City Weekend

Are Hongkongers cold people? Man behind campaign of speaking to strangers hopes to bring back human connection

Founder of ChatToStranger wants people to detach from their mobile devices and warm up to others

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 January, 2018, 4:34pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 January, 2018, 4:34pm

“It’s like having to confess your love to someone you’ve had a crush on.”

That was how 27-year-old Leung Cheuk-lam felt when he spoke to a complete stranger for the first time last year as part of a personal project, which requires him to strike up a conversation with at least one random person a day.

The idea is to promote face-to-face human connection, something that Leung says is increasingly rare these days because of our growing dependence on communication devices.

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He has so far “connected” with more than 300 strangers and documented every encounter on a Facebook page called ChatToStranger, which has attracted more than 10,000 followers.

“I’ve heard lots of people complain about Hongkongers being cold,” says Leung, a freelance actor and video editor. “I hope I can change that.”

Recalling his first time talking to a stranger, Leung says he felt very nervous, although he knew just a simple “hello” was all that was needed to break the ice.

“It’s like telling a girl that I like her and at the same time feeling scared because I don’t know if she feels the same about me,” Leung says.

The idea of talking to strangers came to him about seven years ago when Leung had to spend at least an hour every day commuting by bus between work on Hong Kong Island and his home in the New Territories.

On those journeys, he felt he had wasted his time doing nothing, when he could have learned from others by listening to their stories. He also recalls seeing lots of passengers who were either staring at the television on the bus or their smartphone screens. Few looked at or interacted with the person sitting next to them.

“I was thinking, since there would always be a stranger sitting next to me anyway, I could certainly make better use of my time by sharing stories with them,” he says.

I’ve heard lots of people complain about Hongkongers being cold
Leung Cheuk-lam

But it took him some time to work up the courage that he finally put to use last year. A sleepless night before surprisingly motivated him to talk to a stranger that day – a hospital nurse.

“It was 6am and I just got off work. I was with an advertising agency at the time. I didn’t sleep a wink the night before. Under those circumstances I would normally feel slightly hyperactive. That restlessness gave me the confidence, I guess.”

What followed was a lighthearted chat, Leung recalls. The pair talked about the weather and she told him about her daughter and work.

“The most impressive part was not about the conversation itself but the whole experience. I had never done this before, but when I finally did it I felt really happy and totally relieved afterwards,” Leung says.

In a bustling city like Hong Kong, Leung says people often work long hours, which means they have little time or energy for small talk. He says there is always some amount of awkwardness in the first few seconds when interacting with a stranger.

“Because people are in a rush, they will always want to know how long the conversation will take,” he says.

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Occasionally he would be mistaken for a salesperson, social worker or even a missionary. But that is part of the fun, he says.

“After one year of talking to strangers, I have come to a conclusion that we always stay in our comfort zone because the outside world is full of unknowns, of which we are afraid. But it’s just a chat. You have nothing to lose.”

An easy rule of thumb for success, according to Leung, is to “never ask for names and contact details”.

“People tend to be more relaxed, easy-going and talkative when they know that there’s no way you can reach them in the future,” Leung points out.

“Also, I think these conversations are more meaningful because you meet these people randomly and probably just once in your lifetime.”


Strangers’ stories

New Yorker Brandon Doman started the Strangers Project in 2009 when he sat at a local coffeehouse and decided to ask passers-by a simple question: “What’s your story?” Doman believes everyone has a story to tell. He provides participants only paper and pens to share their stories anonymously.

Since the project began, Doman has amassed more than 30,000 stories from strangers and selected some of them for his book, What’s Your Story?

Free kisses

A 17-year-old girl in Taipei roamed around the city’s Ximending district last September with a mission of reaching out to the public to bring attention to and acceptance of the LGBT community. How? By exchanging kisses. Other than encouraging a freedom to love, the campaign sought to fill a lack of connection and human contact.

Hugs for free

This social movement involves individuals offering hugs to strangers in public. It started in 2004, to express random acts of kindness – selfless acts simply meant to make others feel better.

The idea received a boost from Juan Mann, an Australian man who wanted to reach out and hug strangers to brighten their lives. In the spirit of the free hugs campaign, it hopes that participants carry the good feeling forward and hug other strangers.