We chat to Hong Kong Shifts Co-Founder Cynthia Cheng about her biggest milestones, the many hats she wears and her future aspirations.
Our That Girl this month is the multitalented and driven Cynthia Cheng, who co-founded social impact platform Hong Kong Shifts. The project aims to raise awareness of the unsung heroes who work tirelessly in the background to keep our city running, whilst building bridges in our community through visual storytelling.
Ahead, she shares what inspired her to start the storytelling project, how she hopes to see the platform grow, as well as her personal interests and more…
Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from and how long have you lived in Hong Kong?
I was born in Toronto and grew up in Hong Kong. I spent close to 10 years living and working in London and moved back to Hong Kong just three years ago.
You’re the co-founder of Hong Kong Shifts. Can you tell us a little more about the social impact platform? What encouraged you to start it?
I started the project with my co-founder Maxime in July 2019. We noticed that there were so many shift workers in our living and working environments, working so hard to keep our communities running like clockwork, and that they were often being overlooked and taken for granted in our busy lives. The idea behind Hong Kong Shifts is that everyone has a story to tell regardless of their ethnicity, gender, age or socio-economic background.
Maxime has always been a keen photographer and I have always loved to write, so we started what was initially a storytelling side-project. Our first interview was with Maxime’s security guard, Mei Fung. We met her for lunch at a cha chaan teng, chatted with her and shared her story on social media. From then on, we kept going and have since interviewed and shared the stories of over 60 individuals.
There’s so much that comes with starting a storytelling platform. Can you share your most meaningful milestone?
We’ve had a few small milestones since creating the project from scratch – some exciting ones include our first community event and exhibition titled “Hong Kong Included” and speaking on a couple of podcasts. But one that is dear to our hearts is our first storytelling campaign project with the Nesbitt Centre.
The Nesbitt Centre is a fantastic social enterprise that trains and employs individuals with learning disabilities at their network of cafes and bakeries. We were fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to interview and produce a series of stories featuring the wonderful Nesbitt employees. The process of collaboration was so enjoyable and it was really fulfilling to be able to create and share some inspiring stories for such a meaningful cause.
What about your biggest milestone outside of work?
Hopefully the biggest one is yet to come! Perhaps a personal milestone is getting into open water swimming last year. Even though I am not a super strong swimmer and am slower than my more athletic peers, there is something that is at once so meditative and liberating about swimming in the ocean which I really enjoy. The craziest swim that I have done (so far) is from Cape D’Aguilar straight across to Stanley.
You’re also juggling work as a freelance writer and graphic designer. Can you tell us a little bit about that side of your life?
I was a corporate lawyer for almost eight years in London and Hong Kong until I decided to take a leap of faith to pursue an alternative career path a couple of years ago. I now work for an NGO that champions workplace mental health, a cause that I am very passionate about. I also freelance as a writer and graphic designer and, of course, work on Hong Kong Shifts.
It is not easy to wear different hats on a daily basis, but through this journey of exploring career paths I have tried as much as possible to align my values with my work. I have also discovered that I am really passionate about amplifying and communicating meaningful messages in creative ways, through both words and visuals – and this, I realise with the benefit of hindsight, is a common strand that runs through everything that I now do.
It’s amazing that you’re merging different career paths and making it your own. What does a typical week look like for you?
Every day of every week is different and the flexibility is something that I really enjoy. One day I could be writing an article about mental health and mocking up designs. Another day I could be doing interviews, attending meetings and writing stories for Hong Kong Shifts. The next day I might be doing site visits at NGOs, collaborating with other creatives or going to a sustainability conference. It’s really a mixed bag and whilst the uncertainty has taken a bit of getting used to, it has really taught me to be open to and seize opportunities.
What do you do in your downtime?
I love to read, write, draw, go on hikes, practise yoga and go open water swimming. I also really enjoy a good meal and drink, especially when it’s with good company.
