bit of a mover and a shaker!

Is writing a novel as romantic as it sounds? Are all budding writers really hunched over notepads and computers and sitting in chic and trendy cafes typing away?

OK, I admit I have had the luxury of sitting in chic and trendy coffee shops such as Starbucks typing away! But as I said, I just can’t concentrate well at home, and I work best when I’m in a coffee shop like Starbucks or Pacific Coffee…They’re just so conducive to writing for me! I even became a Gold Member at Starbucks because I patronized them so often, and the staff saw me so much that they soon remembered my usual order off by heart!

But here’s the thing, much solitude is needed when writing a book. You got to be OK with that. Some people don’t like to be alone. I’ve always been quite comfortable with solitude though. I love my husband and my family, and I enjoy being with my friends. But I don’t mind being by myself, too. I can go into a restaurant by myself and enjoy a quiet lunch. I’ve even been to the movies by myself in the past. So spending hours by myself writing and typing away came more naturally to me. I was often alone, but I never felt lonely. But I can’t imagine how I could get time alone once kids come into the picture!

Writing takes a TREMENDOUS amount of hard work and commitment. You gotta love writing, you gotta really have the drive…the thirst…to finish the novel, to share it with others, even though the thought of it scares you witless.

Can anyone write? And does everyone have their own ‘voice’?

I think that anybody can write, but not everybody can tell a story well and be creative with it. And yes, I do think everyone has their own voice.

Where can people buy the book?

My book is now internationally available for purchase online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Books, and several other online stores which have cropped up on google search. Hopefully, the book will be available at some local English bookstores soon, we’re working on that! Also, my publisher has sent me hundreds of copies which I will distribute personally.

What are your plans of the future?

This book is the first in a planned short series about Ellanor, the main character. I’m working on the second book. I do hope that readers will enjoy the story enough to want more, so if there is a demand for the sequel, that would be great. I’m waiting for the reviews to come out, and the publisher is helping me promote the book. But no matter how things pan out, I love books and I love writing. I am so grateful for all the awesome support that my family and friends have shown me. I want them to know how much I appreciate it!

Thank you

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First Published here on an educational website: and 

An old piece from 2009 about “How Far Do Leaves Fall?”, a documentary about the British-Chinese / British Born Chinese diaspora which is one of the smallest overseas Chinese communities. 


From One Generation to Another!

What is it like to be a son or daughter of first generation migrants far from the land of your ancestors?

Would you feel more comfortable in the country of your birth or your supposed country of origin?

From China to Malaysia to England, the Chinese have spanned across the globe and made their mark. What traditions and beliefs are passed down? How hard is it to communicate across generations? – Trailer

The documentary “How far do leaves fall?” by Director Rose Kelly and Co-Director / Editor Christopher Chow delves deep into the topics of immigration, culture and identity. Even though the film features the British Chinese community in the United Kingdom, the theme of finding a true sense of belonging is universal to one and all.

The documentary features the oral histories of the older UK Chinese generations and their stories of moving from Malaysia, Hong Kong and China and the hardships they encountered as they sought to establish themselves in their new homes. The interviews were carried out by the younger British Chinese generations for whom China is a far away distant land. For many, the UK is the only home they truly know. Via the interview process, the elder and younger generations come to have a sense of empathy and a greater respect is forged.

One main topic raised is immigration; which is a hot contentious issue sometimes viewed negatively but legal migration has many advantages:

– A greater supply of unskilled workers
– A younger workforce
– Skilled workers in understaffed sectors

Via the piece, viewers will learn about:

– Chinese and British history.
– Life in the UK as an immigrant.
– The Overseas Chinese Diasporas and their stories of hardship and triumph all around the world.
– Oral History – The verbal process of passing history down from generation to generation.

“How Far Do Leaves Fall” is an interesting look at immigration, culture and the concept of home. As millions move around the world to make a living, the core message of a sense of belonging and identity will resonate with many.

The documentary “How Far Do Leaves Fall?” examines the lives of young second generation British Chinese in the United Kingdom. On the surface, the piece discusses immigration but delves deeper into the importance of culture and identity. Though featuring the British Chinese community, its themes of a sense of belonging and discovering your roots are universal to all.


We had the chance to interview one of the co-directors, Hong Kong born Christopher Chow. A one-time psychology student whom turned to films, Christopher is currently freelancing in London, Christopher has worked for various productions, ranging from corporate films, music videos, feature film (Dream On Films), and TV programmes (National Geographic Channel, TVBS-E). Here, he discusses existentialism, Steven Spielberg and randomly waking up one day to pursue his film making dreams!

Christopher Chow – CC
Interviewer- Chris Lau

How did the documentary “How far do Leaves fall?” originate?

CC: The film was part of a wider oral history project by the London based charity CMHA, and it was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (UK).

The project began with two aims: first is to document the experiences and feelings of the Chinese whom migrated to UK many years ago, and how they and their British-born children feel about integrating into the British society. The second aim is encourage young volunteers to participate in the production of all aspects of the oral history project.

How well was the documentary received? How did young people react?

CC: The young people showed a lot of interest in both the issues raised in the documentary, and some were keen to get involved in volunteering for the next oral history project. A lot of them had the similar feelings as the young interviewees featured in the film, and they felt they could really relate to them.

They thought that their parents didn’t understand them and they found it hard to juggle their tradition Chinese family views, and integrating and blending into the everyday British culture.

The piece analyses culture and identity; how important are these concepts for young people?

CC: Everybody goes through a period of identity crisis one way or another, and it might come at different ages. Many young British Chinese want to blend in more within their British schools and friends, so they reject their traditional Chinese family lifestyle and values, which is totally understandable, because it’s tough enough to be a teenager already, and on top they have to deal with their additional cultural identity crisis.

As the young people grow up and mature, they are much more comfortable with who they are, and they stop rejecting their Chinese background, and some begin to appreciate the beauty of their heritage. Many interviewees in the film mentioned they are now (in their 20s & 30s) making much more of an effort to catch up with the lost years of disassociating with their heritage. They now see their distant families more often, and make more effort when it comes to Chinese festivals.

Do you feel more Chinese or more British? Does it really matter?

CC: I came over to study in the UK when I was only 11. Maybe because of all the TV and films I have watched about the UK, I didn’t feel foreign at all, apart from the fact that I didn’t speak much English, but it was the slower pace lifestyle and the cooler climate, which suited me very well.

