Lohasia: Bobsy Gaia

Bobsy Gaia

21 May 2014: They say that it’s at times of despair that we often find ourselves. It was certainly the case for Bobsy. The year was 1989 and the Lebanon-born Brit had just bankrupted his first company – a fashion label he started in Bangkok with his childhood friend after moving out there with a romantic notion of the exotic East. He was sitting penniless in front of a TV when something hit him. ‘That year was a powerful period in history and there was a change happening in people’s minds, as well as in the social and cultural scene,’ he recalls. ‘The Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall came down, and everyone was marching for something: for women’s rights, against the destruction of the Amazon… To this day, I have no idea what happened. It was just a eureka moment.’

He did his research and was shocked to realise how much harm we are unknowingly doing to our planet, and from then on, Bobsy set his mind on the enormous task of saving the world. He first launched an eco-clothing line, called Gaia, before moving to Hong Kong in 1992. When he first arrived, there was virtually no such notion of protecting the environment there, and he knew he had a steep uphill battle to fight. Luckily, it occurred to him early on that the fastest way to get people’s attention was through food. And so, as a self-professed passionate foodie, he founded Bookworm Café on Lamma Island in 1997 and Life Café in Soho seven years later – both of which serve up vegetarian or vegan bites while promoting the idea of living sustainably. In 2009, he left Life to focus his energy on a campaign called ‘Save the Human!’, which urges people to be kinder to the planet and went on to win the Best Documentary Award at the I Shot Hong Kong film festival.

A few years later, he opened Mana!, a vegetarian, organic, eco-friendly deli – a fast slow food joint. Specialising in delicious raw vegan desserts and pizza-like flatbreads (simply and affectionately called ‘flats’) to go, Mana! adopts the ideas of Italy’s Slow Food movement to promote traditional and sustainable ways of preparing food, and encourages its customers to behave more environmentally through, for example, their in-restaurant waste recycling bins and community events. At the same time, Mana! also pumps a lot of money into Earth-friendly amenities like a high tech waste separating system, energy-efficient light bulbs, and toilets that save up to 85% of water, to name a few.

Like Bookworm and Life, Mana! refrains from using meat in their food because meat, as Bobsy expresses, is the number one cause of pollution in the world. ‘There is a constant increase in demand for meat – especially in countries like China and India – and pork is actually cheaper than vegetables in some places,’ he explains. ‘But where does all the meat come from? Industrial farming. We’re creating up to 100 billion animals purely for consumption, and yet two billion people don’t have anything to eat. Why? Because the food is going to the animals, rather than to humans.’

For all his efforts, he is now frequently credited as one of the pioneers of the green movement in Hong Kong, and one of the movers and shakers of the healthy eating scene. But his mission doesn’t stop here. Once he finds a suitable location, he hopes to start up a café, lounge, and community called Babylon!, where good, healthy food and drink can be combined with other activities – from TED talks to documentary nights and yoga classes – to inspire people to live consciously. ‘It will incorporate the A to Z of healthy living, and serve as a hub for the Consciousness movement,’ Bobsy promises.

Of course, for all his talk of encouraging people to reach a greater state of consciousness, some people question what the consequences would be if everyone were to think and operate from this place. ‘If the whole planet is enlightened, I’d be out of a job, for starters!’ he laughs. ‘But it would also lead to a transformation of the world. We’d spend the next many years cleaning up the mess that we had made, but we would also be living in bliss. My idea of the perfect world would be one where everyone can live according to three values: ecological, humanitarian, and spiritual.’

Next time you’re in Hong Kong, make sure you eat like it matters and check out Mana!

To find out more about Mana!, check out their Facebook page. To learn more about everything Bobsy is doing, head over to his blog.

Lohasia: Whitney Fleming

Whitney Fleming

11 Mar 2014: Some people are born to be travellers, destined to follow the colours of the wind around the world. And some people find those same winds blow them to a home they never knew they had on the other side of the world. Raised in a small town in New Hampshire, USA, Whitney Fleming, now 33, was one of those people – she hit the road as soon as she got her high school degree. ‘I figured out some pretty creative ways to move around while still getting my education,’ she says. ‘My BA at Goddard Colleges was designed so that I only had to be at the college physically for one week every semester, which was perfect for my wandering feet.’

Over a seven-year period, those wandering feet led her everywhere from India to Guatemala, and France to Korea. While each country fascinated her in their own way, the one place that she always found herself going back to was the Philippines. She met her future Belgian husband there, and when they got married in 2008, she finally decided to put her suitcase away and settle down. ‘We are both passion-driven people and the Philippines was the perfect place for me to work with communities – which I’ve always enjoyed doing – and for him to focus on his conservation photography,’ she explains.

In 2009, Whitney came across the Candua-ay community in the ‘Scandinavian Village’ housing project when she was a secretary for the island’s NGOs. Located on the outskirts of Dumaguete City, it is home to 98 households that survive by reselling what they could find from the adjacent dumpsite. It’s tough work, and on average, they earn just US$2 a day, yet their spirits remain cheerful and their resourcefulness and creativity know no bounds. The people she met there touched and inspired her, yet little did she know that this project would become her home and these people like family.

Whitney initially started working with the people in the community in 2010 through an alternative, sustainable livelihoods programme. One initiative under this programme that quickly stood out from the others was the jewellery making of a group of 17 mothers. Created using self-made paper beads, Whitney would buy a handful of the finished products to sell at resorts located nearby. She soon, however, realized that they contained more value than she had initially imagined.

