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Social Enterprise in Hong Kong - vulnerable seedling but a beacon of hope?

Sarah Capel
Sarah Capel, posted on 29.01.13

"If we can look upon our work not for self benefit, but as a means to benefit society, we will be practicing appreciation and patience in our daily lives." Gautama Buddha, 563 BCE

What would Buddha have made of the HSBC Social Enterprise Bazaar, held last week underneath the Corporation's iconic headquarters in the centre of the city's square mile? Perhaps the monks who are just a ferry ride away on Lantau Island, near the "˜Big Buddha', might have an idea, and, at some point in my social enterprise adventure in Hong Kong, I am determined to seek their wisdom on this matter.

One thing becomes very clear, as I start talking to the enthusiastic stallholders; they are delighted to have been given such a high profile platform. Alfred Li, Director of Education for Good, advises me that "social enterprise is still a baby in Hong Kong; people still think that it means a charity". Indeed his own organisation, which promises to be 'spearheading innovative social entrepreneurship in education in Hong Kong', was only established last June. What these trailblazers lack in a sense of established authority, they certainly make up for in self belief, passion and enthusiasm as they excitedly pass me a multi-coloured pack of leaflets and flyers detailing their training courses and qualifications. They are as thrilled to see a journalist as I am surprised that there are none already here. Every day in the South China Morning Post, there are stories about hopeless social problems and yet apparently, despite HSBC having sent out a press release about the event, not even one blogger has turned up. I attended the bazaar every day last week and not once were there more than ten people milling about. Resisting the urge to take a chair and a flask of coffee, I felt completely spoilt by the number of interesting philanthropists that I could choose from to talk with at length about the social enterprise scene in Hong Kong.

After finding out about the fledgling qualifications, a young intern, Gary Fung, 20, is keen to explain the financial infrastructure of social enterprise in Hong Kong. The concept is visionary: it involves "˜bridging social capital' by merging the government's Social Welfare Department with HSBC and the non-governmental Hong Kong Council of Social Services (HKCSS). The result is the Social Enterprise Business Centre (SEBC), which launched the Social Enterprise Incubation Scheme and co-organised the first SE summit in Asia. Woody Poon, 21, also an intern, quickly points me to the section of the leaflet that details how SEBC has strategically partnered with a number of professional organisations and multinational corporations such as KPMG and the Law Society of Hong Kong. Dressed in fleeces and scarves to keep out the cold January winds, both Gary and Woody are volunteering part-time while studying at university in the hope that the experience and networking opportunities will help them stand out in the highly competitive jobs market. They are both able to segue skilfully from multinational companies to the "˜very meaningful' work that their stall 'Good Goods' carry out. Gary believes that 'customers value the story behind the one off eco-friendly products as well as the fact that they won't be able to find them in a department store'. Set up last year, it is the first SE concept store and takes pride of place in the lobby of the HKCSS headquarters, to promote sustainable consumption. As I leave, I take a photo of the more mature representatives of Education for Good alongside the young students and wonder what the social enterprise scene will be like in a generation.

It is at the redwhiteblue330 (rwb330) stall that I finally part with some of my change. Uncharacteristically tempted by the Union Jack colours, I buy an Octopus (underground) card holder. The products are Camden cool yet the organisation is helping with the most marginalised people in Hong Kong: those in recovery from mental illness. Rwb330 is an SE of the New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association, which serves more than 12,000 service users every year, catering for their residential, vocational and social needs. The lady who serves me on the stand smiles without looking at me as her manager explains that 'people in recovery face widespread stigmatization and discrimination while they find it difficult to find a job in the competitive jobs market'. The enterprise also gives opportunities to unknown designers and artists from the community who would otherwise find it difficult to find an outlet for their work. As I say my goodbyes, I feel pleased with as well as proud of my purchase and what it represents.

After my third day, people start to recognise me and invite me to socialise with them in the coming months at 'The Good Lab', which is a 10,000 square foot creative space with a variety of facilities such as mentors, WIFI, a beanbag area, a mini theatre, activity room and plenty of desk spaces. Membership starts at a very reasonable £25 for 20 hours per month. Those who offer to show me around the 'Lab' have that positive 'will do' Hong Kong spirit, energy and optimism that infects many who come to Hong Kong to the point that they can never live anywhere else. The atmosphere, despite the lack of attendance, contrasts sharply with the poisonous cynical view I imbibed from smokers outside the Foreign Correspondents Club, where many members who 'bought' their way in are being forced to leave due to redundancies. One drunken, unemployed 'Equity Strategist' managed to capture the poison infecting the business world by bitterly exclaiming that certain sectors in Hong Kong need an 'enema'. I hope that for the time being the Social Enterprise scene will flourish to be more than an antidote to the sometimes corrupt systems in place. The people that I met at the fair have a 'slowly, slowly catchy monkey' approach that could eventually draw many highly influential people in. Perhaps, just as in the days of British colonialism in the Far East, the era from which this idiom derives, the 'natives' have strategies to teach the 'incomers'.

As I leave the fair for the last time, I watch the scaffolding being taken down as HSBC workers rush around looking at their phones barely noticing what has taken place. My final thoughts linger on the words of American systems theorist, Buckminster Fuller:

"You never change anything by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete"

Rather than obsolete, how about 'evolved'; the end of the segregation of business and social sectors must surely be leading towards a more meaningful future, or am I being positively naive? Certainly what the sector desperately needs is for the media to report its relevance to the general public. At the moment, it seems to delight in letting the public know whenever banks are involved in scandals; so why not balance things out with a newsworthy story of hope? That way, maybe the ladies with whom I have breakfast at a hotel in Central might actually want to pick up a newspaper. At the moment, many refuse when I offer to share my paper, stating that "it is just too depressing at this time in the morning".

I will certainly do everything in my power to make sure that I am not the only journalist at the HK SE Bazaar next year.

Next month, find out about my visit to the Good Hub.

Sarah Capel, Founder Epilepsy Literary Heritage Foundation and Director ELHF Ltd, www.epilepsyliteraryheritagefoundation.org.uk


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