On the other hand, I studied in an English boarding school, and I didn’t feel like I totally fitted in. I tried my best, but I guess the British just always saw me as a foreigner. But then majority of the times, things came very naturally to me, and I wouldn’t even think that I wasn’t British.

Personally, I don’t think it matters so much whether you believe you are Chinese or British, because that is a difference between nationalities, but it doesn’t define who you are as a person. It is very normal to generalize a race or a nation of people, but we should focus more on ourselves as individuals.

Did you ever question your identity growing up?

CC: Yes I did question my identity, but it was more existential rather than cultural. I guess I don’t really see people differently wherever they come from or the shade of their skin tones.

I think there are similar types of people in all continents, and so I just see people as people. Just like when I was in school, I didn’t really see myself as Chinese, not that I was intentionally rejecting it, and nor have I ever felt totally British.

I questioned more along the line, why am I here? Or does it even matter that I’m here? It was these questions that kept me occupied during my shift from adolescence to adulthood.

Did you always want to be a film director? Has it always been a passion?

CC: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a scientist or policeman then when I got older I wanted to become a teacher. I guess I have always been very good at comforting and motivating people, so I thought I could be a good teacher.

I loved watching movies. My parents were always busy, so they rarely went to the cinema with me. I spent many hours of my childhood and adolescence watching movies on TV, VHS, and LD. When I talked to some of my fellow filmmakers, often they are surprised at how well I remember the story lines in older movies, where they would only remember a few memorable scenes and how the characters looked!

So, movies have always been my passion, but it just never occurred to me that I would be making them. Only until I was in university studying psychology; one night I just woke up, with no prior related dreams, I decided to become a script writer. Then my friend suggested to me to take a film making course, and see where it takes me, and that was it. I realized I wanted to be a filmmaker.

What steps did you take to achieve your dream?

CC: I guess I have always known what I wanted to do, right from the day when I told my mum that I wanted to study in the UK by myself, and I was 10 then. I like to follow my instinct and my passion in doing particular subjects. One thing for sure is that the path I have been taking has always (unconsciously) steered me towards understanding human emotions, which is where my passion lies.

So I went to London and studied film making for a year, and since then I have been busy working, constantly networking and planning future projects. The key is to keep yourself busy and continue to motivate yourself, and cross your fingers that all these effort will one day come to fruition.

Do you have any advice for budding film makers? Just how glamorous is the industry?

CC: The industry isn’t glamorous at all. The only glamorous bit is the red carpets and the major film festivals. Usually it’s very down to earth, but there are a lot of egos flying around all the time, which is very hard to stand sometimes. Unfortunately, this industry does attract this type of people. Sometimes I do wonder if I am too selfless to be a filmmaker, and my other selfless friends agree with me.

My advice would be, if you have the passion to make films, to tell stories, and to connect with another human being, then just go for it. I think it doesn’t matter whether your passion is in film making or pottery making. You only live once, so why not.

A Vast Potential – Mongolian Steppe Overs and Flourishing Future (Charity Based in Mongolia Helping Street Kids)

First Published here:

Pictures – Chris KL Lau


Mongolia is at once desolate, stark, bleak and isolated as it is stunning, beautiful, rugged and friendly. It is a country of extreme contrasts and mystery. The land and its people are intricately connected and the people of Mongolia are as tough as the terrain that they occupy yet radiate a kindness and neighborly warmth like no other in the world.


Mongolia football, like the country itself, is full of potential though still far from reaching the great heights it could. Mongolian football is still in its early developmental stage and although the Mongolian Football Federation was founded in 1959, the Mongolian national team “The Blue Wolves” were not affiliated with FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation until 1998!

Most other Asian nations had joined as far back at the fifties and the sixties so it is safe to say that Mongolia needs to catch up.

Mongolia are currently ranked 185 in the world in the FIFA Rankings and reached their highest placing of 160 in August 2011. The Mongolian league is known as the Niislel League and the current champions are Erchim; the league is comprised of mainly local players and a smattering of foreign imports.

The Mongolian Football Federation are making the correct steps towards professionalism and in July 2013, hosted a one-month “Children-Football-Future” grassroots project that culminated in a one-day festival in celebration of Asian Football Confederation’s Grassroots Year 2013.


With their project partner ‘MCS Coca Cola’ LLC, the Federation organized the events for children aged between six and twelve to promote a greater level of interest and participation amongst Mongolian youths. With the help of FIFA, new pitches are being constructed, old ones renovated and training is being given to referees and coaches to take Mongolian football to the next level.

Mongolia follows the pattern of other developing nations in terms of sports; there is wealth of talent to be found at youth level and on the streets. Like their counterparts in Europe, Africa and South America, Mongolian youth love football and dream of greater opportunities beyond their circumstances.

Mongolians are famed for their horse riding and wrestling skills yet football is clearly the most popular participation and viewing sport for this sports loving populace. Such is the unifying strength of global football, that even in the most isolated areas of Mongolia, people know about Messi, Real Madrid, Ronaldo, Manchester United and all the big, global teams.


Unfortunately due to the lack of proper infrastructure and financial resources, Mongolian football clearly has not hit the heights it is so capable of. Even though Mongolia has seen a greater level of foreign investment through the oil and mining industries, this new injection of wealth has not seeped down to the overall general population.

Extreme poverty is a marked part of everyday life and the statistics are harrowing; thirty six percent of all Mongolians live below the poverty line and thirty percent of Mongolians do not have access to safe water.


Added to the freezing cold winters which can see temperatures drop to minus thirty and forty celsius then the opportunities for Mongolian kids to develop and build upon their sporting capabilities are drastically reduced.

The majority of children are expected to work from a young age to support their families. Sadly in extreme cases, children are seen as a burden and are released to the harsh streets of the capital, Ulaan Baatar, to fend for themselves.

Once children are lost to the streets, it becomes a matter of survival and the basic needs, such as shelter, food and drink, become a priority. Everything else such as education and sports, sadly, fades into the background.

One of the charities based in Mongolia helping Mongolian street children to regain a more stable position in life is Flourishing Future. It was established in 2001 and its founders were Aase Simms from Norway, Susan Griffeth from the USA and Ruthild Beck from Germany.


