Urban Explorer Series: Interview with Hong Kong Shifts

Urban Explorer Series: Interview with Hong Kong Shifts

Editorial by - Tim Fung

“There is always something new that we learn from each person we speak with, and a new perspective or a new surprise. Everyone has a meaningful and inspiring story to tell; all it takes is for someone to be open and there to listen to it.”




Maxime Vanhollebeke and Cynthia Cheng

Founders of Hong Kong Shifts




Our Urban Explorer


Could you please introduce yourself to our guests?

Hello! This is Maxime and Cynthia. We are the Founders of Hong Kong Shifts, a social impact storytelling platform with a mission to promote kindness, empathy and inclusiveness in Hong Kong.  Stories are a powerful way to connect and learn from each other, and to live happier lives!


Our community project puts the spotlight on shift workers, those working discreetly in the background and who are sometimes overlooked or taken for granted, as we go about our busy lives.  Every week we publish a story of a different shift worker on Instagram and Facebook @hongkongshifts.  We have featured more than 100 profiles since we started the project 2 years ago.


How did Hong Kong Shifts (HKS) come about?

Maxime: Hong Kong Shifts started by chance! One morning I woke up with a strong urge to portray the security guard working down my building.  For the last 5 years, I would pass by Meifung every morning on my way to work. I would say hi but I never really interacted with her in a meaningful way, partly because I don’t speak Cantonese but also because I simply did not take the time to really stop by and engage with her. I pitched the idea of interviewing Meifung to Cynthia, my co-worker at the time. We went to yum cha all together and chit-chatted for one hour.  This is how it all started.


Cynthia: At the time, I thought it would be a fun side project. Initially, the idea was to focus on security guards but we quickly realised there are plenty of people we pass by every day without really interacting or acknowledging them. Many of these people make our lives easier, safer or more comfortable without us even realising! We want to use Hong Kong Shifts as a platform to put the spotlight and share stories of those people who play an essential role in our city yet often do not make the headlines.



What do you enjoy most about running your platform?

Cynthia: For me, it is the opportunities that have opened up for us through this project. It has allowed us to meet and connect with a diverse group of inspiring people from all walks of life. Working with many different stakeholders including NGOs, schools, corporates and other organisations has opened up so many new opportunities to connect and learn and enrich my experience.  At a personal level, building bonds with individuals in a way that I haven’t had the opportunity to before in Hong Kong has given me so much joy.


Maxime: I feel the same way! Being a “gweilo”, I feel very privileged to be able to work on a project that gives me a small opening to connect with people that I would not have had the chance to meet otherwise. I have discovered more about Hong Kong in the last two years than in the ten years prior to starting Hong Kong Shifts!


What does a day in the life at Hong Kong Shifts look like?

C & M: Every day is different and we love that about our project!  One day, we’ll pick a new location and go on the hunt for community stories.  The next day, we may be working with an NGO or a corporation on a new storytelling campaign or initiative to promote social inclusion and community engagement. We also run school workshops and help them source and share their own community stories. A key part of our project is to remind everyone there is so much value in engaging with people around us, whether it be a colleague, a neighbour, a schoolmate or a stranger.  We are sometimes trapped in our social circles and there is so much to be gained from opening up to those around us!


What does “Urban Explorer” mean to you and how do you think you fit into this term?

Cynthia: The project itself is a way of urban exploration for us. Hong Kong Shifts has allowed me and Maxime to discover the rich and dynamic facets of Hong Kong, and to go to places we may have never been or even tried to explore. I grew up in Hong Kong, but I always lived in my comfortable little bubble on Hong Kong Island. When you step outside of your comfort zone, you realise that there is so much to see and so much to learn. By having that open mindedness to roam around the city, you can really get acquainted with the people and culture of each neighbourhood.


Maxime: For me, urban exploration really is simply about stepping outside of your comfort zone, whether it is by jumping on a bus to a new destination, stopping at the next MTR stop, trying out a new restaurant or starting a conversation with your neighbour.  One of the things that amazes me is why does it take an elevator to be stuck for neighbours to start talking to each other and start building friendships? Every day, there are myriad opportunities to connect with people all around us.  All it takes is a conscious decision to explore and seize the opportunities that are offered to us every single day!


