Stories build community: Hong Kong Shifts shares lessons learned from interviewing city’s overlooked workers

  • The group’s founders Maxime Vanhollebeke and Cynthia Cheng have spoken to more than 100 shift workers in Hong Kong
  • Besides posting photos and interview excerpts online, they also lead storytelling workshops to teach students about empathy and confidence
Dannie Aildasani |

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Yui (centre), a boat operator from Po Toi village, attends Hong Kong Shifts’ event “Hong Kong Included” held at Soho House earlier this month. Photos: Hong Kong Shifts

In a city like Hong Kong, with a population of 7.5 million, it’s not easy to get to know the people around you. There may even be people that you see every day – on the train, in your building, or at your local 7-Eleven – whose names you’ve never learned. But does it have to be this way?

Maxime Vanhollebeke smiled at his building security guard every day for five years until one day in 2019, he was struck with a realisation: he did not know the woman’s name, where she was from, or anything about her.

This moment gave him an idea. Hong Kong is full of shift workers who keep the city running, from street cleaners to receptionists and convenience store workers. Why not show people what was happening behind the scenes and allow these unsung heroes to tell their stories?

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Vanhollebeke, a photographer and lawyer from Belgium who moved to the city in 2007, got in touch with Cynthia Cheng, a writer, graphic designer and lawyer who grew up in Hong Kong. They invited Mei Fung, Vanhollebeke’s long-time security guard, for lunch at a cha chaan teng and listened to her story. That was the day Hong Kong Shifts was born.

Since then, “we’ve been whizzing all around the city, sourcing stories, learning about different professions and just shining a light on ... how strong and resilient people in Hong Kong have been over these last few years,” Cheng explained.

The two lead a small team that runs a website as well as pages on Facebook and Instagram that tell the stories of Hong Kong’s workers who are often overlooked.

Pop your social bubble

Learning about the lives of people around you could help you break out of the bubble you live in, Vanhollebeke said.

“We want these stories to get across to all communities in Hong Kong because it’s an inclusive project. We often live in our respective bubbles – our work bubble, friendship bubble, cultural bubble, whatever it may be – and we may have formed certain stereotypes about the people around us ... it’s important to break through them.”

The group doesn’t decide ahead of time who they want to speak to or try to curate its stories; instead, they look at a map, choose a neighbourhood, and hit the streets with a notebook, pen and camera.

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“We’re often surprised by how many people are happy to chat and share their story,” Cheng said. “There’s this idea that people in Hong Kong are aloof and don’t want to connect with strangers. But once you make that first step, people are willing to open up and connect.”

People they approach may be shy at first or say they don’t have an interesting story to tell, but “gradually, there’s always a moment when somebody opens up, and you know they trust you and you have a real connection,” Cheng said. “That’s the moment that makes the project so worth doing – that brings meaning to all these stories.”

Sai is a bamboo scaffolder, and he used to be a chef. Photo: Hong Kong Shifts

The power of storytelling

Hong Kong Shifts has interviewed more than 100 people, including a boat operator in Po Toi O and a “Buffalo Whisperer” in South Lantau. Photos and excerpts from their interviews, in English and Chinese, can be found on their website and social media pages.

“Every person we’ve interviewed has brought us surprises and words of wisdom,” Vanhollebeke said. “Taking that step to engage with people who are slightly different from us can really enrich and add a new dimension to our lives.”

“Storytelling can be very empowering for the listener and, more importantly, the person being offered an opportunity to speak up and tell their story,” he added. “It is something we have realised during the project and now do with different NGOs and schools.”

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The group does workshops at local and international schools in Hong Kong, teaching students how to go out and find interviewees, while using storytelling as a lens to build skills like empathy, confidence and resilience.

Earlier this month, Hong Kong Shifts held an exhibition and storytelling event at Soho House in Sheung Wan, where it partnered with organisations like EmpowerU, Love 21 and Teen’s Key to celebrate social inclusion and human connection. The event attracted more than 700 people over four days.

For one activity, attendees were partnered with a random person and given a “conversation menu” with topics they could discuss. The questions were ones people wouldn’t usually ask a stranger, allowing them to get to know each other on a deeper level.

Hong Kong Shifts’ founders Maxime Vanhollebeke (left) and Cynthia Cheng. Photo: Bradley Aaron

It all ties into the group’s emphasis on community.

“What I enjoy about the project is that it allows us to be more open and flexible to new ideas,” Vanhollebeke said. “The basic message is that it’s worth paying attention to the people around us and living a bit more connected. All it takes is engaging in conversation.”

“Small talk leads to big talk; even just asking your neighbour, ‘Oh, you went to the grocery store; what did you buy?’ might be enough to start a relationship. We’re just inviting people to have these casual and small chats.”

Get the word out

Whizzing 快速移動

to move or do something very fast

Inclusive 具包容性

not excluding any of the parties or groups involved in something.

Curate 策劃

select, organize, and look after the items in (a collection or exhibition).

Aloof 冷漠的

not friendly or involved.

Empathy 同理心

the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

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