In 2001, the doors opened to the first community center located in the heart of Mongolia’s slum area called the “Ger” district. The goal was to meet the needs of the most impoverished families and prevent children from winding up on the streets of Ulaan Baatar.

Flourishing Future is reaching its target goal of intervening in the lives of families with the hope to prevent a child from ever having to live on the street. With donations from all over the world, they strive to provide many essential services such as providing food and shelter for abandoned children.


Today, the organization is overseen by Troy and Shari Tvrdik from the USA, and Siew Ling Low from Singapore with a full Mongolian staff who have a passion for their country and the ger district community.

The second community center is in the process of being built in another impoverished ger district of Ulaan Bataar, the coldest capital city in the world! Every child saved from the street has a greater chance to fulfill their potential in life, be it in academics, the arts or sports.


The Future

Mongolian football, like the country itself, has a wealth of talent and resources, which simply needs the correct guidance and infrastructure in order to reach the newer heights. Hopefully with a greater level of professionalism, the “Blue Wolves” will find their bite and make an impact on the world stage.

For more information on Flourishing Future, please go here:

To donate to Flourishing Future, please go here:!donate/c1ghi

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Walking Home From Mongolia – The Road Less Travelled (again!) with Rob Lilwall (Global Adventurer, Motivational Speaker and Author)

First published here:

By Christopher KL Lau

What compels a person to give up everything and cycle across the world? What compels them to attempt something similar and walk in a general southward direction from Mongolia to Hong Kong via China! These are the fascinating questions that global explorer and author, Rob Lilwall, will answer.

Rob Lilwall, Walking Home From Mongolia.

Rob Lilwall Walking through the Gobi Desert

For the average person, traveling means so many things; to some, the chance to travel is to experience the world in all its wonder and beauty. To others, travel is an arduous task full of obstacles and uncertainties; to others, it is the combination of both the exploration and challenges which makes it so compelling and absorbing.

Rob Lilwall is a true adventurer in all senses of the word and by simply taking the path less travelled, he has transformed his life beyond his wildest imagination; he is now a motivational speaker, a published author and has his own National Geographic show.

An adventurer by heart, at the age of 27, he quit his teaching job and set off on his three year, ‘Cycling Home From Siberia’, expedition in September 2004. Three years is a long time and a person can gain a vast amount of knowledge and life experiences to share with others keen to learn, so upon completing ‘Cycling Home From Siberia’, Rob then lived in London for two and a half years, lectured extensively, wrote his first book (published by Hodder & Stoughton), and made a six-part TV series (with National Geographic Channel) about his bicycle expedition.

Rob Lilwall, Walking Home From Mongolia.

Walking Home From Mongolia

Rob Lilwall, Walking Home From Mongolia.

Viewing the Great Wall of China from a distance

To further his religious interests, he also completed a theology diploma at Oxford University, and carried out two shorter expeditions, this time on foot: Walking a full lap of the M25 as well as walking through Israel and the West Bank. He also managed to get married as he also met his wife via this travels as he journeyed through Hong Kong on his first epic trip! Travel tend to always change a person for the better; there were no doubt times where Rob Lilwall had to become more optimistic, sharp, insightful and shrewd than he would be in normal circumstances to complete his journey.

Having spent three years cycling from sub-zero Siberia to London is enough to put some people off traveling for the rest of their lives, but to Rob Lilwall; it simply meant that there was yet another unbeaten path for him to conquer and of course, yet another documentary to film and a book to write.

Those who love travel are always looking for another reason or excuse to wander off the beaten path again so in November 2011, Rob Lilwall and expedition filmmaker, Leon McCarron, set off on an epic 5,000 km winter expedition through the heart of China.

Instead of cycling this time, they would walk, yes walk, all the way back down from Mongolia to Hong Kong. Carrying all of their gear, they started amidst the wastelands of Outer Mongolia from where they head south by foot through the Gobi Desert.

Rob Lilwall, Walking Home From Mongolia.

Cave Village in Shanxi Province

Here, they would encounter extremes of weather and of course, the isolation and wilderness.  In the midst of all the walking were stunningly beautiful landscapes and unforgettable characters. From Mongolia, they then crossed into China, followed the Great Wall down to the turbulent waters of the Yellow River and walked alongside it downstream to the legendary city of Xian. Leaving the water, they then hiked onwards through the snow-capped mountains of central China, until finally they reach their finishing point at the glittering skyscrapers of Hong Kong, in May 2012.

The expedition has been commissioned to become a television series, and it will also act as a sequel to Rob’s televised three-year ‘Cycling Home From Siberia’ expedition. Rob is currently based in Hong Kong and continues with his speaking, writing and adventure career, as well as working as a fund raiser for the charity Viva that works with children at risk around the world. His latest book “Walking Home From Mongolia” was launched at the end of 2013.

Rob Lilwall, Walking Home From Mongolia.

Taking a break and stretching in the Gobi Desert

Rob Lilwall, Walking Home From Mongolia.

Along the banks of the Yellow River


In an exclusive interview, Rob Lilwall took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions.

Rob Lilwall: RL
Chris Lau: CL

CL: “What compelled you to go to Siberia and take the long way home? Where did this wanderlust come from?”

RL: “I had been a geography teacher after I left university which was my first full-time proper job but at the same time I was always interested in going on adventures. After teaching for a couple of years, a number of different factors came together and I decided that now was the time to go on a really big adventure. I was always interested in riding a bike across Asia and this idea had always been at the back of my mind. A friend of mine who was cycling all over the place and all over the world emailed me to ask me to ride across the Asia Pacific and I I thought to myself that if I don’t do it now then I never will or it will be a lot harder if I don’t do it now. I quit my job, brought myself a one way ticket and took my bike to North-East Russia and it took me about three years to cycle back!

First of all, I went through Russia in the winter, got to Japan and at that point, me and my friend split up and decided to cycle back separately. I cycled down to Australia which took about another year and a half and it took about another year to get back to London via Tibet and Afghanistan. I thought I would get back into teaching but a few other things came into play and I got a book deal and the National Geographic channel brought my  video footage for my show. I also started speaking a lot, mainly motivational speaking and I met Christine who I had met as I cycled through Hong Kong. She was then working in London, so we got married and then moved back to Hong Kong. After two years of  being married, I decided to go on another expedition where I flew to Mongolia and instead of cycling, I walked home! So this was my new expedition, ‘Walking Home from Mongolia’ where I basically walked back through China to Hong Kong”.

