Is this the next Crazy Rich Asians?! Expat mum-of-two Stephanie Suga Chen is the author brand new book, Travails of a Trailing Spouse. She tells Carolynne Dear what prompted her to put pen to paper
So what’s it all about?
The story begins with Sarah, a lawyer in the US, quitting her job and moving to Singapore with her husband and children. They become part of a close-knit group of expatriates, enjoying alcohol-fuelled evenings together. But when cracks appear in this seemingly perfect world, Sarah and her friends discover how complicated life can be.
How long did it take you to write?
The answer usually shocks people! It took me about five weeks – I wrote a chapter a night. I think I just had it all pent up inside me, ready to flow out. Editing, well, that’s a whole other story – I think that took five months.
Have you always been a writer, or is this a shift from a previous career?
It was a complete shift; I left my career in finance when we decided to move to Singapore in 2012. Although one of my goals had been to possibly find a new career for myself, I admit it took longer than I had expected. I spent about four years floundering quite a bit – lots of yoga, lunches and volunteering until I discovered writing.
How was the writing process?
I wrote everywhere – at home, on the MRT, at school waiting for the kids. And I used many different media – laptop, phone, scribbles on a scrap of paper.
How much of the story is autobiographical?
This is everyone’s favourite question. It did start as a memoir, but I found it a lot more fun to fictionalize it. So if you’re wondering, the juicier bits are probably made up. Although I’ve heard many readers say “I know that exact person!”
Why do you think expats often struggle despite their comfortable lifestyles?
Although the novel centres around expat life, the problems that the characters face are not necessarily unique to trailing spouses. I think the journey of self-discovery applies to anyone at a crossroads in life; it just happens to have a more exotic setting – similar to Eat, Pray, Love.
What would you say are the best and the worst bits of being an expat?
For me, I would say the best is having my children experience diversity on a daily basis. The worst is definitely being away from family and friends, although that can sometimes be a good thing, too – being shielded from the stressful, Christmas holiday period is one example that springs to mind.
Any downsides to life in Singapore?
The unyielding heat takes quite a bit of getting used to.
What would be your advice to expats moving to Singapore?
Three things: 1) The fight against mold is real, 2) Enjoy every moment, 3) Read my book!
Do you have any plans for a follow-up novel?
I have several projects in the pipeline, and I’ve already collected dozens of stories for a possible sequel. If you’ve got any of those ‘too crazy to be true’ expat stories, please do send them my way!
Travails of a Trailing Spouse by Stephanie Suga Chen is published by Straits Times Press and is available internationally from stpressbooks.com.sg.
Local charity Mother’s Choice has been helping vulnerable teens and their babies for over 30 years. Carolynne Dear met with chief exec Alia Eyres
It takes passion and it takes great heart to successfully lead a charity and Alia Eyres, who heads up local non-government organisation Mother’s Choice, has these character attributes in bucketloads.
The organisation celebrated its pearl anniversary last year, an impressive thirty year history of helping one of Hong Kong’s most vulnerable sectors of society – abandoned babies and pregnant teens.
Last year alone, the charity provided 150 young children and babies with temporary care and 58 were placed with permanent families; its outreach programme offered over 10,000 young people with sexuality education workshops. It’s a multi-faceted approach to an issue that requires an holistic solution.
“Our mission is to join hands with the community, to give hope and to change the life stories of these young girls and their babies. And to do that we need to address the whole problem, from sex education in schools, through to support for the pregnant girls and aftercare for the babies, whether they are to be adopted or kept by the mother,” Eyres explains as we sit down for coffee at the charity’s baby care centre on Bowen Road. The impressive colonial building was loaned to the charity by the government in 1990. Built in 1914, it was occupied by the Royal Navy after World War 2 and in 1979 was handed to the government. Mother’s Choice took over the space on the premise that it would take care of the, by then, decrepit building.
The building now houses up to 44 babies and young children waiting for permanent families either through adoption or reunion with their birth families. Just up the road is another building belonging to the charity that offers a safe space for vulnerable pregnant teenagers. “These young women need care, support, a safe space and the ability to choose their own path,” explains Eyres.
The Mother’s Choice story began following a news report in 1986 in the South China Morning Post detailing how pregnant girls as young as 13 were crossing the border into China for cheap, no-questions-asked abortions. It was estimated in the report that as many as 100 girls a day from Hong Kong were seeking such services, paying $700 for a fetus as progressed as nine months to be terminated.
