IF YOU HAD TO choose one thing that you treasured above all others, what would it be? Your new Mercedes? A necklace your grandmother gave you? Your family? Health? Wealth? Happiness? Julie Andrews raised that question in The Sound Of Music but American poet and photographer Madeleine Marie Slavick repeated it in 1998, to villagers in Vietnam, Ethiopia and China, where she worked on projects for Oxfam. 'I didn't want to do straightforward documentation and the project started as a personal challenge to find my own entry point into these people's lives,' says Slavick. 'It's a question that seems simple and childlike, but it gets adults thinking too. And the reason why someone cherishes something is just as important as what that thing is.' The answers Slavick received were published in the charity's in-house magazine - 'it was nothing major' - and she kept the idea at the back of her mind as a favourite thing she'd like to expand. After leaving full-time employment with Oxfam early last year to concentrate on writing and photography, Slavick applied to the Hong Kong Arts Development Council for a grant to continue the My Favourite Thing project and develop it into a creative educational exhibition. Funding came through several months later. The council is the main financial sponsor; Oxfam's contribution came mostly in the form of staff help. Slavick enlisted the aid of 15 other interviewers/photographers, most of whom were working for Oxfam. She says she 'didn't seek out professional photojournalists because I work more closely with people I know and wanted to retain control of the project'. The locations - Brazil, Mozambique and 10 Asian countries including Hong Kong and the mainland - were dictated by where Oxfam had already established research projects. 'It wasn't as broad as I had hoped,' says Slavick. 'Friends and family went to places such as Afghanistan, Haiti and Peru but couldn't get stories. The language barrier was too hard to surmount and we found it was a hard question for a tourist to ask a local straight off. That's why it was easier getting Oxfam researchers who had been working in various areas and had established relationships with the locals to do the interviews.' Slavick herself went on an eight-day trip to three remote villages in Guizhou, including one involving a five-hour drive and a five-hour mountain walk. 'It was a stunning place,' she recalls. 'Life there isn't easy but it is so beautiful. Fresh mountain air . . . clean mountain water - very rich in many ways.' It took more than a year to collate the 20 stories and accompanying photographs. Some of the interviewees, who ranged in age from eight to 75, knew their favourite thing immediately; others found the question hard to answer. There was a split between material 'treasures', which included an orange plastic bowl, a ballpoint pen, a veterinarian kit and a house, and the non-material such as time, the desire to learn how to read and a child. But, as Slavick points out, even the material things are mostly simple, functional or for the benefit of other people. A sheepskin coat, for example, is the prized possession of 75-year-old Cai La, who uses it to cover her newborn grandson from the harsh Qinghai climate; Tran Van Dat from Vietnam wants a better road because the existing one floods in typhoons and prevents children from going to school. Eight-year-old Cao Huilong from rural Guizhou claims his favourite thing is a cloth schoolbag (he currently uses an old laundry-detergent bag so this is wishful thinking). Lau, a Hong Kong security guard, nominates his CD by Taiwanese pop star Teresa Tang as the only form of entertainment in his life. No one said their favourite thing was money. Although Slavick tried to let the answers speak for themselves, a booklet accompanying the photojournalistic project succinctly reveals the situation of each interviewee and puts their answers into perspective. It not only provides an insight into different cultures, but also addresses global issues such as gender discrimination, war and poverty, and ways of life. 'Zhu Huixiu, the wife of a coal miner, herder and farmer living in Shimen, Guizhou, said her favourite thing was nothing,' says Slavick. 'That on its own wouldn't necessarily mean much to an outsider. But when you learn her story - she isn't from that part of China and misses her home town, she has lost two children and has to do everything around the house, farm and take care of her nephew because her husband is always working - you begin to understand the reason behind her answer.' Slavick says it's hard for her to choose a favourite story because they are all so different, but the one that touches her the most is that of a Hong Kong cleaning lady, Ah Kuen. Her favourite thing is her ballpoint pen, with which she writes to her family on the mainland every week as a way to express her frustrations. 'She is a new immigrant in Hong Kong and can't afford long-distance calls to her relatives,' says Slavick. 'Her husband is unemployed and she feels shunned and discriminated against because of her job. We've invited her to the exhibition - I hope she comes.' My Favourite Thing runs from Sunday until November 30 in Taikoo Place (Swire donated the space at 1/F, Dorset House, 979 King's Road, Quarry Bay), with a reception from 6pm to 8pm tonight to which everyone is welcome. (About six photographers armed with Polaroid cameras will be snapping away at this event, so be prepared to state your favourite thing because there is a good chance you'll be asked.) A second identical exhibition is available, free of charge, for display in schools, restaurants, places of worship and other public spots. And you can also visit the project online at www.oxfam.org.hk and declare what your favourite thing is at www.oxfam.org.hk/english/news . 'We've had an incredible response, particularly from schools wanting to book the exhibition,' says Slavick. 'Ten schools in Shanghai have asked for it and there is talk of it travelling around Asia. The exhibition has a broad appeal and everyone loves the booklet.' And for the record, Slavick's personal favourite is touching things she loves: 'beige suede, petals and leaves, hairy arms, favourite books, original photographs, my cat, special gifts . . .'