Walking Home From Mongolia with Rob Lilwall.

Leon scrambling along the banks of the Yellow River, Shanxi Province

CL: “Was it easy for you to drop everything and go? Many people would like to undertake an adventure like yours but their day to day circumstances simply does not allow them the opportunity?”

RL: “It wasn’t very difficult for me. It quite scary to leave it all behind but I was single, I didn’t have a mortgage and it is reasonably easy to go back to teaching after taking a couple of years out so in that sense it is pretty easy. On another level, most people have more opportunities then they think. I mean it is very hard to go away for three years in certain situations but a lot of people can take sabbaticals and take a bit of time out between jobs. Obviously if you have a young family then that makes it a lot harder but if your kids are not small, you can still go on trips and quite long ones, not quite three years; you can still on go decent length trips if you are prepared to make some sacrifices but it is good to remember that the winner in life is not gong to be the person with the biggest bank balance in the cemetery!  A lot of people could do trips but there are a lot of reasons to stop them doing so but they can get around them if they really wanted too.”

Walking Home From Mongolia with Rob Lilwall.

Rob Walking Along an Inner Mongolian Highway

CL: “What did you learn about yourself and human condition on your last trip?”

RL: “I will talk about both trips. I think I learnt a lot of good and bad about the hospitality and kindness. Overall more good, I encountered a great level of hospitality. Total strangers have looked after me, be it a Russian gold miner in the middle of Siberia or a Mongolian nomad in the middle of the Gobi desert or a village in the middle of a jungle in PNG. I have met so many people who have looked after me and it has been a very wonderful experience. On the darker side, I have been robbed at gun point in Russia, I was robbed in the Philippines and sometimes you see some people simply being cruel to each other. Sometimes I placed myself through some testing situations and sometimes, I saw good things in myself, sometimes I was braver than I thought I was and sometimes I saw a lot of bad things, Sometimes I was selfish and self-centered.

Walking Home From Mongolia with Rob Lilwall.

Rob & Leon almost in Hong Kong

CL: “Is it always as glamorous as it sounds? Sometimes, these trips just seem plain mundane?”

RL: “Yes, that’s a very good point! Sometimes when you watch the National geographic television show, you would think it would be one adventure after the next. The reality is that nine days out of ten, not much happens! You get up and get on a bike and cycle for twelve hours then go to bed. Or you get up and walk for twelve hours and then go to bed. You might see a few beautiful things and you might meet some friendly people. but nothing super exciting happens and hour after hour, you are kind of lost in your own thoughts! And it can be like a slog and that is like all of life, when you have to get from A to B, in whatever you are doing in life.”

CL: “Is there any single outstanding memory or are there to many to select from?”

RL: “When you are at the end of one stage of one part of an expedition and entering the next, it is always magical. When we walked out of the Gobi desert and reached a town on the Chinese border, it was amazing as we had been in the desert for two weeks and then suddenly we were in an industrial town and it was quite an amazing experience! When we tried to find the Great Wall in Shanxi province, on its own in the countryside, it was amazing. When we found the Yellow River, it was amazing! It was amazing moments like that which stand out then actual landmarks. Some of hospitality as well, for example on Chinese New Year’s eve, we were walking along the Yellow River and it was night-time as we were behind schedule and as we were walking into this city, all of China was having a party and there were fireworks going off. Leon (Cameraman) and I, we were still walking, we were feeling lonely, tried and homesick and we were looking into everyone’s windows and everyone was getting ready for their family banquets and suddenly this car pulled up next to us and this guy shouted to us, “What are you doing?” We said we were walking to Hong Kong and then we said “Well come back to my family’s house for dinner!” So we marked our spot on the mark and he took us back for this wonderful Chinese New year dinner. Really magical and special!”

Rob Lilwall, Walking Home From Mongolia.

Chinese New Year, Hequ County, Shanxi Province

CL: “Before your journey began, did you have any perception of certain peoples, countries or cultures?”

RL: “Often before I go to a country, I will research and read up a few good books so normally, I would know a little bit about the country and what to expect and what the people might be like. I guess when you get there, it is always an extraordinary experience; going to Japan for the first time and going round China! You always learn a lot. In places like Afghanistan and Iran  which maybe on television may have a bad reputation, you sort of think that everyone there will be a terrorist. A vast majority of people are fine and obviously you have to be careful, very careful sometimes! You realize that most people are normal people trying to live a peaceful life and that’s always nice to learn.

CL: “Can anyone attempt this feat? Do you have any advice for people who want to do something similar? Can anyone do this type of trip?”

RL: “I think pretty much anyone can do it. I have a friend who cycled from England to Australia and when he set off, he was something ridiculous like eighteen stone…a really fat guy and when he got there, he was the same weight as me! He had lost all his weight! He wasn’t very fit when he started but he got fit as he went so this is why I think that almost anyone can do these trips! You have to be careful if you are going into more extreme weather obviously as you certainly are in danger if you don’t know what you are doing. If the weather is OK then the number one danger you will face is the traffic. You have to be careful as cars are dangerous especially if you are on a bike. It was always good to go on a few shorter trips. It is always better to go on a few shorter trips and test out your equipment, learn what you are doing, camp in the wild. For example, if you are going on a six month trip and then it is good to maybe go on a one week trip or maybe a two-week trip. A six month trip and a two-year trip wont be that much different in many ways. If you have never done it then maybe do a few trips with a friend as it will give you a give you a lot more confidence and experience if you want to do a solo trip.”

Walking Home From Mongolia with Rob Lilwall.

Inner Mongolia

CL: “During your trip, did you ever feel lonely?”

RL: “Yeah, I did feel lonely though I am someone who is relatively content in my own company. I have ways to help with my own loneliness. I always had a books, or a Kindle so I could read when camping on my own. I always had an iPod so I could listen to music so those things helped. I would be able to an internet cafe to communicate unless I was in the desert. I am Christian so I would also pray.”

CL: “Do you ever just want to give up and jump on a plane and go home?”

RL: “It was pretty rare for me to give up as I knew that if I was having a bad day then I knew it was just a bad day and week. I knew if I kept on going then I would have some really good experiences. I knew if i was having a bad day or week then got on a plane to go home then I knew I would be happy for a few days with hot pizza, showers and family / friends then a few days later, I would regret it forever; all the distance I had gone would all be wasted!”