The report was seen by Eyres’ parents as well as by friends who at the time were providing services to help Vietnamese refugees.
“They were shocked,” says Eyres, who was just nine at the time. “But instead of shrugging and saying ‘what can we do?’, they seriously asked ‘what can we do?’ and ended up launching Mother’s Choice, so-called because they wanted these vulnerable young girls to have a choice.”
Co-founder Helen Stephens was particularly touched by the girls’ plight as her own sister had faced a crisis pregnancy ten years previously. “Our whole family kept it a secret,” she said. “She was sent away and gave birth to a healthy baby girl whom she never held… She was never able to recover from the trauma, from sudden loss of innocence, from a total loss of former self. I knew that girls in Hong Kong faced the same scrutiny and judgement, and I felt led to support them.”
The four co-founders didn’t really know what to do next, but Eyres’ father (who was a former journalist) decided they should hold a press conference to publicise things. “A local hospital immediately called to place a pregnant young girl with them and twenty four hours later the first ‘Mother’s Choice baby’ was born.”
Over the next 30 years, the charity would care for over 2,000 babies and serve more than 53,000 pregnant girls with counselling, parental support and adoption.
“In 30 years, the biggest miracle that we have seen at Mother’s Choice is the change in attitude of our community,” says Eyres’ father, Ranjan Marwah. “At the start, many people asked why I wanted to help those ‘naughty girls’. Some of those same people are now our biggest supporters and they value the young women and children so differently. That gives me great hope for Hong Kong.”
At the time of the charity’s inception, Eyres’ father was in the throes of setting up a new business and her mother was taking care of their large, young family (Eyres is the oldest of seven children). But nevertheless they threw themselves into the charity.
“And that’s the point,” says Eyres. “There is never a right time, we constantly say ‘oh, I’ll step up when I’ve got more money, or when the kids are older, or when I’ve got a better job’, but there really is no time like the present. If you want to volunteer, now is as good a time as any.”
Eyres herself was born and brought up in Hong Kong, attending Bradbury and South Island Schools before moving to the US for her tertiary education. Her mother is American, her father Indian, and rather romantically they met on Star Ferry. She returned to Hong Kong fourteen years later as a corporate lawyer and never dreamed she would end up heading up the charity her parents had founded. But with the support of the board, she took over as chief executive officer in 2012.
The project Eyres is currently most proud of is a community-based foster care programme called Project Bridge that she launched four years ago. As she animatedly explains, a care home is no place for a baby. Children thrive best when nurtured in a loving, family environment.
“Sometimes we wait to place the baby back with its natural mother, but she often needs time to stabilise her situation. Or the baby is to be placed with an adoptive family, but it takes a minimum of six months for the paperwork to be processed. Project Bridge aims to provide that vital stepping stone between care home and forever home. Volunteers need to have been in Hong Kong for one year with plans to stay for two more, and be living in a clean and safe space to look after a child for up to a year.”
Mum-of-one Jasmin Blunck had seven-week-old baby ‘W’ placed in her care for seven weeks before he was moved on to a permanent home. “We loved being able to make a difference to his life,” she said. “You don’t need to be the perfect parent or have a massive house to be able to do this; anyone can. And what a Project Bridge family offers is so much better than the alternative.”
Project Bridge is currently desperate for volunteers and Eyres is quick to reassure that all Bridge families receive appropriate training and plenty of full-time support. They are also cleverly paired with a ‘buddy family’ who can step in when Bridge families need a bit of extra support.
The Bowen Road baby care home itself is light and bright, the rooms filled with smiling babies and toys and the walls busy with colourful photos, pictures and schedules. Mother’s Choice goes the extra mile to ensure each child is cared for as an individual rather than a number in a cot. There are excursions three times a week, carers put together a portfolio for each child (“it’s important that this stage of the child’s life is properly recorded, it all contributes to a proper sense of self later on,” says Eyres), the toddlers each have their own wardrobe of little clothes to choose from and a friend of the charity stitches colourful bed quilts for the children. There are also facilities for a small number of special needs children, with trained staff able to meet speech therapy and occupational health requirements. In a word, children that might be written off elsewhere are offered a chance to thrive.
But how does Eyres keep so positive when surrounded daily with stories of abandoned babies, abused young girls and general despair, I wonder?