Storytelling From the Heart


Why do you think it is so important to tell their story?

Maxime: It is simple! When we look at photographs or stories of Hong Kong, it is often the skyscrapers, the stunning harbour, the beautiful people, the incredible food that comes to mind, rather than the people themselves which are the heart and soul of this vibrant city. Through our platform, we want to put the spotlight on those who usually don’t make the headlines yet form the backbone of Hong Kong. We want to give them the recognition they deserve and give everyone an opportunity to learn from their experience, resilience, wisdom and humor!  We also want to inspire our audience to connect and learn from the people around them in their own neighbourhood and working communities. 


Cynthia: Another aspect of sharing these stories is that we want to break down stereotypes of people working in certain professions. By interviewing these individuals and finding out more about who they are as people and their backgrounds, it shows that we often all share similar challenges and struggles and have similar hopes and dreams.



How do you approach your interviewees and get them to tell their story?

Cynthia: The majority of our interviewees are complete strangers. They are simply on the streets doing their jobs and we politely approach them with a smile to try and strike up a conversation. Then I slowly introduce Hong Kong Shifts to them and explain what our mission is. Of course, some people do not want to share their stories or want their photographs taken but you will be surprised by how many people readily warm up to you. I conduct the interview on the spot and Maxime will take some photos; the process is very organic.


Maxime: What is so rewarding about the whole process is that you literally see people opening up like a flower, in terms of what they say and how they look at the camera. The last photos you take of them are always better than the first, simply because it takes time for them to build that trust with you before they fully open up. When they do, that is when the magic happens!


How many people have you interviewed to date?

C & M: We have interviewed 115 people since we started back in July 2019! We have interviewees from many different walks of life: taxi drivers, street cleaners, NGO workers, back-office staff, cargo ship operators, etc. even mandarin growers.  Check out our instagram feed @hongkongshifts to read the stories.


What are some of the most memorable stories/people that you have interviewed?

C & M: Every story and interview are unique in its own way. There is always something new that we learn from each person we speak with, and a new perspective or a new surprise. Everyone has a meaningful and inspiring story to tell; all it takes is for someone to be open and there to listen to it.


Hong Kong is known to be a bustling city and many of us are in a constant rat race. Do you think the community is doing enough to help those in need?

C & M: We see two sides to it. There may be a significant proportion of people who are so caught up in the rat race that they are just simply not aware or they just do not have the time to stop. That said, through our project, we have also met a lot of different life circles, NGOs, social enterprises and people who are extremely passionate about helping those in need so that gives us comfort in knowing that there are a lot of incredible people out there with big hearts who want to lend a hand.


Travel Inspiration


At Page Hotels, we are all about connecting people to people and exploring the city. What do you do to explore now that traveling is not permitted?

Cynthia: I love exploring the great outdoors of Hong Kong, from hiking the amazing trails to swimming in the ocean. It is reinvigorating to experience all the incredible nature that the city has to offer.


Maxime: For me, Hong Kong is like a skyscraper. You can experience the city at many different levels depending on your mood – from exploring remote villages and hiking in stunning scenery, admiring the cityscape from a high-end restaurant, getting lost in the concrete jungle, discovering the local culture and traditions to enjoying the crazy nightlife, there are so many different levels you can experience this city! These contrasting experiences which are all just one short taxi ride away make Hong Kong a truly unique place to live and visit.  Sometimes you don’t need to travel!  The city is very dynamic, fast paced and constantly evolving. Chances are the neighbourhood you visited just a few months ago will be changed by the time you revisit it again!


Where does your travel inspiration come from?

C & M: Our travel inspiration mainly comes from friends’ recommendations and through word of mouth. We meet a lot of people from different backgrounds and experiences. Many of the best tips about Hong Kong are shared by the people we meet randomly along our path! 


What destinations are on your bucket list?

Cynthia: I personally would love to visit South America, in particular Argentina for the hiking, the culture, and the food.


Maxime: I would like to explore more of the Middle East and visit places like Tel Aviv and Iran. Central Africa is on my bucket list too. Obviously with the current pandemic, travel is not really possible right now. Luckily Hong Kong has so much to offer you never stop exploring it!


In 3 words, how would you describe Hong Kong?

C & M: Multi-layered, Contrasting, Energetic