The book “Walking Home from Mongolia” is now out in all good Hong Kong Book stores.

Walking Home from Mongolia on Amazon – Amazon – Hodder & Stoughton

Walking Home From Mongolia with Rob Lilwall.

Dragging “Molly” through the desert

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Interview with “HUMANITY IN FOCUS”: Focusing on the Real Issues – PART 1

Originally Published in October 2009


Dynamic, dedicated and caring; all terms used to describe the youthful members of “Humanity in Focus”. HIF is a Hong Kong based non-governmental organization striving to make a real difference in the world around them. Today’s youths are the dreamers of tomorrow so via this informative interview, we learn about the work HIF does to give back and empower those less fortunate in society. Here, they share their opinions and thoughts on their work and how their lives have changed due to their recent experiences.

Humanity in Focus (HIF) – Various Members
Interviewer– Chris Lau

How did “Humanity in Focus” begin? What are the core ideals behind the organization? What inspired you to start?

Humanity in Focus – Wendy (Founder and Youth Consultant):
HIF was founded by 5 students from Hong Kong University who returned from a one-month volunteering field-trip in Cambodia. This life-changing experience had not only enabled us to witness inequality and poverty in its ugliest forms, but more importantly it opened our eyes to the interconnections between our lives in Hong Kong and those of our impoverished neighbors from developing countries. Out of empathy, and more importantly due to a sense of responsibility as young global citizens, we created HUMANITY IN FOCUS hoping to fill-in some of the gaps we saw in Cambodia and back in our home city.

We hope that through carrying out small-scale development projects in rural and urban areas of developing countries, we would help to provide those children and families in need with necessary support and eventually empower them to escape from the poverty cycle.

More importantly, we believe in the power of youth to make a difference in this global village. Through public awareness campaigns and youth education events, we hope to inspire and train young people in our society and in developing countries to become advocates for changes in their societies and to bring about a more just and sustainable community for humanity.

Was it hard to begin these operations? What were the main challenges you had to overcome?

Humanity in Focus – Yves (Founder) :
It was not hard to start operations. With a small number of people, we could communicate efficiently and effectively through emails and meetings. Decisions could be made within a short period of time as consensus could be reached easily.

Yet, the main challenges at the very beginning were how to prove our credibility and extend our network and connections in Hong Kong. As university students, our connections were limited and it was difficult for us to find sponsorship and funding for our projects. On the other hand, the general public would treat us as “kids” with regards to humanitarian work. Therefore, we contacted our professors and staff at HKU, groups such as Oxfam, to seek their advice and comments. We came up with an organizational structure and dealt with the legal procedures to set up an organization under the Societies Ordinance, in order to show that we were serious in running an NGO (non-government organization).

The other challenge was how to keep a good and stable relationship with our partners in Cambodia. As we did not know how to speak Khmer, we relied on our partner in Cambodia to work on our development projects in Cambodia. Due to different cultures and working styles, it was a bit difficult to communicate properly with our partner and thus this affected the progress of our development projects in Cambodia. Therefore, we worked closely with our partners in Cambodia via emails and msn, so that we would understand each other more. The progress of our projects has improved with better communication.


Your slogan is “By the youth, through the youth, to the youth of the world”. As the first student run NGO in Hong Kong, do you consider yourselves role models for others to follow? Do you receive any assistance and support?

Humanity in Focus – Georgina (Founder) and Jessica (2007-2008 Spokesperson):
One of the most remarkable aspects of our organization is that all the activities, ranging from devising the organization structure, administrative works and tasks, to the overseas project development projects are all led by young people from all walks of life with a diversity of background and expertise. We were fortunate enough to realize our responsibilities as global citizens after our journey to Cambodia, hence we bore the mission to tell people around us about what’s happening on the other end of the earth; and most importantly, to take ACTION. We truly believe in the potential of youth. We hope that young leaders are nurtured to become global advocates and dedicate themselves to the international security field in the future and make a vow to “Make Poverty History!”

We realize that as a youth-run NGO, we are closely connected with other youth in Hong Kong and that we are at a very advantageous position to influence our friends, our fellow classmates and other youth to realize their responsibility as a global citizen and to take action now. In this way, we might be role models in terms of WHEN to take action, as we are determined to take action NOW, whereas others might take action only in the future after earning enough money. We have proved to others that one does not need to be in a position of fame and wealth to make a difference! However, we may not necessarily be the best role models in terms of HOW to take action; since we are still learning in many aspects (such as development projects) from others too!

We consider HIF as an interactive youth platform where we share our awareness on global issues and make a commitment to educate youth and children in impoverished countries. HIF is a place for youth to pursue their dreams and to take action together as a group.

Others may devise different ways of taking action, even though we may be pursuing the same dream; and we truly treasure others’ creative and innovative ideas. We appreciate and fully support other youth action groups which are all “filling in the gaps” and contributing to other arenas in civil society. We are also learning from others in terms of HOW to take action. And we believe that this is the most interesting part of “through the youth”, to collaborate with different youth and to learn from others in the process.

When we first started off in 2006, as Hong Kong’s first entirely youth-run international aid and development organization, we were lucky enough to support and encouragement from different institutions and individuals:

Since HIF was founded by participants of the Project SEE Program, organized by the General Education Unit of HKU, we received kind support from HKU staff, mainly from the General Education Unit and CEDARS. We are also glad to have experienced advisors, like Mr. Chong Chan Yau, the then Oxfam Director, Mr. Albert Chau, the Dean of Student Affairs and Mr. David Bagbie, the Director of Crossroads International.

We are also very glad to receive Oxfam’s support to provide funding for our Young Global Citizenship Programme, and workshops organized by Oxfam Hong Kong to give us training on the concept of “Global Citizenship”. Media support from newspapers and magazines; interviewed us and helped us to spread our the message and to tell people about our work.

Above all, HIF is supported by a group of devoted young volunteers, our own members. Though most of them are still studying and some are working, they strive to fulfill the roles and responsibilities as global citizens by making contributions to end poverty and inequality in this world.

Via your projects, what do you hope to achieve in countries such as Cambodia?

