War baby's bite of Lamma life

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 February, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 February, 1998, 12:00am

Marching down Yung Shue Wan main street in sandals, a kaftan and baggy dhoti-style pants, his unruly ginger hair loosely pulled into a ponytail, Bobsy fits the Lamma hippy stereotype.

Laid-back as he may look, the 33-year-old Briton has led an extraordinarily full life: childhood in war-torn Beirut; a kidnapping; work as a Mr Whippy ice-cream van driver in Britain; shopkeeping in Bangkok; eight months as a yoga-practising hermit; now a Lamma environmentalist, designer and vegetarian restaurateur.

'None of it was planned,' said Bobsy, who prefers to use only one name, slurping a glass of carrot juice. 'I live in the now. I don't dwell in the past, and I don't think about the future.' The second child of a British mother and a half-British half-Lebanese banker father, he lived in Christian East Beirut until he was 18.

In the broad boulevards and souks, or markets of the city, then the prosperous financial capital of the Middle East, Bobsy's first 10 years passed peacefully.

He grew up speaking English, French and Arabic, and attended a local Lebanese school.

But in 1975 Christian rightists opened fire on the mostly Muslim merchants in the souks, igniting a bitter civil war, which lasted until 1990.

Bobsy's mother and younger sister quickly left the city for Britain. Bobsy and his elder brother, now an engineer in London, remained in Beirut with their father, who still lives in the Lebanese capital.

'We always thought the war would be over in three months, or next year,' said Bobsy.

'When the bombing came everybody hid in the basement for a few days, and then, when it was quieter, everybody would go out, back to school, back to work, for a month or so until the bombing started again.

'There were moments of extreme fear for a little kid, but somehow you accept this is how it is, and you learn to live with it.' One nasty moment came soon after the start of the conflict. Bobsy and 35 school friends were kidnapped on their way home on the school bus by three armed men. They were released after several hours of pleading from the driver.

'It wasn't anything like Terry Waite,' said Bobsy, referring to the British hostage whom Muslim militants held in Lebanon for five years. 'But for an 11-year-old it was pretty scary.' His life since has been no more conventional. At 18, Bobsy left Beirut for Britain, taking dead-end jobs for four years, including work as an ice-cream vendor in the seaside town of Brighton.

'That was a great job,' he said. 'Kids came running up with handfuls of 2p and 5p coins, and they point to the biggest ice-cream. You ended up giving it to them for free.' Bobsy returned to Beirut in 1987 to start a clothing company with a childhood friend. The war, although still grinding on, was going through a quiet period.

The pair had the clothes made in Thailand and sold them to boutiques and department stores in Beirut. The business took off and soon Bobsy was driving through the bombed-out streets in a shiny black Range-Rover.

'It was a safe and wise car to have. As you can imagine driving there was rather chaotic,' he said. 'We were young and crazy, we spent money like there was no tomorrow.' Fierce fighting broke out again in 1989, forcing Bobsy and his partner to flee. They lost everything but a bag of samples.

'We were being bombed left, right and centre. Our lives were in danger, so we had to get out.' Shelling prevented their Cyprus-bound ferry from docking, so it laid anchor out to sea.

In a storm one night, the two joined hundreds of other desperate passengers on a fishing boat trying to reach the ship. With the weather deteriorating the small boat had to turn back to the war-torn city with bombs landing in the water all around.

'My partner and I put our passports in plastic bags,' he said. 'We were convinced the boat was about to capsize.' A week later the pair fought their way on to a speedy hovercraft sent to fetch refugees.

With stock mouldering in an inaccessible Beirut warehouse, the pair flew to a London trade show in a last-ditch attempt to salvage their business by drumming up fresh orders in Europe.

They failed, and Bobsy reached another turning point. Two women asked whether the partners stocked environmentally friendly clothing, made with cotton grown organically.

'That struck a deep chord,' said Bobsy. 'I fell in love with that idea. I haven't looked back since.' Broke, Bobsy's partner returned to his family in Lebanon. On a whim, Bobsy spent everything he had on a plane ticket to Bangkok.

'I had no money, but I had this jewel of an idea - environmentally friendly T-shirts.' He borrowed small amounts of money from contacts among manufacturers, made 20 T-shirts at a time, and sold them to friends and acquaintances.

Business snowballed, he learned passable Thai, and four months later opened a store with a Thai partner on Siam Square called the Environmentally Friendly Clothing Shop.

'There was a message on everything I designed, raising environmental awareness,' said Bobsy. 'That became my passion, my vocation, my calling.

'It was a pioneering move. Environmental awareness in Thailand was pretty limited, but it worked, although we didn't make much money.' After three years Bobsy felt it was time to move on again.

'I don't really know why,' he said. 'I always go with the flow, and the flow was pointing towards Hong Kong.' He left the shop to his partner and, broke yet again, Bobsy visited friends in Mid-Levels and slept on their sofas for three months before renting a room in Happy Valley.

He contacted local environmentalist groups, such as Friends of the Earth, and occasionally worked for them. One job, in 1993, entailed the design of a campaign called Trees for Life.

The same year he started his own one-man environmentally friendly T-shirt company, GAIA, or Global Awareness Inner Awakening.

'Environmental awareness had started to grow in Asia by then. It was really happening.' The firm exported T-shirts to Southeast Asia and Japan, as well as selling them to local shops and department stores.

And he started a charity, Action for a Better Living Environment (ABLE), which now has 20 members.

'We've planted thousands of trees, cleaned dozens of beaches, and worked with many schools,' he said.

The 10 bright-yellow paper recycling bins placed near the ferry piers in Central are another ABLE project.

Bobsy discovered Lamma one weekend in 1993. By the Sunday evening he had moved to the island - living in the open near an isolated beach for eight months.

'I didn't have any money,' he said. 'But I also wanted to be closer to nature.

'In the rainy season I moved into a makeshift shack; in the summer I just slept under the stars next to a fire.

'It's a beautiful spot. I'd just discovered yoga, so I practised yoga, did meditation.' Occasionally he would smarten up, and go to meetings in the city with environmental groups, or for GAIA. 'It was a powerful experience, and a healthy lifestyle.' At the beginning of 1994, Bobsy moved into a traditional one-room village house on the outskirts of Yung Shue Wan, where he still lives, alone.

In the past two years demand for GAIA T-shirts has slipped, something which does not seem to worry Bobsy.

'I've survived. I'm not interested in money. I'm interested in healthy living, good-quality lifestyle, fresh air, good water, healthy food, fitness, happiness, spirituality,' he said.

His latest project is a vegetarian restaurant on Lamma called the Bookworm Cafe, which he sub-let with a partner for two years in January from its owner, Queenie So Lai-chun, a Lamma organic vegetable farmer.

'It's really hard work. Running a restaurant is a full-on job, and I'm juggling volunteering for environmental work and trying to scrape a living from GAIA.

'I've suddenly found myself not the master of my own time.' Characteristically, Bobsy has no plans.