“Because for every desperate story, there is a case with a positive outcome. I’ve been told over the years that babies wouldn’t survive, that they’d amount to nothing. And time after time we’ve proved the naysayers wrong.” She points to a photo of a severely facially disfigured young toddler on the wall. “We were told this little thing had no hope, that she’d amount to nothing with that kind of disability. And then a couple came here to volunteer, fell in love with her, adopted her, put her through numerous reconstructive surgeries and she went on to graduate from Harvard and now has a successful career in the US,” Eyres smiles proudly.
“And in 30 years we have come full circle for some. Some of our babies now volunteer with us. They say it takes a village to raise a child, at Mother’s Choice we see the miracles that can happen every day if the community opens up its heart. I am full of hope.”
In a shock announcement, catering group Castelo Concepts has said it will be ceasing its Jaspas Junk business as of May 1.
Citing rising operational costs and the high levels of expensive maintenance required to keep its ageing fleet of boats running, Castelo co-founders Brian and Wayne Parfitt say they will be concentrating on the group’s chain of restaurants moving forward.
“Although we will no longer be chartering the junks, we will offer a variety of catering options via our restaurants for guests to book when they take out their own junk, or book a third party charter option.” The pair also own oceanfront restaurant Jaspas Beach Club in Sai Kung which is sure to prove a popular spot for lunch with a water view.
The Parfitt brothers originally picked up their fleet of six boats from HSBC at HK$50,000 each during the global financial crisis. At the time, HSBC was cutting back on corporate entertainment and Wayne was keen to set up a commercial junk business having enjoyed days out on his own boat since the early ‘90s.
“We used to have these awesome parties and I thought maybe there would be some traction in renting junks commercially with drinks and a BBQ,” he said.
The resultant Jaspas Junks business achieved legendary status with expats throughout the territory, offering an unbeatable free-flow package with BBQ lunch, homemade pizzas and chocolate cake sailing home and oodles of Seabreezes that could be enjoyed afloat a noodle.
“I can’t believe Jaspas junks are no more!” lamented one expat. “Oh my god we’ve had so much fun on those boats over the years. Nobody could beat their food, drink and all-day boating package.” For an extra charge, kids could spend the day zooming around on a banana while the adults got down to the serious business of socialising. During the course of research for this article, only one party was discovered to have drunk a Jaspas junk dry – “and of course the staff immediately jumped into the speedboat to pick up top-ups back in Sai Kung,” admitted a member of the party (no names shall be named).
The junks operated out of Causeway Bay and Pak Sha Wan in Sai Kung and while there are many more Island-based junk operators, it is believed the Sai Kung crowd may struggle to find similar boat packages without a surcharge being added on for the New Territories pick-up.
“We’d like to give our skippers a special shout out, as well as our staff. They’ve helped us to build this great fun day out on Hong Kong waterways into such unique memories for so many,” continued the brothers. “For catering options, please contact Oolaa, Wagyu, Jaspas Sai Kung, Castelo Catering or High Street Grill.”
Hong Kong-based photographer Jo Farrell has spent a decade travelling to mainland China to document the last few surviving women who underwent the centuries old Chinese practice of foot binding. The resulting exhibition, Bound Feet Women of China, is now open at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Science.
“I have been living in and out of Asia for the last 25 years and am fascinated by the culture here. Back in 2006, I decided to focus my photography on female traditions. My first thought was of the Chinese women who bound their feet. Novels Wild Swans (Jung Chang, 1991) and Life & Death in Shanghai (Nien Cheng, 1987) first introduced me to foot binding and I guessed there must still be a few women alive who had undergone this process. Foot binding was outlawed in the early twentieth century, but the practice persisted in rural areas until the late 1940s.
“I started to ask around amongst my contacts in mainland China and eventually came across a driver who said his grandmother had bound feet. She became the first woman to feature in the project.
“Since then, mainly through word-of-mouth, I have discovered more women. Most are from Shandong Province and also Yunnan and Shaanxi.
“Like most people, I had preconceptions about foot binding. But when I held a bound foot in my hands for the first time, it was so soft and beautifully structured that I realised how much the women must have gone through to obtain what was considered at the time to be beautiful. The practice of foot binding resonated with me as even today, we place increasing value on the way someone looks rather than the actual substance of a person; whether they are fundamentally good, supportive, creative, interesting, passionate and so forth.