Humanity in Focus – Simon (Overseas Project Team Director 2008-2009) :
We understand every organization and every project has its own limitations. Yet these limitations are not the reasons for us to stop what we are doing, but are where we could seek improvements. Every project we hold in Cambodia has distinct and clear aims. Through these projects, we hope the core values of Humanity in Focus can be spread, and the roles of youth to improve to world can be valued. Basically our overseas projects focus on education, local empowerment and hygiene, with emphasis on not creating new troubles while solving old ones, we plan each project carefully with the help of local support in Cambodia and experienced foreign workers in Cambodia.

Amongst your peers in HK, is there interest in overseas NGO / charity work or is there still a general sense of apathy towards these issues? What can be done to change certain attitudes?

Humanity in Focus – Wendy (Founder and Youth Consultant):
Young people have gradually become more aware and interested in global and cultural issues in Hong Kong. Therefore, Cambodia is no longer a name unheard of among our peers, as it was a few years ago. However, we often find the passion to ‘make a difference’ rather short-lived among youth in HK. It is often easy to motivate youth to take part in short-term projects, yet when it comes to long term commitment say for two years or more, very few passionate youths remain.

We believe that there’s an important role for the media to play to change the attitude of youth, or the society at large, regarding their views and interest towards global humanitarian issues. When the local media is dominated by topics such as ‘young models at book fairs’ or the ‘underground marriage of celebrities’, these are unfortunately also the topics that catch the attention and dominate the discussions among HK youth rather than more serious news about Aung Sang Suu Kyi in Burma or the humanitarian crises in Darfur and Congo.

That’s why in HIF we deeply believe in the importance of Youth Education. We attempt to ‘make noise’ in the society, to share about our experiences in developing countries, to discuss and debate about humanitarian issues. We believe that youth are only empowered to make changes when they become aware of what is going on in the globe, and begin to understand and to care.

Do you have any memorable moments to share from your time in Cambodia?

Astina (Young Global Citizenship Programme 2009 Participant)
I believe many of us might have heard about the dumpsites in Cambodia before, but I can assure you that the “real thing” is nothing like anything you could possibly imagine. The largest dumpsite in Cambodia was situated in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. While Phnom Penh is “on its way” in terms of glamorous developments, and it seems like it is where people are richer as compared to those living in the villages, a group of minorities out there are still mostly forgotten and unnoticed. They do not only live on picking up garbage scraps, they are physically living on the garbage dump site.

When we arrived, we were immediately surrounded by tons of flies when we got off the coach. An exaggeration it may seem, to use the word “tons”, but the impact was indeed that dramatic to our group of students, accustomed to living in an environment with very few flies, if at all. At that moment, I felt “trapped” by flies that could at any moment invade and enter my body with the greatest “military” force backing them up. For a while, you might still be able to win the battle over them by moving around non-stop. But against this, you really have no way out – the strong smell of decomposed garbage. I remembered vividly that after the first minute of our “journey”, I asked one of our group leaders right in front of me, “Hey, are you breathing with your mouth or nose? I really can’t stand the smell when I breathe with my nose but I’m afraid if the gases are toxic, and that if I open my mouth…” Before I finished my line, he gave an answer I will never forget, “We are here only for an hour. Look at them, they are living here. This is what they are breathing in every day.” So speechless and ashamed was I, that I took a deep breath, and walked ahead without another word.

What came next was something that struck me the most. I noticed a little girl squatting beside the main road. It was not uncommon to find kids around the garbage mountain; we were even told that many were in fact born there. What was it then that drew my eyes toward this little girl? It was a pair of desperate eyes, a pair of eyes that was trying to communicate to me. I stood there, not knowing what to do. “Want to give this to her?” asked a Cambodian volunteer, at the same time giving me a pack of biscuits. I went up to the little girl, and knelt down, saying, “Hello!” to her in Khmer (Cambodia language), and asked her for her name. There was no reply. I then gave her the pack of biscuits. She did not seem to know that it was something edible and just grabbed it tightly in her hand. So I opened the pack of biscuits for her. Again, she grabbed it tightly in her hand, and looked at me. I illustrated to her with my body language that she could put the biscuit into her mouth. She hesitated for a while, and did as I told her. After the first bite, she immediately finished the piece of biscuit as if she had not eaten anything for a long time.

During that short one minute or so, she did not say anything, not even a smile. But there was now a fragile linkage between us. That little girl must have been very lost at that moment – something between fear and security, hopelessness and care. I saw the simplest form of “sadness” in her. There were no tears, but you could naturally see it through her eyes. I started to wonder – what the life of this little girl had been like? Probably, there was never someone in her life offering her a piece of biscuit, or biscuits never came in a complete form to her…

Senia (Young Global Citizenship Programme 2008 Participant):
I was with my teammates in a village in Sihanouk-ville to do family visits when we saw a weeping woman carrying a baby in her hands. The baby was down with fever and the mother, without any money, was unable to bring her child to see the doctor. It was a Saturday and the local NGO was on holiday, which meant that the mother would have to wait till Monday until she could get help. Yet babies’ lives are fragile, and we couldn’t imagine what would happen after 2 days, so we asked our local volunteer whether we could do anything to help, but the volunteer said that it wouldn’t be wise for us to do so. So we left, sullen and with tears in our eyes.

We felt disappointed that we couldn’t do anything about the situation. In the midst of our depression, the volunteer received a phone call and said the NGO gave us permission to take the baby to the clinic. We turned back immediately with hope, and brought the mother and her baby to the clinic. The baby had gotten a fever just because there was no money to buy her any milk powder. The mother was unable to breastfeed the baby because she herself was in lack of nutrition. The father had left the family with all valuables a month ago. It was tragic. It was just a very simple cause, a cause that should have been easily fulfilled, but so simple a thing could not be done in poverty, and thus putting the life of this baby at risk. Luckily it was nothing serious and we supported the family with an additional 2 cans of milk powder. Months later, the volunteer sent us a picture of the baby through e-mail, who was healthy and happy. It touched us so much to realize that such little we did, could bring so much a change to others’ lives.

Christine (Young Global Citizenship Programme 2009 Participant):
First of all, is the family visit to the slum area; in the slum area’s visit, I can feel love and sacrifice which I cannot see even in a rich place like Hong Kong. Although every family is very poor and all of them are facing difficulties in making a living, they are willing to sacrifice their food to help their neighbors, especially for the elderly who have no earning ability. This really touched my heart and made me reflect how selfish I am as a Hong Kong citizen, who may not care about my neighbors, or the needy in Hong Kong.

