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Hong Kong culture

Island in Hong Kong that lures creatives and entrepreneurs to throw in the day job and pursue their passions

Inspired by Lamma Island’s laid-back culture and artistic vibe, these three professionals gave up their full-time jobs to move there and make a more modest living doing what they love

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 May, 2018, 2:48pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 May, 2018, 6:20pm

Tranquil Lamma may be known as a magnet for young families and professionals looking to escape the city grind, but the Hong Kong outlying island has also attracted a number of entrepreneurs and creative types who want to make the most of its distinctive lifestyle.

Three Lamma residents who gave up their day jobs to pursue their passions share their stories.

Irena Ustyugova

“To me, Lamma is the most inspiring place in Hong Kong. Before I lived here, every time I visited, I had so many creative ideas,” says Russian language and culture teacher Irena Ustyugova, who moved to the island from Wan Chai six years ago to start a family.

There’s another kind of stress because this is a business – but there is also more leisure
Gavin Yu

The Russian native, who balances a teaching job with raising a young family, is one of the founding members of Lamma Art Collective, a group of Lamma residents who recently opened a gallery and events space in Yung Shue Wan to promote local artists and reinvigorate Lamma’s creative life.

There is much about Lamma that benefits aspiring creative people, from the close-knit and supportive community to the slightly lower cost of living. Ustyugova is responsible for organising open “art jamming” sessions at the Collective’s venue, which attracts participants from all over Hong Kong.

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Through these relaxed, informal sessions, Ustyugova hopes to make art more accessible for people who may not have had any previous experience or education in art.

“Here, we have a lot of people who come to our classes and are afraid to try drawing because they have never done it before. We want them to overcome this fear.”

She also runs “family art lounge” sessions at the venue, where parents can relax and socialise while their children are encouraged to play, be creative and express themselves with a range of art materials.

Ustyugova, who has a particular interest in Slavic mythology and culture, appreciates Lamma’s “folk” culture.

“Lamma residents dress differently, wearing bright and colourful clothing. People are very close to nature, and for me it’s very important that you can wear folk clothes and feel at home,” she says. “It also coincides with the whole way of life here, so you naturally feel more authentic.”

Ustyugova says that in a money-obsessed city such as Hong Kong, community organisations that teach people to value and enjoy art are more needed than ever.

“People think that art is unnecessary because they earn a good salary. Art is more than just a piece of our life – it is everywhere,” she says.

Gavin Yu

Follow the Lamma Island Family Trail which snakes up the island from Yung Shue Wan Main Street, and among the roadside stalls you will find a small shop packed to the rafters with organic herbal teas, ointments and quirky handicrafts.

The owner of Herb to Toe, Gavin Yu Ka-fai, has dedicated his life to studying and promoting the benefits of natural herbs after giving up a high-flying career as an industrial designer almost 20 years ago, soon after moving to Lamma.

Sitting outside in the shop’s cafe area as tourists wander by, Yu explains over steaming cups of ginger-infused coffee how he leapt at the chance to volunteer at an organic herb farm in Japan after seeing a newspaper ad.

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There, he met his business partner, and the two set up Lamma Island’s first organic herb farm, named Herboland, next to Hung Shing Yeh beach. Yu helped to run it for nine years, with a stint working at an organic food shop on Main Street, before finally setting up his own little herbal store last October.

Being creative doesn’t mean that you can’t ask for a living wage for what you do
Katie Flowers

“When I was an industrial designer, there was a lot of stress and pressure, but now it’s more relaxed,” he says. “Now there’s another kind of stress because this is a business – but there is also more leisure. I deal with nature and with plants, so daily life is much easier.”

One of the things Yu enjoys the most about his new life is having the time to care for his young son during the day. He also enjoys interacting with customers. “The theme of the shop is like a home. When I designed the shop, I wanted people to slow down and chat while enjoying a cup of herbal tea or coffee.”

The green-thumbed 42-year-old appreciates the vibrant creative community on Lamma Island, which supports enterprising small-business owners like him. But he admits that giving up a full-time job to pursue his passions was not a smooth journey, since store vacancies are rare and rents expensive.

To me, Lamma is the most inspiring place in Hong Kong
Irena Ustyogova

Despite the pressure of rising rents on the island, Yu still plans to carry on fulfilling his passion for herbs through the shop.

Does he have any advice for those wishing to make a similar life change?

“I think every case is different. It depends on how you want to give up your job to shift to something unexpected,” he says. “If you have passion in your heart and you are willing to try, then that makes every day easier.”

Art therapist Katie Flowers

Lamma resident Katie Flowers dedicated most of the past two decades to teaching at various international schools in Hong Kong, but finally built up the courage to leave her job last year to run a successful art therapy practice, Wild at Art, out of her own home studio.

The British expat moved to Lamma 20 years ago from Wan Chai, having decided it was a better place to raise her young son. “I don’t think I could have it any other way – I couldn’t imagine not being here. This is our life. I love the community, and the journey on the ferry.”

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Flowers works in a variety of mediums including painting, collage and traditional art techniques, and views art as a holistic way of practising self-care and improving one’s well-being.

“Art is a healing process as much as a technical and creative subject,” she says.

Her website showcases some of her own personal creations, which burst with vibrant colours, eclectic patterns and whimsical collages of images and text.

A Lamma veteran, Flowers says she has witnessed many changes on the island over the years, from population growth (from just under 3,000 in 1991 to 5,900 in 2011 according to the latest government population census) and local schools becoming overcrowded, to higher living costs.

Once tethered to her daily schedule as a teacher, Flowers appreciates being able to finally live out her passion for art. “I have more flexibility about my time. I’m learning how to run my own business and collaborate with people living here on healing workshops,” she says.

When giving up a steady day job for full-time creative pursuits it can be a challenge to maintain an adequate income – especially in Hong Kong.

Flowers believes this is a choice each must make based on their own economic situation.

“Being creative doesn’t mean that you can’t ask for a living wage for what you do,” she says. “I believe very strongly that creatives are often mislabelled as ‘struggling artists’. While there might be some struggling artists here – as with everywhere – there are also people doing well. I think it’s more about being willing to make a lifestyle choice.”