‘My life with Dong Dong the pig’: Justine Kwok, fashion designer-turned-eco warrior, talks physical and mental health – and creating her animal sanctuary
- Founder of Flow, the experiential farm and animal sanctuary, is one of Hong Kong Adventist Hospital Foundation’s ‘Women of Hope’
- She says by helping patients in need, the foundation brings awareness to underprivileged people who cannot afford health care
Health talk is all the rage but do people really understand what it means to live a healthy lifestyle?
Fad diets come and go and fitness trends all promise to make you stronger.
However to Hongkonger Justine Kwok, founder of the experiential farm and animal sanctuary, Flow, in Wenbishan Country Park, in her family’s ancestral home of Zhongshan in China’s Guangdong province, true health is as much about the mind as it is the body.
“I think one of the most important aspects for long-term health and wellness is to be mindful of how you choose to feed your body – your inner and outer body,” she says.
“For starters, you should be curious and conscious about where your food comes from, where it's grown, how it's been processed and transported and what it does to you and for your body.”
Kwok is a vegan, as she believes that not only is a plant-based diet better for one’s health, it is also healthier to the planet as it avoids the harm animal farming is doing to the environment and, of course, to animals.
“Secondly, I think aligning your values with your actions is the key to a healthy, happy life. So whatever your values are, try to take actions in your daily life that will better reflect them.”
The name Flow is inspired by a term in psychology that describes a state of being where one is completely present, engaged and immersed in an activity to the point one loses the sense of time and space. It is also known as being “in the zone”.
Flow is populated with a variety of animals. Some of the dogs were rescued from building sites and breeding farms, while others simply turned up. There are also ponies and mules that became homeless so paddocks and running grounds were built for them.
There is also the “piggies clan” – including one particularly friendly “resident” Dong Dong – which Flow inherited when Kwok took over the petting zoo at her architect father Arthur’s 270-acre (109-hectare) Windmill Eco Park.
“My father is a true visionary. He created the Windmill Eco Park against all odds 10 years ago, and Flow would not have been possible without his incredible will and vision,” Kwok says.
“I hope when visitors come to Flow, they will experience a blissful state when they open their hearts and their minds and connect deeply with animals and with nature.
“Hopefully, they will switch off their mobile phones and switch on their senses.”
The site also has an organic farm so visitors can get their hands dirty and learn where “real food comes from”.
Kwok was named one of the Women of Hope – in the Eco Warriors category – last year by Hong Kong Adventist Hospital Foundation (HKAHF), which provides timely medical treatment to underprivileged patients.
The annual initiative honours Hong Kong’s most influential women who strive for positive change and social justice. It also raises funds for underprivileged cancer patients in the city.
“Health care is something that some people – at least I myself – take for granted,” she says. “The work of the HKAHF is important in terms of raising awareness that not everybody has access to life-saving medical treatment.
“Raising funds to give people who are not so privileged this access changes lives. It also reminds us that it is a privilege to be in the position to help others. Like my mum always says, ‘You should always lend a helping hand whenever you can’.”
She believes that the modern lifestyle may have something to do with the increased number of cancer cases.
“I think it's the lifestyle: it's the stress, it's pollution, it's their diet,” she says. “I think all these things contribute to the increase in cancer cases. And also better diagnosis, maybe. Before, a lot of cases went undiagnosed.”
Growing up in a household full of “furry siblings”, Kwok developed a deep bond with animals from an early age. But like most pet owners, she compartmentalised her diet.
“I grew up eating meat and everybody around me ate meat,” she says. “It was the normal thing to do so I never questioned it.”
After obtaining a double degree in psychology and French from Cornell University in the US, Kwok moved to Paris to study fashion design.
She later embarked on a successful career in the industry, working as a designer for top international fashion houses. But after realising the impact that the fashion industry has on the environment, she decided to bid farewell to it.
Kwok returned to Hong Kong in 2009 and launched BK Atelier, an ethical, cruelty-free pet product brand that she still manages with a business partner based in Canada. This endeavour allowed her to combine the creative aspect of the fashion industry that she loved with her environmental beliefs.
She devoted the rest of her time to learning about sustainability and animal welfare, volunteering for the Hong Kong-based animal welfare charity, Animals Asia, while pursuing studies of animal-assisted therapy in the US, interspecies communication in South Africa, eco-therapy in the UK and natural farming techniques in Japan. She also completed the Green School Educator Course in Bali, Indonesia.
“I was most surprised by how everything was actually interconnected and interdependent – like how the welfare of animals and the welfare of the environment are directly connected to the welfare of humans,” she says.
She mentions insects as an example: pesticides are used to kill off these small inhabitants on the planet, with disregard for the important roles they play in pollination and as an important food source for many birds, mammals and reptiles.
“I read recently that 40 per cent of the insect population has been wiped out by us,” she says. “If we were to replace everything that insects do for us, for nature, for the environment, it would cost trillions of dollars and still we would not be able to completely replace what they do.”
In 2013, armed with a wealth of animal and eco-knowledge, Kwok began spending time in Zhongshan taking care of the petting zoo built by her father at his eco park.
It was how Kwok found her calling: she now devotes much of her life to Flow – spending a minimum of five days each week in Zhongshan – while managing a 20-strong staff that also looks after the eco farm.
Despite the workload, Kwok feels content, although that doesn’t mean that managing the farm is stress-free.
“It’s a really big place and there’s about 270 acres of land, so things are bound to happen and we get people trespassing,” she says. “We get people coming to steal things [and] we've had our animals being poisoned.”
That’s not to mention the maintenance issues including leaking pipes and contingency planning for natural disasters such as typhoons.
“Things can happen and I get stressed, but just being with the animals relaxes me and calms me down, and I just forget,” she says.
“It teaches me how to be present and so that's very helpful.”