The second thing that I want to share is the teaching memory in the village. No matter how far away the schools are from the student’s home, they come to class on-time every morning and wait for school to start. They treasure every opportunity to learn and have fun with us. They always carry smiles on their faces, and thank us even when we are simply giving them some color pens for drawing pictures or playing with them in the playground. Their smiles are so true that they deeply touch my heart. Although they are not rich in money terms, they have no shoes, no school bags, not even uniforms to wear, but they are rich in their hearts.

How receptive are the people whom you assist? How do you measure success?

Senia (Young Global Citizenship Programme 2008 Participant):
We have organized many educational campaigns before, from a simple way of spreading the word by family visits to distributing bicycles. It is difficult for us to define success, but we have been able to sense that Cambodians have placed more emphasis on the importance of education and have been more willing to send their children to school.

The impact of these projects is hard to measure in the short-term, but we believe that we are planting many seeds in the field which will grow into blossoms one day.

Christine (Young Global Citizenship Programme 2009 Participant):
In most cases people are very receptive when we approach them saying that we would like to help them. However, as we promote educational opportunities at our Slum Schools, people in slum area may not trust us (because we are foreigners) and doubt our teaching quality. Most would rather prefer sending their children to help with farm work instead of our Slum Schools.

I think there is a standard criterion that we can set to measure success. As long as a certain portion of community gets the message, start observing better hygiene standards, become less reluctant to send their children to school, we regard our work assuccessful already.

What I think we can do is try our best to gather more data before implementing the project to understand the local situations and think from their prospective what they need most. Besides, I think evaluating our projects and making recommendations for further improvement are essential steps to make the projects better and better.

Aside from overseas projects, what work do you perform in Hong Kong?

We believe that one must first understand before they can take action. That is why we make efforts to spread awareness among Hong Kong youth. From time to time, we hold sharing’s at different places like secondary schools and university halls to share with them our experience in Cambodia, spread to them to the concept of global citizenship, and encourage them to take action. We also keep ourselves aware of the changing global situations and hold campaigns once we realize the time is right, for example, we helped to organize a protest to request for the ceasefire in Gaza in January 2009.

Apart from advocacy, we also try to educate Hong Kong youth by other means. One of our main projects is the “Young Global Citizenship Program”, which has been organized since 2007. We provide an opportunity for enthusiastic youth to acquire hands-on experience on the situations of poverty in Cambodia. To prepare them for the trip, we organize a series of workshops for them to learn more about global issues and Cambodia. After the trip, they are highly encouraged to organize events to share with Hong Kong people what they have learnt during the trip. Many of these events are highly creative, including not only fundraising exhibitions but also walkathons and youth summits. Many of the participants join HIF as an executive committee member to continue contributing in our organization.

What are your plans for the future?

Yves (Founder) :
As an NGO, we hope that more people would recognize and acknowledge our work. Therefore, we have applied for charity status. Our charity status application is still pending under the Inland Revenue Department. We hope that we could become a charity officially in early October. This would greatly assist our fund-raising work in Hong Kong. [NOTE: HIF have been granted NGO status in October 2009].

In Hong Kong, we plan to extend our youth education works to more universities and secondary schools through campaigns and sharing’s. We will set up student branches in various universities in order to establish and strengthen our network in universities. Also, we are looking for opportunities to develop projects which empower the underprivileged in Hong Kong.

In Cambodia, we plan to extend our development projects to more regions. For instance, we plan to launch our Bike-to-School Campaign in other villages. We would learn from the errors made in our previous development projects so as to design better projects in the future. In addition, we are keen to develop new projects in Cambodia or in other developing countries as well.

Do you have any advice for other young people who are looking to contribute to, or establish a charity / NGO for an issue for which they are passionate about?

Yves (Founder) :
I think it is important to seek advice from experienced people in the field. This would avoid an unnecessary waste of time, resources, and effort. Their advice and comments could also help young people to think through the matters and to get better prepared for setting up and running a charity/ NGO. It is always easy to set up a new thing, but it is difficult to sustain the thing. But of course, don’t give up easily after hearing some discouraging words and comments. If a young person does believe in what (s)he is doing, (s)he should be encouraged to go ahead and try to realize the dream.

Wendy (Founder):
We might not be achieving big-scale changes, but you need to have the courage to do what you believe is right, and motivate those around you to do the same…And one day when you look back, you might be surprised to see that you have accomplished much more than you could have ever imagined. Dream Wild. Act Now!

First Published Here:

JACK SIM, “Toilet Man” of the World Toilet Organization: Warts and All.


Interview with Jack Sim of the World Toilet Organization! Originally published here:

Build a toilet, save the world? The answer is yes and we have tracked down toilet man himself for this exclusive interview!

Jack Sim: JS
Interviewer: Christopher KL Lau

When did the bolt of inspiration hit you to become an advocate for toilets and sanitation? Where does your motivation come from?
JS: At 40, I’ve made some money, happily married with 4 kids, and I start to ask myself: “So what’s the next big thing to do?” I looked at my ultra-high net-worth neighbors and decided that no matter how hard I worked, I cannot be the richest man even on my own street. That’s when I realized that money cannot be the currency of my life.

A person lives about 80 years. I don’t get more time even if I can get more money. Time is therefore the currency of life, and I must find purpose and meaning when spending these moments as they fade away.

That was when I read the newspaper one morning and there was Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong saying “Singaporeans should measure our graciousness by the cleanliness of our public toilets”.

I started Restroom Association in 1998 and later when I realized there were 15 toilet associations without HQ, I started World Toilet Organization. Today, we’ve 153 chapters in 53 countries.

Why do you think there are so many taboos around the concept of toilets? Do the taboos hinder the work of the WTO?
JS: When there is weakness, there is strength. Toilets are a taboo because our egos pretend that since we are beautiful people, we must not admit that we are capable of producing a pungent smell. At childhood, mothers would teach their kids never to speak about toilets if they want to be respected also to stop embarrassing us in front of guest especially during meals. Later, during schooling, they were warned that if they don’t study well, they might end up as toilet cleaners! So the stigma sticks (toilet and related things are somehow ‘shameful’).

