RHYTHM OF LIFE I was raised on my grandparents’ farm in Taiwan and it was idyllic. I spent my early years waking with the roosters before dawn, accompanying my grandparents to sell vegetables at the morning markets and running around barefoot in the rice paddies until bedtime. I loved catching frogs using a stick, string and a worm. Our days followed nature’s rhythm. It wasn’t always easy – sometimes a typhoon or pest wiped out the crops. And it wasn’t a luxurious life, but it was so peaceful in its simplicity. I think those early experiences formed a “natural and sustainable living” ethos within my core that I’ve never lost.
SURREAL LIFE When I was six, my family moved to the United States for my father’s job. We lived in the suburbs of New Jersey. I had a comfortable upbringing, but I remember getting off the school bus one day, looking around my neighbourhood, and thinking it resembled a scene from the movie Edward Scissorhands. Rows and rows of cookie-cutter houses, with white picket fences, manicured lawns and sprinklers that go on at the same time every morning. I couldn’t identify what was wrong with that picture, but I knew it didn’t feel right.
CLIMBING THE LADDER Despite this unease, I was drawn towards the standard measures of success – the great American dream. I graduated from Princeton and imagined I’d become CEO of a Fortune 500 company, so I moved to New York City and started climbing the corporate ladder. I spent eight years in management consulting and business development, then moved to an international law firm to establish their marketing department. At that time, big law firms were merging and legal marketing became a hot – and lucrative – new career path. I worked long hours under intense pressure. The wins were euphoric but after four years, I reached a tipping point. I had multiple proposals to finish in the same week and for three consecutive days I slept in the conference room, showered at the gym, bought a new suit and headed back to my desk. Afterwards, on the bus ride home, I felt myself going over the edge. It wasn’t just exhaustion, but the feeling of being completely hollow and dead inside. I realised I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life making rich lawyers richer. I needed to do something with a sense of meaning.
GETTING OFF THE TREADMILL I was renovating my apartment and stumbled on Natural Home, a magazine about green building and sustainable living. It opened up a whole new world to me. I knew nothing about being “green” but I decided to transition from legal marketing to green marketing.
Two weeks later, I flew to San Francisco for a green trade show and attended a lecture given by the Solar Living Institute, an amazing organisation that runs a sustainable living centre and offers workshops on organic farming, renewable energy and green building. I signed up for an internship on the spot, quit my job, sold my apartment and bought a tent and a sleeping bag. I didn’t realise until I arrived that the interns live in a kind of commune. We grew our own food, cooked together, ate together, played music around fire circles, and helped run the workshops. I wasn’t keen on peeing in the woods at night, but I loved the outdoor showers. Those were the most liberating and blissful five months of my life. Before the centre was established, the area was completely barren – it had one tree and was used as a dump for old vehicles. In 10 years, it had been transformed into a garden of eden. There were thousands of species of plants and animals, and enough crops to feed everyone. It showed me how quickly it’s possible to restore nature, and gave me a sense of optimism and hope.
CACAO AND CONSERVATION I’d got a solid grounding in the basics of sustainable living, but I was still full of questions. How do you define sustainability? What does it look like, and how do you achieve it? So I went to Belize and spent two weeks in the jungle with organic cacao farmers, learning about permaculture – a method for humans to design our world in the way nature would. I experienced a series of epiphanies. It was like having veil after veil swept away from my eyes and being able to see clearly for the first time. When I came back to the US, I suffered intense reverse culture shock. I couldn’t believe I had grown up with such a limited world view, or how detached mainstream lifestyles had become from nature. It hit me hard and I was utterly depressed.
I wasn’t ready to return to the corporate world, so I embarked on another 18 months of unpaid environmental internships. Over time I realised that, unlike many environmentalists I met, I could operate in the mainstream world – I knew how to talk to lawyers, bankers, government officials and the general public. I eventually came full circle and decided the best way to contribute would be to influence change from within the establishment.
I completed a master’s degree in environmental management at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. I’d realised if I pursued green marketing, as I’d originally planned, I would still be promoting the creation of more and more stuff. Instead I was drawn to nature conservation. It’s a fascinating sector, full of smart, passionate people, and I found their mission – to protect what might otherwise be lost – deeply compelling.
FRESH & SALTY I joined Conservation International in Washington and helped develop a new strategy and five-year plan. Conservation International used to focus on endangered species, but it has shifted to working at the intersection of nature conservation and human well-being. We work to protect the forests, rivers, lakes and oceans that are needed for food, water, climate resilience and livelihoods.
Two years ago, I got the phone call asking if I would set up a new office in Hong Kong. Who would say no to such an offer? We work to support China’s growing interest in a cleaner environment and to help Hong Kong establish itself as a role model for urban sustainability. I like to joke that our focus here is “fresh and salty”. We’re developing freshwater and marine conservation programmes to help ensure we will always have clean and abundant water and food – especially seafood, of course. I love working here. There’s a fantastic collaborative mentality and people really like to network. Hong Kong punches above its weight in lots of ways, and I hope it will influence a global shift towards sustainable business, investment and trade.
See Conservation International’s Nature Is Speaking film campaign, featuring Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Donnie Yen Ji-dan, at www.conservation.org/HKisListening