Cloe Lai Interview
In this interview, Cloe Lai discusses her experiences collecting everyday stories about human interaction with space. She then comments on how her background in journalism informs her view on the importance of everyday stories—and how these stories can fill the gap in understanding grand level projects such as land reclamation.
ControlStorytellingUrban SpaceInteractionSustainabilityBuilt EnvironmentJournalismPoliciesThe EverydayUrban PlanningFishingLand ReclamationVoicesCoastlineFishEcologyAnxietyPolitical ClimateOppressionSpaceDevelopmentEnvironment
Dr. Joanne Leow
Malaysia Building. 50 Gloucester Road , Wanchai, Hong Kong
0:15 Chloe Lai: My name’s Chloe Lai. I am a story collector, storyteller, and also a writer and researcher. An urbanist, that’s how I usually describe myself. What I’m doing is I’m running a website, it is called The Urban Diary, we mainly features ordinary people, the everyday life of ordinary people, and then the space element is embedded in the stories. For example, we have stories of how…a second-hand bookshop in a tenement building, or—in Singapore you call it shop houses—or young entrepreneur using, going to industrial buildings to start a new, to start a business. So, it is the everyday life, the people’s everyday life in Hong Kong. And then it usually has this space element, but then the space is quite hidden, it’s embedded in the everyday story, and then what we’re trying to do is highlighting the interaction between human being and then space, how space is affecting the action, and then how the action also alters space. And then the goal is to promote sustainability, because if a city needs to be sustainable, we need to be diverse, we need to have a suitable built environment that people can carry out their dream, that their dream come true. So, that’s why, and then we think that storytelling a very powerful tool to make more people understand how other people live, and how they interact with space. And then technology provides us a very good opportunity, because with the website we can have text, we can have audio, we can have visual, and then we can able to reach out to a lot of people beyond Hong Kong with very little money, and then—although people keep saying the negative side of social media, however for a small NGO, social media is very important because up ‘til now we never spent any money on advertising, it’s all because of social media, we can reach out to many people. So that’s basically how—why we are here, and then how we run the website. 2:55 Joanne Leow: So, when you say storytelling, and listening to people’s stories specifically, what is so powerful about listening to someone tell their story in their own voice about the city they live in? 3:08 Chloe Lai: Well, because oftentimes…okay, I think it’s related to my background, and if I put into my background, maybe…well, that’s the language I use. My background is journalist—I’m not sure whether you’re aware of it—my background is journalist, so when you’re doing journalism, when you’re in the industry, so what we normally do in the industry is we…our stories about policies, and then the people we interview, they are decision-makers, they’re community leaders, they’re business leaders. So, for example, if there’s a new policy and then we explain the new policy to the public, and then we have these community leaders giving you comments, whether it is a good thing or bad thing, or any drawbacks, that sort of thing. Or sometimes we do investigation news covering the dark side of society. However, that is very remote from people’s everyday life, you know, when you talk about policy it can be very dry, and then when you have opinionators commenting, still that is not how people experience their life every day. So, if you really want to promote certain idea, for example sustainability, for example the diverse of different land use, that is not a good idea. So, we think that—but then if we put people’s story, you know, that’s this real person, and then this real person’s real experience, and then we show the public this real thing, and then let them understand and let them feel how that would be like. We think that would be a lot more powerful in explaining and promoting the idea that we want to promote. 5:06 Joanne Leow: And in terms of the rapid changes that are occurring in terms of the Hong Kong skyline, but also I’m really interested in the coastal changes, like the West Kowloon Cultural District, all this land reclamation, what do you think is your—the importance of your work in the context of these huge urban planning initiatives? 5:26 Chloe Lai: Oh, I think our work will able to fill the gap. When there—you know, for example with Kowloon Cultural District, whether we should have this museum or how the museum should be run, that is at this policy level, you know, grand level. But then it still, there’s this gap between the grand level and the people’s everyday life. But putting up people’s everyday life and how that’s going to affect people’s life, we would be able to connect the two things. So, for example, we have…we made a documentary about harbour reclamation, you can find it on our website. We interviewed two fishermen, and then these two—one is a fisherman, he’s still practicing fishing, he still goes out and fish everyday, and then there’s another gentleman, he still lives in the Causeway Bay typhoon shelter, and then he…he used to be a fisherman, and now what he’s doing is the ferry, the boat that he’s drive…people want to do leisure fishing, maybe they hire him, and then he go out to the sea, and then that’s how he make his living. So I asked them about how harbour reclamation impact their life, and then they told me how that impact their life, and then it made me realize when I was a journalist and then when I was covering harbour reclamation, and then there is one specific sector of people’s voices being missed, is completely absent: that is the fishermen. You know, they are very major stakeholders when it come to reclamation. However, when we, maybe when we are talking about harbour reclamation, there will be the government’s side of view, or the environmentalist’s side of view, or the planner’s side of view in terms of cityscape, in terms of aesthetic. However, this group of people, they make