We chat to the charismatic, eloquent and grounded Lindsay Varty about how she turned her passions into two diverse professions.
As an author and professional rugby player, Lindsay Varty has struck her ideal career balance through two very different and distinct paths. Having spent the majority of her life in Hong Kong, it’s no surprise that this city has heavily influenced her interests and lifestyle.
With a British father and Macanese Mother, her family emphasised the importance in experiencing “the real Hong Kong”, with congee brunches in Sham Shui Po and wah mui as her favourite snack. She attended King George V School (a fellow ESF kid!) before heading to the UK for university, returning to Hong Kong right after graduating.
Today, Lindsay is the award-winning author of Sunset Survivors, a gorgeously put-together coffee table book documenting the dying trades of Hong Kong and the stories behind the people that run them. She now gives lectures and walking tours exploring the themes of her book, encouraging others to appreciate Hong Kong’s unique cultural identity. On top of that, Lindsay remains a professional rugby 7s player for Hong Kong. She’s competed in international tournaments all around the world (she was part of the first ever Hong Kong rugby team to attend a World Cup). We had a chance to hear about some of Lindsay’s biggest milestones, how she maintains work-life balance and her plans for the future…
Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from and how long have you lived in Hong Kong?
I am very proud to say that I am from Hong Kong (but, when you get into it, it’s all a bit confusing). My mother is Macanese and her family has been in Hong Kong for four generations, and my father is British but came to Hong Kong when he was about 6 years old (on a boat!) and has lived here ever since. I was actually born in London but returned to Hong Kong after just 20 days and have lived here all my life, other than four years at university in the UK.
You’re the author of Sunset Survivors, can you tell us a little more about the book? What encouraged you to write it?
Sunset Survivors features photographs and interviews with 30 craftsmen and women who continue to work in some of the oldest and most traditional trades in Hong Kong. These disappearing or “sunset industries” include everything from shoe shiners and face threaders to paper effigy artists and dai pai dong workers. The photography by Gary Jones is stunning and the interviews and information about the survivors really bring it all to life and evoke a sense of nostalgia, pride and appreciation for Hong Kong people and our unique cultural identity.
Growing up in this city, my parents wanted me to get to know the true Hong Kong way of life and get to know the people. My mother would take my brother and I to eat congee with pei daan in local restaurants in Sham Shui Po and we would always shop in the wet markets where she would encourage us to speak Cantonese to the market workers and learn about the different types of vegetables and cuts of meat (“always mui tau for char siu!”). My dad would always buy flowers off street stalls rather than proper shops. As I got older and noticed this way of life being replaced by more modern and flashy alternatives, and some of these people disappearing altogether, I decided I wanted to document them and their stories before they were gone forever.
You’re also a professional Hong Kong rugby player, can you tell us a little bit about that side of your life?
I started playing rugby when I was 12 and fell in love with it straight away. I got my first call up to play for the Hong Kong national 7s team when I was 17 and played in the Hong Kong rugby 7s and had my first tour to Uzbekistan! I captained my university team in England and then returned to the HK team when I came back home. I’ve been a full time professional 7s player at the HK Sports Institute for seven years now and have loved it – despite eight shoulder dislocations! I also still play for USRC Tigers – the same club I started with at age 12.
There’s so much that comes with writing your first book. Can you share your most meaningful milestone?
The launch party last year was really special for me – G.O.D hosted it and all my friends and family were there to support me as well as a lot of book lovers! To date though, I would say being part of this year’s Hong Kong International Literary Festival has been a real honour and made me feel very proud.
What about your biggest milestone on the rugby pitch?
I have played in two Asian Games competitions, an Olympic Qualifier and perhaps most notably, the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup. But I would honestly say that I have enjoyed playing in front of a home crowd at the HK7s the most.
It’s amazing that you’re merging two very distinct careers and making it your own. What does a typical week look like for you?
I’m not as full on with rugby as I used to be, but I’m still going to a few full days of rugby training (gym and field training) a week, plus two evening training sessions and club games at the weekends. Amongst that I attend lots of work meetings, give Sunset Survivor talks at schools and societies, run walking tours and try to maintain some kind of social life! It’s full on but I love it.
What do you do in your downtime?
Well at the moment I have been watching a lot of the Rugby World Cup, but I also like hanging with friends and family in the countryside or going paddle boarding, or trying totally new and different things (e.g. looking for treasure on the beach with my metal detector!).
What are three things you do to maintain work-life balance in your day-to-day?
- Have a cut off point in the evening where I close my laptop and stop working. I work at home a lot so it’s hard to switch off sometimes – but I’ll move to my sofa and that signifies the end of the working day.
- I like to get my exercise or training done early in the day, so I can focus on work in the afternoons and evenings.
- I give myself Sundays off because it’s important to have a rest day. Also it’s the day after our club games so I’m usually pretty beaten up!
We love that Sunset Survivors is so Hong Kong-specific. Do you have any ideas for your next book?
I’m currently working on a children’s version of Sunset Survivors! I think it’s important that the younger generation know the history of their home and why this place is so special. A few other things are in the pipeline too, but all in the early stages!
What makes Hong Kong feel like home for you? What do you think makes someone a Hongkonger?
I think being a Hongkonger is about how connected you feel to the city, the people and the culture. Because once you have that sense of belonging to a place and you feel accepted by it and the people, you feel like part of the big Hong Kong Family. It’s so much more than what you look like. It’s everything from the humidity that smacks you in the face as soon as you leave your home, to the familiar sound of clattering mah jong tiles, to the nostalgic smell of roasted chestnuts in Hong Kong winter; all of these things make me feel at home. I think understanding Cantonese also reinforces my sense of belonging to Hong Kong and the people.
What are five personal goals you have for this year?
Every year I make a list of “32 before I turn 32” etc and this year, five of those goals are:
- Finish my next book
- Travel somewhere totally new
- Learn a new skill (I’ve started the guitar but I’m terrible)
- Plan my wedding (I’m getting married next year)
- Reduce my use of plastic
What are your favourite (fiction/non-fiction) books to read?
I love books about life in Hong Kong in the past. Recently I read “Diamond Hill: Memories of growing up in a Chinese squatter village” by Feng Chi-Shun which was fascinating. I also love any book by Philip Roth. I’m currently reading “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng.
How do you envision Sunset Survivors (and your career!) growing in the next 1, 5, 10 years?
I hope that Sunset Survivors can continue to educate and enlighten people about Hong Kong’s unique cultural identity and history, and bring back fond memories to those that remember the old trades in the book. I would love to continue giving talks to schools and societies, and taking people to visit the survivors at work on my walking tours too. Hopefully in the next 10 years I will have published many more books and have a podcast or TV show or something fun like that!
If you had one piece of advice to give to aspiring entrepreneurs out there, what would it be?
Talk to strangers. Every single person has their own unique story and pearls of wisdom, and you never know where your next inspiration will come from.