“Traditionally, foot binding would begin with the toenails being clipped and then the feet being soaked in hot water to soften the tissue and bones to facilitate the manipulation. All the toes on the foot, except the big one, were then folded under the sole and the toes bound in place with a long cotton cloth bandage. One way to physically encourage foot reduction was by swapping the girl’s shoes for a smaller, tighter pair every few months. Many of the women told me that the cotton bindings were sewn in place to stop the child removing the bandage. They were forced to regularly walk so that their own weight crushed their toes underneath them. In the early years, the washing and binding was carried out by the mother. As time passed, the girls themselves tightened the bandages on their own. Many of the women in this project chose to bind their own feet as their mothers refused to do it; when asked why they said they did it to ‘fit in’ with their friends and to ensure they had good marriage prospects. Some of the women only had their feet bound for a short length of time before it was outlawed but the damage had already been done. There were no formal guidelines for foot-binding and the feet were often bound in inelegant ways.
“Foot binding represents ‘old China’ and most of the women I spoke with condoned the practice. It impeded their ability to work and to provide food for their family during the cultural revolution and ensuing great famine. But having bound feet was imperative to finding a good matrimonial match and the smaller and more well-formed the bound foot, the more options were available to women. When the feet were unbound, the foot naturally spread and the women I spoke with were eager to convey, with what I believe was pride, that they once had feet two or three inches smaller than they are now. I think it is important that they feel their efforts were not in vain and I hope my photographs come across as both meaningful and beautiful.
“When I give lectures about foot binding I talk about what we consider to be beauty and how it differs in every culture. My work is about the the limits women will go to to be accepted in their own society.
“Over the past 13 years I have visited some of these women every year. I follow through and find out how their lives are progressing. I really enjoy my visits, it feels like I have an army of grandmothers out there. I share meals with them and drink lots of tea. We enjoy our time together.”
Local artist Helen Boyd and friend Natashi Kefford are launching HeArtWalk 2018, a two-day exhibition of art and postcards created by dozens of Hong Kong-based students, artists and art teachers from several schools.
The family-friendly event is the culmination of a year-long HeArt art project during which Boyd pledged to post pictures of handmade HeArts daily on her Instagram and Facebook pages. Followers were then able to request the heart be sent to themselves or to somebody with whom they wanted to ‘share the love’. Boyd’s hearts have travelled from Hong Kong to over 40 different countries. One follower requested a heart be sent to her daughter who was working as a frontline combat medic in Afghanistan.
“The project has made more of an impact than I had expected,” said Boyd. “It’s amazing to see the impression paper and pen can have on people.”
The walk takes participants through Sai Kung to participating businesses who are displaying HeArtWalk art. The final destination will be Boyd’s H Gallery where professional artists have donated work which will be available for purchase through a silent auction.
Tickets will go on sale a week before the event when those taking part in the walk can collect stamps from the participating businesses, these stamps will then entitle them to enter a raffle. Dozens of businesses in Sai Kung have donated prizes, from hair products to helicopter rides. Money raised from both the raffle and the silent auction will go to charities including ‘House with Heart’, a home for abandoned children in Kathmandu, Nepal.
HeArtWalk 2018 will take place on April 21 and 22, the art auction will take place 6-8.30pm, April 21, tickets are $200 with a map for the artwalk displayed on the back of the ticket. Tickets are available from H Studio Gallery, 1/1 Wan King Path, Sai Kung, @helenbrontebodyartist, facebook.com/HStudioGallery.
Eclectic boutique Apartment 49 will be ‘popping up’ in Central next week. Here’s why you need to check it out
Team-of-two George Lyons and George Woods launched their curated homewares business when they couldn’t find the products that they loved in Hong Kong. Urged on by enthusiastic friends, they now stock a range of diverse goodies from around the world. Their African ‘juju’ wall art pieces went down a storm last season.
Both long-term Hong Kong residents, they juggle Apartment 49 with busy family lives – between them they have six children under the age of 12.
“Having a pop-up in Central is the best,” enthuses Lyons. “It means we get to bring in loads of new stock for customers to see. At the moment, we have a huge range of homewares, statement jewellery” (their fabulous earrings will take you from beach to bar with great style) “handbags, swimwear and pool accessories.”
Of note, Apartment 49 is one of only a handful of Hong Kong-based stores that stock adult rash-vests (they source them from Australian-based Acqua Brand), a must-have when you’re living under an Asian sun – nobody wants to come off a junk imitating the lunch buffet prawns.
And with that number of offspring, the Georges are expert at sourcing gorgeous gifts and kids toys. So if you’ve got birthday parties looming on the horizon, this is your go-to pop-up.
New for this season include all-new homewares, Katie Luxton pouches and jewellery, Kollab shopping and beach bags, Cocolux Onyx candles and a new body and bath range called Bondi Wash. “We’ll also have the latest range of Keep Cup reusable coffee cups in lots of new styles and colours,” says Lyons. “We’re passionate about eliminating single-use plastic.”