While nobody talks about toilets, I found that if I add humor to it, the media loves it! So I took it to center-stage and the global media has been writing about it vigorously in the last eight years. Politicians, academia, UN agencies, and people in the street are now talking toilets more than ever before. We declared our founding day, 19 November, as World Toilet Day that is celebrated world-wide each year and this year, it has again taken the world by storm. I like to think I have broken the taboo on toilets forever!

So do better toilets and better sanitation lead to a more progressive society? How are the concepts of sanitation linked to economic development?
JS: The toilet is one of the best inventions in human history. Sanitation is the cheapest preventive medicine in the world. When good sanitation brings hygiene, you get healthy people who can work and produce. This is the essential passport out of poverty. When children have intestinal worms, they are tired and sleep in class. They learn less and lack nutrition with the worms sharing a large portion. Such conditions are not good for growth. Having no toilets means flies visit poop and food and diseases are also transmitted by fingers, feet, fluid, etc. When a child is sick, parents can’t work and income is lost. Illness often brings the poor to dire straits.

Singapore was a third world country in 1960s. I grew up watching our toilets improve parallel with our economic growth. Health is wealth.

What have been the World Toilet Organization’s greatest achievements to date? What would a normal sanitation project entail?
JS: WTO is an umbrella group and a service platform for collaboration in all toilet and sanitation action. It started as a 1-man-show in 2001 and now we have 8 full-time staff for our secretariat coordinating with 153 members in 53 countries matching resources to best practices to ideas to researches to media to financing to markets, etc. After the tsunami, we built public toilets in Aceh and Sri Lanka. We also partner Lien Aid in China and Cambodia.

Yet, the main problem of toilets and sanitation was about the lack of conversation. What we can’t discuss, we can’t improve. WTO has facilitated by opening up the space for the conversation and in raising the status of toilets through clever leveraging of high level leaders and platforms like World Economic Forums and Clinton Global Initiatives, people saw it as their permission to speak freely on the subject now.

Our greatest achievement to-date is in media branding toilets and sanitation and giving it global visibility and legitimacy so that the conversation flows from problems to ideas to solutions. And we did it at virtually zero cost.

How successful are the respective World Toilet Days, World Toilet College, World Toilet Summits, World Toilet Expos and Forums? How is interest generated and who attends?
JS: World Toilet Day has been a massive success. Just google it and see the many celebrations this year.

-World Toilet College has established 2 courses:

The Japanese standard Restroom Specialist Course for professionalizing the toilet cleaners and the Ecological Sanitation Course for designing rural and slum’s stand-lone sanitation treatment solution!
We are still in early days of expansion and need plenty of resources to scale up the numbers of trainers.

-World Toilet Summit & Expo is our annual event and it’s been to:

Singapore 2001 open by Minister of Health, Seoul 2002 hosted by Suwon City Mayor, Taipei 2003 open by Taiwan Toilet Association Vice-Mayor, Beijing 2004 hosted by Beijing Tourism Bureau, Belfast 2005 open by Lord Mayor Belfast, Moscow 2006 hosted by Russian Toilet Association and Mayor of Moscow, New Delhi 2007 hosted by Sulabh International and open by President Abdul Kalam, and Macau 2008 hosted by Asian Development Bank and open by Crown Prince of Holland.

-World Toilet Forum & Expo 2005 was hosted by Shanghai City Appearance and Sanitation Administrative Bureau and 2006 by Thailand Ministry of Public Health in Bangkok.

How do local communities react to your sanitation projects? How does the WTO measure success?
JS: We are yet to find effective quantitative measurements but qualitatively, any intelligent person can see the change in the world’s perception and behavior towards the subject of toilets and sanitation in the last 8 years was phenomenal.

Local community leaders are responding positively and we like to think that having the legitimacy now could help them do their work better. We continue to facilitate solutions and are now investing heavily in creating an efficient sanitation market infrastructure of demand, supply, distributions, financing, co-buying, etc.

When did the ‘toilet man’ label first arise? Do you secretly like the name?
JS: I love the name. It gives me the satisfaction and recognition of my work.

Is the World Toilet Organization more effective than the World Trade Organization?
JS: We both work hard in improving the state of Big and Small “Businesses”. I borrowed their acronym but to a good cause. When we were in Nairobi’s UNEP meeting 2 years ago, Achim Steiner, head of UNEP introduces us as the 3 WTOs: World Trade, World Tourism and World Toilet Organizations.

Where are the best toilets in the world? What would make up the perfect toilet?
JS: The best is always a safe, clean and comfortable/enjoyable place to visit and find physical and spiritual relief. It needs not be frivolous or fancy. It’s like A B C

Architecture ergonomically designed and according to the person’s work flow! Behavior will respond to environmental conditions. Cleaning and maintenance to be professionally trained and supplies like soap, water, paper, etc to be constant.

Tell the readers something they don’t know about toilets!
JS: Ask yourself how many times you visit the toilet a day. Start counting. Measure the time of your visit the next time you pee and poop. Add the times and multiply by 80 years X 365 days. You might find the answer to be 3 years non-stop in the toilets!

Got any decent toilet jokes for us?
JS: Never had a decent one! All toilet jokes are “DIRTY” jokes.

Jack Sim Biography (WTO Website)

After attaining financial independence at the age of 40, Jack decided to devote the rest of his life to social work. In 2001, Jack created the World Toilet Organization (WTO) as a global network and service platform wherein the various toilet associations, academia, government, UN agencies and toilet stakeholders can learn from one another and leverage on media and corporate support to influence governments to promote sound sanitation and public health policies.

In 2004, he was awarded the inaugural Singapore Green Plan Award 2012 by Singapore’s National Environment Agency for contribution to Environment.

In 2005, Jack founded the World Toilet College to provide high quality training in Toilet Design, Maintenance, Cleanliness and Ecological Sanitation Technologies. The college is a joint venture with Singapore Polytechnic.

Jack won the Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2006, awarded by The Schwab Foundation For Social Entrepreneurship based in Switzerland.

In 2007, Jack became one of the key members to convene the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance comprised of about 50 organizations active in the field of sanitation. That same year, he also became the first Singaporean elected to be an Ashoka Global Fellow. Ashoka is the largest social entrepreneurship support group in the world.

In January 2008, Jack was appointed a Council Member to the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council for Water Security, a Council that advises WEF on water and sanitation matters. And in May of the same year he was named a Council Member to WEF’s Global Agenda Council for Social Entrepreneur. Time Magazine named him Hero of the Environment 2008.