their living from the sea, but then they’re not the people who will go to the lawmaking body, they don’t go to Parliament, right, they’re not the kind of people who make a speech in Parliament, and then their voice is totally missing, and then we have forgotten how harbour reclamation affects their life. For example, they told me that the normal coastline is like this, right, there’s ups and downs and there’s rock, and then the…this look would be in this way, right. However, when you reclaim the land from the sea, this will be, like, cliff, it is totally artificial. And then if it is a natural coastline, there will be many space or area that the fish can have their egg put there, and then the small fish grow up because there are areas that the wave is not that strong, you know, the small fish can grow up. But then if you turn it into cliff, then the fish has nowhere to lay their egg, and then the small fish would have no area to grow up because there’s no shelter. So that is a very real impact to fish, and then also to the fishermen. So…but then that side of story is totally missing in the discussion, so that’s how…I think that is a very strong case of explaining why storytelling is very important if we genuinely want the city to be a sustainable place where everybody can live a better life. 9:48 Joanne Leow: And when you have been interviewing—and now you’ve interviewed a range of people, obviously, like this project has been going for a while—I mean, what is the general feeling about Hong Kong’s direction in terms of urban planning? Is there a lot of anxiety, is there a lot of contentment? I don’t know, what is their general feeling towards it, and how does that come out when they’re talking about the city? 10:13 Chloe Lai: Well, in terms of anxiety, I think there is this, yeah, we must admit that there is a strong sense of anxiety in Hong Kong, especially in recent year, and that is political reason. And then because of the political climate, people start to feel like, that they have no…their role on changing society is diminishing very quickly. So, that is the anxiety, because they don’t feel that their voice is being respected. In the past, they feel like, okay, if I don’t like the policy, I can still voice my disagreement, and then the government would still respect my view, and then there is still ways to make it better; however, as the political climate is increasingly repressive, people are losing that confidence that they can change how the city is being run. 11:22 Joanne Leow: And not just that, you know, how the city functions in being run and the space, the literal space that they have, like the physical space, right. Chloe Lai: Yeah, it is the physical space, I mean it affects the physical space as well. For example, harbour reclamation, the fishermen don’t feel like they can stop harbour reclamation; or, for example, right now, Hong Kong is talking about, the discussion is whether we should have a development in our countryside, in the country park, and country park used to be well preserved for the natural environment, and then—people are losing confidence that they can stop projects of this kind, they can stop projects that harms the natural environment, which in turn would harm the welfare of everybody, because we all need nature. So the anxiety is not really—when politically it becomes more repressive, it also affects the built environment, it affects people’s opportunity in changing the built environment, so it affects every aspect of life. So, when it comes to anxiety, I think that’s the anxiety. 12:42 Joanne Leow: No, that’s great. Maybe one last question. I was really intrigued, actually, by the title of the website, Urban Diarist. Can you tell me a little bit more about why that name, like why a diary, what was going on there? 12:53 Chloe Lai: Oh, I think that is my personal preference, because we are writing, right, it’s mainly text, so we want to make it, you know, people realize that it is a text-based and it is a documention-based[sic] website. So there are a number of works I can choose, because I used to be a journalist and then I don’t want it to be—because the way we’re doing…Urban Diary is, in a way, totally the opposite from how journalist doing news story, right, when you’re journalist, you go to interview community leaders, you interview celebrities that are the experts. 13:44 Joanne Leow: Or you control the kind of story that you’re writing, you control the person’s story, basically, because you’re writing it. Chloe Lai: Yeah, you’re right. And then they must be somebody big enough, important, otherwise there’s no point of interviewing them. And then they have this reverted pyramid writing style; however, when we’re doing Urban Diary we’re doing totally the opposite. We go to the regular people, people that the journalist do not think they have news value, and then we’re writing the everyday life, which is…you cannot do it with the reverted pyramid format. And then we also use works that is…we don’t use sensational works, we don’t try to catch people’s attention, we use very simple, emotionalist works, because that’s how everyday life happens. 14:41 Joanne Leow: Yeah. There’s something very powerful about chronicling that everyday, the ordinary. Chloe Lai: Yeah the ordinary, but then the ordinary is…yeah, we’re chronicling the ordinary, however—so we want the form to be as ordinary as possible, including the language, we choose to be ordinary, as ordinary as possible. So then, because of that, I prefer not using words like “journal,” or works that you normally associated with the mass media, with the newspaper. So, that’s how we came up with the word “diary” or “diarist.” 15:22 Joanne Leow: That’s really great, and I think really what your work tells me is that there’s something very powerful about the ordinary that can contest the kind of extraordinary—you’re talking about sensationalism, or the official importance of everything, but suddenly this ordinary becomes this way of resisting, like just the ordinary life. 15:40 Chloe Lai: Yeah, it’s just the ordinary, and the ordinary is the most important because we…that’s how we live every day, right, and then whatever grand things we are talking about, we cannot put aside that, how people feel, how people experience day in, day out.