“We source our products from all over the place. Let’s face it, it’s never a chore,” admits Woods. “Both Aussies by birth, we do have a soft spot for Australian collections, but we’re basically drawn to small businesses like ourselves. It’s great to be able to support them. My favourite line this season is our new Tribal Artwork from Melbourne-based artist Anna Mulcahey,” she adds.
Lyons, meanwhile, has her eyes firmly on the handcrafted French Laguiole knives.
The Apartment 49 Pop-Up runs from Tuesday March 20 to Saturday March 24, 10am-8pm, and Sunday March 25, 11am-5pm, 33 Wellington Street, Central, apartment49.com.
Nicole Denholder, founder of crowdfunding initiative Next Chapter, explains why women are being served a smaller slice of the financial pie when it comes to funding startups. She was speaking at Hong Kong’s International Women’s Day Networking Event
It seems as if every week in Hong Kong there’s a new diary date involving entrepreneurs, and usually female entrepreneurs at that. Whether it’s a networking event, a new launch, a panel discussion or a pop-up shop, small, female-driven enterprises appear to be big business in this dynamic city. This week it was the turn of the International Women’s Day Networking Event, organised by three local small business owners.
According to studies in the US, female-led startups deliver high returns. Seed-stage venture firm First Round Capital found that companies with a woman at the helm performed 63% better than those with all-male teams. But despite this, companies led by females receive just 5% of venture dollars. Globally, it is estimated just 5-10% of women owned businesses have access to commercial bank loans. Until 1988, women in the US had to have a man guarantee a loan if it amounted to more than US$50,000.
In Hong Kong it’s a similar story. According to The Women’s Foundation (TWF), Hong Kong has a heavy gender skew. A massive 81% of high growth entrepreneurs are male and the ratio of male to female employers is 3.5 to 1. TWF believes targeted assistance is crucial to close the gap and to empower women-owned businesses to reach their full potential.
Nicole Denholder, founder of Next Chapter, a crowdfunding portal for women, has over twenty years in project and merger management – much of it for multinationals – under her belt. When it comes to launching a business, she’s been there, advised on that. Realising that women weren’t getting a fair slice of the investment cake, she was keen to get Next Chapter off the ground.
“Because women aren’t so dominant in business, they don’t tend to have the know-how that men have to access loans, and that is a major drawback,” she says. “Over the last 30 years things have improved, but women are still losing out on dollars when it comes to funding. When you mention an enterprise is female-driven, it’s always assumed that it is low cost. When I tell men I crowd fund for women, the automatic assumption is that it’s for low investment enterprises. Ok, we can’t all be unicorns (startups with a value of over US$1 billion) but we’re often worth more than what is assumed.
With Next Chapter, Denholder wanted to provide some sort of service that involved working with women, pushing female businesses to the next level. The crowdfunding idea is simple, but effective. A project or venture is launched online and investors are invited to contribute a small amount of money towards it in return for the product or service.
This year she’s launching an advisory service to help women sit at the table more effectively. “This won’t guarantee a better loan, but it does guarantee a better fighting chance,” she says. “We want to help women understand business jargon and what is required of them when the talk turns to areas such as ‘equity’ and ‘business value’. If you haven’t been in business before, why on earth would you understand these terms?”
Along with an understanding of how business works, Denholder lists passion and drive as key to success. “One of my clients was in the corporate world but desperately wanted to embrace her creative side as an illustrator. She had the drive, but had never been professionally trained. She crowdfunded a very conservative US$2,000 to launch some Christmas cards, but because this was something she really wanted to do and was passionate about it she really worked hard and this small step has now led to corporate commissions for logos, children’s book illustrations and mural work. It’s a great story.”
Denholder is eventually aiming to launch Next Chapter internationally. “I just want to keep women moving on to the next level,” she says. She recommends women take a look at internationalwomensday.com to find out how they can ‘press for progress’ in 2018.
According to research carried out by HSBC for International Women’s Day, just over half of expat women surveyed viewed Hong Kong as the best area in Asia Pacific to improve their earning prospects. This compared with over 70% who considered Singapore to be the most lucrative country. Hong Kong also trailed Singapore when it came to work culture and personal full-fillment at work. However, the SAR was considered the top place to acquire new skills and 64% agreed it was a good place to progress their careers. For job security, Japan and Taiwan were rated top of the table.