High-rise to low rice

Hong Kong has long enjoyed a love affair with high-rises. Its citizens positively aspire to the perpendicular and prefer to live at a great height and walk from one air-conditioned building to another on elevated, covered walk-ways that protect them from the elements and the traffic fumes below.

But one group has its feet firmly on the ground. A small but growing number of urbanites are turning their backs on this efficient but artificial environment. Instead, they have chosen to live off the land, a rare choice in a city where agriculture makes up less than 0.1 per cent of the economy and where most of the foodstuff is imported from mainland China.

Steve Cheung is the owner of O-Veg, a vegetable farm with a restaurant catering to weekend visitors. He decided seven years ago that he wanted to escape the “capitalist consumerism” that pervades Hong Kong’s mainstream culture, and the pressure that comes with being in a city where the cost of housing, compared with average wages, is among the highest in the world.

He had his first taste of farming around 20 years ago when he spent his spare time at weekends on a friend’s farm. But he still had plenty to learn when he took the leap and signed a lease for an abandoned chicken farm in a relatively undeveloped area near the border with mainland China. The place was derelict: there was a crumbling village house, a few wooden barns that were rotting and around 25,000 sq ft of empty land covered in knee-high weeds. On the plus side, it was in an established village with a number of commercial organic farmers, there was electricity supply, plenty of underground water and the rent was cheap.

BearBear the cat, one of many pets at O-Veg

“I wanted to get my life back. Land, to me, offers that freedom,” says the 49-year-old.

Not that Cheung had been chained to a white-collar treadmill. He was a freelance movie art director who travelled regularly. Working on location in remote areas such as the Amazon and Antarctica made it easier to imagine a life without shopping malls, he says.

His experience as a parent also had an impact, an experience shared by many urban families worried about the effect of city life on their children. His first son, now nine, was often ill, which he blames on Hong Kong’s poor air quality. He also cites impurities found in foodstuff that mainly comes from mainland China, which is rife with scandals over food safety. That was one reason why his first wife moved to the UK with their son, he says.

Lean, tanned and pony-tailed, Cheung has remarried and his second son, aged two, is far healthier. He attributes this to a diet of organic food and the immunity that the child has probably built up by playing in the mud and soil.

The living area that Cheung shares with his family

He started out on his own and lived off his savings. Then, in 2009, he was joined by three artist friends who also decided they wanted to quit the city. The four recognised that they were kindred spirits when they joined a campaign to prevent one of Hong Kong’s few remaining farming communities, Tsoi Yuen Village, from being torn down to make way for a high-speed rail link. The campaign failed but their shared belief in an alternative lifestyle was unshakeable.

Herbs including Asian basil and parsley

It has taken years of non-stop tinkering, but the living quarters and the restaurant area today have a homely and inviting air. Two of the newer members live in a big bedroom just off the dining area. Cheung and his family live in the original two-storey village house – now perfectly habitable with mosquito screens on the windows and air-conditioning – that is separated from the kitchen by a home-made clay oven. It took a while for his wife, a former film costume designer, to get used to living on the farm after moving in with him a couple of years ago. “We try to minimise the amount of energy we use – and there is sufficient underground water for irrigation and for flushing the toilet (which uses a septic tank). But I don’t insist we live in the dark ages,” he says. The kitchen uses water from the mains.

Siu Ming picking herbs

The restaurant mainly serves western-style vegetarian dishes and generates enough income to cover the costs of running the farm, including some wages paid to the three new members. But they are making less than when they ran a restaurant in town, which closed a year ago when the landlord demanded 60 per cent more rent. The team members supplement their income by taking on freelance design and photography work, while Cheung has a part-time job as an agricultural consultant. His wife is the only one who spends all her time on the farm, running the restaurant. This, he says, is the “half-farmer, half-X” concept put forward by Naoki Shiomi, the Japanese writer, in the 1990s. The “X” is anything you need to do to support the farming lifestyle, which should be your main identity.

“Our main goal is to build a self-sufficient community. That’s our reaction against becoming just a tiny screw in the massive machinery that is capitalism and globalisation,” he says.

The kitchen in the O-Veg

The Tsoi Yuen Village campaign also prompted Jenny Li, a 34-year-old, to turn to farming.

The former primary school teacher and five other activists spent months living among the Tsoi Yuen villagers, who gave the city dwellers a plot of their own to experiment with. “The campaign only lasted a few months but it forced us to look into a lot of deep issues so we were looking for ways to sustain the movement. Hong Kong people often say, ‘I don’t like living like this, but what other choice is there?’ That’s what we want to address,” she says.

Freshly dug potatoes

Initially, her group only planned to run periodic farming workshops. But an organic specialist who they turned to for help said he wouldn’t get involved if they only “dabbled”. “So we had no choice but to plunge ourselves into a new life about three years ago,” she says.

The farm they run today is called Sangwoodgoon, which means the hall of living. Like O-Veg, which is nearby, it is around 30,000 sq ft and located next to established farms. Li and another member of the group live 10 minutes’ walk away – they are the ones who work the fields – while the other three live further away and focus on sales and marketing.

“We do have to take up part-time or freelance work outside to survive. We are producing more and more as we become better farmers, but we sell around HK$7,000 worth of vegetables a month. Given there are five of us, it’s not a living wage,” she says. She spends four days of the week on the farm and teaches the rest of the time.

Steve Cheung, owner of O-Veg

It’s a hard life. The house she lives in has no air conditioning and they have had to learn everything from scratch. “Us city folks have zero survival skills,” she says.

Fortunately, the farmers nearby are happy to share tips and that, in turn, probably helps to preserve traditional wisdom that is otherwise dying out. The group decided to try growing rice – an activity once prevalent in Hong Kong, where rice is the staple food, but which has now disappeared thanks to urbanisation and cheaper imports.

“We couldn’t figure out why the water wouldn’t stay in the paddy field the first time we tried to grow rice. Fortunately, an older farmer next door remembered how his family had this special way of sealing the edges with soil, and it worked. Last year, we yielded 60kg of the finest Jiangxi rice!”

She doesn’t expect her lifestyle to become mainstream but hopes that more people will look at what she’s done and be inspired. “I used to fear bugs. I knew absolutely nothing about growing things. But I’ve learned. I can now witness nature’s own rules and its own rhythm,” she says.

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