HK Magazine's First Person with Robin Hwang
I was born in Hong Kong in the 80s. My family is originally from Taiwan. After I was born, we went back to Taiwan for a few years. We went to Hawaii after that.
We moved back to Hong Kong. I was here from primary 3 all the way to year 9.
I was sent off to boarding school against my will—but it turned out to be great.
I was a bit of a rebel, but I always used my studies to make up for that.
When I was younger, I wanted to work for the UN, or the FBI. I wanted to be a spy.
I’ve dabbled around in different fields, but my family is in real estate, so I eventually decided to go in that direction.
My mom started the charity in 2001. I started as fundraising director. I slowly took on more responsibilities. That’s how I became executive director [in 2011].
The timing was right. Hong Kong was ready for changes in the community. People were talking about food waste and landfills.
Growing up in Hong Kong, you live in a little bubble. I’ve been very sheltered.
It wasn’t until Foodlink that I really saw [poverty]. For me, that’s my driving force.
You see things that break your heart. Until you experience that, it’s difficult to want to give back and be engaged in it.
We went to see an 87-year-old lady. She lived in a subdivided flat. Her husband had passed away and her only son is in Canada.
Part of our program is to give out bread. I told her to remember to eat it before it went bad. She gave it back to me.
She said, “I don’t need it. I’m just waiting to die.”
I was shattered. I left her flat and cried in the hallway.
The work we do is not just to provide food. It’s to provide that connection with the community, to show people we care about them and that they’re not alone.
Obviously, we have happier stories. We work with kids who save up to go to dance school. But the stories that break your heart will continue to motivate you.
When we were rebranding the charity, our slogan became “replace hunger with a smile.”
The reason we came up with this was because issues like hunger, poverty, disease and illness—these are things that unfortunately cannot be eradicated, but they can be alleviated.
Part of my frustration now is seeing the poverty level in Hong Kong remain static. It can be discouraging. You think: “Am I really making a difference?”
But then, you think: “If one child has breakfast to eat before school, that’s all the difference I need to make for today.”
It’s hard to work with volunteers who stay committed to the cause. Volunteers think, “I want to feel good about giving back.” But sometimes, giving back is about providing the skill set that you have. It’s not about that one-time feel good factor, but committing over a long period of time.
In my family, even since we were young children, the giving culture has always been very strong.
When my grandfather passed away, a lot of strangers showed up at his funeral. They were all around my age, so I started thinking: Who are they? Are we related?
It turns out, they were people in the community who couldn’t afford tuition, and my grandfather paid for them to go to school. We didn’t even know about it.
If I could give my 21-year-old self advice, I would say take more risks, and that it’s OK to fail.
I’ve been asking myself if I would leave Hong Kong for good for the past five years. I haven’t found a city where I would feel as comfortable.
It’s very difficult for me to leave my comfort zone and my family, but the older I get, the less fearful I am of pushing the boundaries and trying out new things.
I think Hong Kong has a permanence to it. There are avenues for exploration, but there are basic comforts that you’re used to.
For me, the best thing about running a charity is being able to give back to the community that I grew up in.
There are so many great charities in the world, but if one in five Hongkongers are living in poverty and not able to have three meals a day, then you need to start at home.
Want to help? Join HK Mag’s charity wine crawl, the Queen’s Road East Discovery Walk, which benefits Foodlink. Apr 18, 2:30-6pm. $199 from www.hk-magazine.com/winewalk.
Need to Know…
The Foodlink Foundation was founded by Vanessa Hwang in 2001. The NGO works to fight hunger in Hong Kong by collecting surplus food from hotels and restaurants and distributing it to people in need.