Hongkonger Natalie Lo Lai-lai, with a bachelor’s and master’s in fine art, has been farming in Yuen Long since 2011, when she joined the collective Sangwoodgoon, a social movement opposed to the demolition of rural villages for a new high-speed railway to mainland China. The one-time travel journalist’s art practice runs in tandem with her farming duties and is based on her close observation of the natural environment. Her works are exhibited widely and included in the Sigg Collection and housed in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Laurent Gutierrez has a background in architecture and is a professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Design. In 1997, a year after moving to Hong Kong from France, he co-founded MAP Office with Valérie Portefaix. A studio practice involved in projects incorporating both architecture and the visual arts, MAP Office has the distinction of being the only maker to have represented Hong Kong in both the art and the architecture Venice biennales. In 2021, MAP Office announced that it would set up a self-sustainable residency called MAP Ocean on the island of Ishigaki, in Japan. Portefaix moved there in 2022, and Gutierrez, who remains in Hong Kong, co-founded R-Farm, a regenerative farm about a 15-minute drive from Sangwoodgoon that is focused on growing vegetables for the local community. Earlier this year, during a brief lull in between harvesting and sowing, Lo and Gutierrez sat down to discuss the joys and tribulations of being artist-farmers in Hong Kong. The following is an excerpt of the discussion conducted at SangWood KidsClub, an educational farm affiliated with Sangwoodgoon at a beautifully converted Hakka-style farmhouse in Yuen Long. For rooftop gardeners, urban farming is a form of ecotherapy Natalie : “I am glad to have a chance to find out what you are doing and to tell you what we are doing. I was surprised when I found out that you are also farming here. We probably have different reasons for doing it. Can you tell me yours?” Laurent : “I often associate it with age and consciousness. In the farm, we have three partners, I am the youngest, not that I am going to tell you my age [laughs]. “My oldest friend in Hong Kong [Christophe Barthélémy], who I have known for 27 years, has always been into these things. He is an architect and an entomologist. “Two years ago, I was teaching a course on biodiversity and design and I contacted him about it. He said, ‘I have no time for your project. Biodiversity doesn’t need design anyway. And on top of that, I’m planning to do a regenerative farming project.’ “I went to see him and chatted to him about how we can contribute to the idea of regenerative agriculture – farming in a holistic way that returns nutrients to the soil. For him, as an architect, building didn’t make sense any more. Want to be a ‘superager’? How to keep your brain healthy into your 80s “A third partner, John Tang, also an architect, joined the project. John, a bit older than us, was doing amazing buildings in Hong Kong and mainland China, but maybe he didn’t feel it was meaningful enough in addressing the crises we are facing. “So that’s why I say it comes with age, because maybe you need to reach a certain maturity to want to reinvent yourself as something else and to act upon essential commitments for the planet.” Natalie : “For us, the social movement was the entry point. We were in the anti-high-speed-rail protest movement and we were hoping to reform society. Then after the movement was over, the longer journey turned out to be the reformation of ourselves. “It sounds old-fashioned, but that’s what it has been. We are in a collective and we have seen how each one has grown. And we have learned to work with each other. “For example, if we’re doing a task, we know we’ll have different opinions, especially on how we engage with nature. We have a lot of fire ants in Hong Kong. In the beginning, some of us would say they were harmful to our practice and we had to get rid of them. Others would say they had lives, too, and we should keep them, and so on. Hong Kong farm grows greens using water, fish and smart interior design “Sometimes the conflicts would explode but it’s not common because we are quite peaceful. And to me, maybe because of my background as a journalist, I feel I am also an observer. “Two years ago, on the 10th anniversary of the farm, I made an hour-long video called The Days Before the Silent Spring and recorded how members of the team felt about farming and how it had changed them. “Making a record is one way I see my artistic practice. But Mr Yuen, our sifu , who taught us how to farm, asked me this question at the time: ‘Why do you think you are so important that this all needs recording?’ “Maybe it’s not very significant to other people.” Laurent : “One importance is to record all this knowledge. Traditional knowledge of farming is disappearing globally. It is important to preserve it, to record it and to make sure that this is transmitted [partly because the old ways of farming were more ecological]. So that’s why you and I both have educational activities on our farms. “The goal of farming is obviously to grow vegetables, but also to grow better human beings.” Natalie : “We try to speak to the public about food ethics and sufficiency. But when we look at reality, I feel conflicted. The way we farm is privileged. “For example, last year we had some bad harvests and didn’t have enough produce for customers. In the past, we might have had 40 to 50 packages [of mixed vegetables] a week to sell to customers. It wasn’t a lot but it covered our rent. But sometimes we would have only 20 packages a week even though we tried very hard. “I’m not on the farm full time. I am doing exhibitions. I am starting a full-time, paid PhD partly to get some financial stability. “It’s embarrassing when farmers in places like India commit suicide due to being overwhelmed by debt. We know what farming could mean for us: to be independent, to say how you can live on your own terms. But as an individual I know I won’t solve any problems. “That’s why in my artwork I am always debating with my own self. In Hong Kong, we try hard, but in reality bad things still happen. I feel hopeless sometimes.” If politics is a way to engage and view society, I will say farming is a political act Laurent Gutierrez Laurent : “I haven’t found a way to translate the sensibility of farming into an artistic format yet, but it is a similar type of process. Farming is a form of engagement and the sharing of values. It is also an attempt to reorganise society. “Among the most important needs for an individual is obviously how you sustain yourself, feed yourself and your family. Historically, the invention of the state matched the invention of agriculture. And when food supply is delocalised – like in Hong Kong – food sovereignty becomes important. “If people start to have food sovereignty, society and relationships become less hierarchical. In Hong Kong, it is almost an impossible dream because the gap between imports and what we produce is so big, but nevertheless, you can start to engage and bring in the conversation. “In fact, if politics is a way to engage and view society, I will say farming is a political act.” Sri Lanka’s organic farming push threatens its prized tea industry Natalie : “How we see it is getting back to basics: a less capitalistic way of how society operated in the old days, [one] based more on equal exchanges. “We also consider how we cooperate with others – institutions, companies and our customers. Who are they and are they actually against our beliefs? Are we just greenwashing together?” Laurent : “I remember during the Occupy movement of 2014, there was a garden that Occupiers set up below a Lennon Wall. The new generation don’t want to go back to a village type of life, but a big issue for young people in Hong Kong, Japan and elsewhere is whether they will live more miserably than their parents and their grandparents. Do I get myself a bulls**t job, live in the city and not be able to afford a decent life? “So, 2014 was the tip of the iceberg. The garden, the Lennon Wall represented the same logic: a space for claiming something that you feel is right.” Natalie : “It’s hard in Hong Kong for people to grow their own food, and farming is tough. When I first got into farming I was pretty fit because I had always exercised and always liked hiking. But I was exhausted. “You may think of the perfect model of a farmer – like getting up early, having healthy food, having routine. Well, that’s the projection. We try to achieve that.” Post Mag : What are you growing? Natalie : “We are planting cabbage, broccoli, carrots, lettuce, beetroots, gai lan and snow peas. “We have tried two kinds of local [heirloom] rice varieties, including one called lo su ngar [rat’s teeth], but it is very hard to harvest because the stalks are very tall. It’s like a messy hair day, especially after a storm. “We will keep growing the Taiwanese and Indonesian strains though.” Glamping, green getaways: why farmers are pivoting to hospitality Laurent : “All sorts of local and non-local vegetables. Soon we will move to cucumbers and green beans. “There are so many possibilities to make things wrong. The goal in farming is not to make things right; it is to remove what makes things wrong. “Hong Kong is OK when it comes into season. We can almost do three seasons [of farming], though when you are in the field in the summer and it’s 35 degrees [95 degrees Fahrenheit] you feel it!” Natalie : “Attitudes have changed. Friends who weren’t interested in farming are now keen to understand more. To them, the [anti-high-speed-rail] movement had nothing to do with them. But after the last three years, how they see the institutional system, how cynical and ridiculous it is, they want to find their own path.” Super saffron: the many health benefits of the world’s most expensive spice Laurent : “I have many mainland students whose parents were in lengthy lockdowns in Chinese cities and they had no food. So there was a lot of interest in subsistence farming among those students. “We always have the possibility of a food crisis here. We almost experienced it with panic buying during the pandemic.” For more information, visit @sangwoodgoon and @r_farmhk.