Ophelia Chan Ka-lai readily admits she’s happiest when she is knee-deep in compost and talking to plants. Chan, who in 2007 moved near to Sok Ku Wan on Lamma to allow her to be closer to a patch of farmland to cultivate, has for a number of years inspired students, readers and the public to choose healthier, locally grown organic vegetables and fruit and to live a greener lifestyle.
She was also the proprietor of Hong Kong’s first shop selling environmentally friendly products.
These days she gives lectures, writes books, and educates people inspiring many readers and the Hong Kong public to be more in tune with nature in a place where the urban lifestyle makes stress levels very high.
“About 95 per cent of my clothes are second-hand,” says Chan, as she pours herbal tea. “I buy them at Green Ladies, a branch of the St James’ Settlement and Oxfam. All my furniture is second-hand or items I inherited from my family.”
On her balcony she sees out to the terrace below where some herbs are growing. At this time of year there’s still the Chinese herbs which Chan largely crafts wild as they grow in abundance with little encouragement. Then, as the winter months come round, she plants Western Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary, thyme, chamomile, and calendula.
Chan has an enviable sense of calm, but she works at it choosing a lifestyle and food that energise her and leaves out the toxicity of processed foods.
“Actually the farming is something that started as a hobby about 22 years ago,” says Chan, proprietor of Herbal Bliss, an organic personal-care shop. “I was then what I regarded as a holiday farmer. So I would go on Sunday to my rented plot of 1000 square feet in Fanling. That was when I was living in the city.”
But then Chan decided to move out to Lamma so that she didn’t have to travel so far to her plot. At the moment her farm plot is expanding as she works with indigenous villagers, who had long since let their agricultural land lapse. “Twenty years ago they were still growing rice and vegetables.
They would have a whole variety of fruit including bananas and papayas and jack fruit, they would have chickens and ducks. So they were totally self-sufficient and never really had to go to the shops for any food items,” says Chan.
One of the villagers had fallen ill and offered to give Chan her plot. Now with a crew of like-minded villagers, Chan tills the soil, adds compost created by the villagers managing their organic waste.
The labour involved is far bigger than the harvest, she says, but that’s not really what it is about. She says there is a joy in being connected with the rhythm of nature, and working with soil makes you feel grounded.
For 13 years, Chan, who grew up in Sai Wan Ho and is “50 something”, worked in a chartered accountancy firm as a corporate legal secretary. Then she decided that she was not fulfilled and attended a personal development course. “I needed to do something I have passion in. At that time I was reading a lot of green magazines. I felt I should go with my heart.”
So 20 years ago, using her own funds, Chan set up the first environmentally-friendly shop in Hong Kong - selling cleaners and household goods, energy-saving light bulbs, and recycled stationary among many diverse eco products.”
“Unfortunately it only lasted for eight months,” she said. “It attracted a lot of media attention but the public regarded the products as too expensive. I learned a lot, that I should concentrate on fewer products and I realised I needed to do more education as people weren’t aware of what purpose the environmentally friendly products served. They just saw the price.”
So since then, Chan has held seminars and lectures at universities in Hong Kong and at the St James’ Settlement teaching on the toxic hazards of everyday household cleaners, “but also sharing my belief in a green lifestyle”. She also organises organic workshops, and gives tours of local eateries in Hong Kong where people can find high-quality produce.