‘To begin with, I just encouraged them to make simple strands, but they came back with such incredible designs,’ she remembers. And so, in 2012, the for-profit company, Lumago Designs – meaning ‘to blossom’ in Tagalog – was born. Whitney helped the mothers to form a women’s cooperative, and work together to design, develop and create a range of stunning necklaces, earring and bracelets using other locally-sourced materials on top of the paper beads, like up-cycled leather and tin can tabs. The products are now available in several large retailers and shops around the country.

‘The mothers inspired me. These women were never looking for a hand out – they were simply seeking opportunity. They are the designers and pushed everything, from what was possible with the materials to the quality of the finished product,’ Whitney continues.

When she first landed in the Philippines, she never intended to run her own business. She’s ‘had a pretty sharp learning curve, and still learning every day,’ as she admits, but her efforts are paying off. The company has just completed their first calendar year, and they’re looking forward to further refining their designs.

And does she miss her travelling days? ‘I love life on the road, but I came to a point where I wanted to be a part of   something that I could make more of a substantial commitment to,’ she says – but that doesn’t mean she’s kicked the habit completely. While she’s not ruling out the option of following her nomadic heart again in the future, she’s definitely found an adopted home in the Philippines for now. ‘Honestly, I fell in love with the people of the Philippines. Filipinos are known for their contagious smiles, warm hearts and cheesy jokes. Wherever you go there is always a reason to laugh and smile, and I really love that’, she says. ‘And, not gonna lie, 300 days of sunshine a year sure doesn’t dampen the human spirit either!’ 

To find out more about Whitney and her company Lumago, check out http://www.umagodesigns.com.

Lohasia: Daphne Hedley

Daphne Hedley

24 Feb 2014: The air is fresh at the end of a narrow road that has been carved into a tangle of trees, deep in the mountains of the Mae Hong Son district in northern Thailand. An expansive farm soon comes into view, and nature reigns as far as the eye could see – a row of lychee trees offer shade and protection to the smaller, more fragile coffee trees below; lemongrass grows freely everywhere. Everything here is a result of Thai farmer Noi’s hard work, and it is from here that locally-launched lifestyle brand, Mekhala, source a good chunk of their products.

The story of Mekhala started two-and-a-half years ago, when Daphne Hedley, 35, then a banker who just moved back to her native Singapore from the UK with her husband, visited their friends Jang and Brian Bauerle’s retreat in Chiang Mai. Also called Mekhala – which means ‘angel’ in Thai and is the name of the Bauerles’ daughter – the retreat runs a series of holistic programmes for private and corporate clients. It started off as a holiday, but that trip also became a turning point for Daphne. She didn’t mind her stable, well-paid job at Barclays Singapore, which she earned after graduating from the renowned business school, INSEAD, and worked her way up to – by doing stints in Japan, the UK and France – in order to support her mother and two younger sisters after unexpectedly losing her father to cancer. But she always felt like she could be doing more with her life.

‘Banking was a means to an end, but really, even as I was going along the corporate path all those years, I still dabbled with business ideas’ she explains, referring to her attempts to start a health drink business with her mum, as well as a travel website in her university days. ‘But my mother wasn’t quite finished with the grieving yet, and I sucked at HTML.’

Daphne’s chance to follow her passion came when Jang Bauerle told her how difficult it was to source for quality, natural products for the Mekhala Health Retreat’s spa, and an idea struck them – why don’t they create their own? Jang has always loved making things, and this was the perfect opportunity for Daphne to leave an unfulfilling career behind. ‘I was unhappy with the person I was working for at my old job, my first sister had a job by then, and we had enough money in the bank to put the youngest one through school. My mother also got a part time job, so I felt it was okay for me to quit.’

It took Daphne and Jang just a few months to get things going, and soon they rolled out their first creations. Jang is in charge of coming up with new products, while Daphne takes care of everything that’s not inside the bottles. Working with two parties – Noi, who runs the farm in Mae Hong Son and manages a few others, as well as another not-for-profit organisation – they started off with 14 natural beauty products and 15 food items, which were launched in Singapore in 2011, and have since added a few more items to their collection.

‘The main idea behind Mekhala is that we want to offer people the option for healthy – but still tasty – Asia-inspired products,’ Daphne continues. ‘When people think of Asian food, they think that it’s cheap and unhealthy, and we want to change that perception.’ By adopting the farm to bottle concept and using premium, naturally-sourced ingredients such as coconut sugar and Himalayan pink salt, they promise that everything they produce is good for the body and the mind. And, of course, they try to do their part for the environment by ensuring that most of their packaging can be recycled, too.

‘You know, before I had my son, I didn’t think much about what we are doing to our planet. Now, I guess I would like to try harder to leave him a world that is as beautiful a place as the one we live in now!’ she admits.

While the brand is doing well, with plans of a small factory being built near the retreat in the coming months, Daphne is determined to keep her heart in the right place. ‘I’ve definitely met very interesting people on my travels, but the one person who has truly inspired me and continues to be the reason I want to make a difference is my father. He was the first non-American Managing Director of the American aerospace company he worked for; he was a really enterprising man,’ she says. ‘He always told me to be kind, to take risks, and to make a difference. He died very young – he was just 48 – and very suddenly, so I guess that’s what I’m trying to do – to fulfill his legacy and create one of my own that would make him proud.’

To find out more about the products that Mekhala offers – or just to say hello to the friendly team – head to their showroom at PasarBella (02-k57 The Grandstand, 200 Turf Club Road). Alternatively, check out their website (www.mekhalaliving.com) to order some free samples to try out!