What are three things you do to maintain work-life balance in your day-to-day?
- Practising a short morning ritual: this simply involves brewing some nice tea and sitting down for a quiet 10 minute meditation. It helps to set the tone for the day.
- Staying active: I try to be out in nature as much as possible and do sports whenever I can – whether it be long hikes, a short yoga session or a boxing class.
- Journaling: writing is therapeutic for me and I spend a few minutes at the end of each day jotting down what’s on my mind, what I had done that day and sometimes even random and fun things that I have learned.
What are five personal goals you have for this year?
- Grow and build my work around social impact, in particular on social inclusion, sustainability and mental health.
- Spend more time in nature, up in the trails and in the ocean.
- Continue to grow Hong Kong Shifts as a social impact storytelling platform and work on more storytelling projects.
- Pay more attention to self-care (sometimes it’s easy to de-prioritise this in light of other things).
- Continue to nourish more meaningful and authentic relationships.
What makes Hong Kong feel like home for you? What do you think makes someone a Hongkonger?
What I love above Hong Kong is that the richness and contrast of this city is second to none – from the mountains and the sea to the stunning skyline, charming alleyways and local culture… there’s always so much more to discover in this little metropolis that I call home. I also find the Cantonese dialect so incredibly witty and dynamic, and I’m grateful to be able to communicate with it fluently.
The beauty of Hong Kong is that it is so wonderfully diverse and multi-layered that there is no single definition of being a Hongkonger. Anyone who identifies with, lives and loves the culture and eccentricities of Hong Kong (whichever facet of it that may be) is a Hongkonger.
We are huge fans of Hong Kong Shifts and love that it’s telling stories that feel so unique to our city. How do you want to see it grow?
We would love for Hong Kong Shifts to be Hong Kong’s leading social impact storytelling platform. Our goal is to build bridges and encourage our communities to interact with each other with more empathy and kindness through stories that move and connect. Storytelling is a powerful tool to convey meaningful messages, and we hope to be able to collaborate creatively on projects, initiatives and campaigns to create positive impact in fun, surprising and engaging ways.
What are some of your favourite platforms to follow?
Believe it or not, I actually don’t spend as much time on social media as you might think! There are some platforms that I love: The Depression Project shares some great mental health awareness facts using simple graphics. I’m also a fan of illustrators like Lisa Congdon, Charlie Macksey, Don Mak and Abstract Sunday, and Designers Humour is always a great one for laughs. I hear a project called Hong Kong Shifts has some cool stories too…
How do you envision Hong Kong Shifts (and your career) growing in the next one, five, 10 years?
One thing I have learnt in these past couple of years is that it is almost impossible to plan and have any fixed visions for the next year, let alone five or 10 years. On the one hand, there are uncertainties and external factors that can throw things out of order at any time. On the other, opportunities and ideas can really pop up out of nowhere. That is how we have so far grown Hong Kong Shifts – from the beginning, there was never a concrete plan, but it has somehow taken a creative life of its own.
What has made this project so exciting and meaningful to work on is that we have jumped on different opportunities that have arisen, continued to take chances of trial and error, followed leads that have resonated with our mission and passion, and have allowed our abstract ideas and creativity to merge and materialise. I hope that both my career and Hong Kong Shifts can continue to grow organically, creatively and with purpose in the coming years.
If you had one piece of advice to give people merging multiple career paths, what would it be?
It is scary to change careers and merge career paths, but one thing I would say is to keep learning about and doing what interests you and makes you feel alive, even if these things may at first seem incongruous or unrelated, or if you may not necessarily see a clear goal that you are working towards. I’m learning that with an openness to learn, often these paths will naturally merge as common themes and values begin to emerge. I definitely went through a long period where I felt lost, alone and afraid (and sometimes still do). It is not easy to navigate a path less well-trodden, but I am starting to genuinely believe that with passion, persistence and purpose, it will all work out. As they say, keep calm and carry on!