Chow Chung Wah: Preservation of Hong Kong's History

Intrepid activist and traveller Chow Chung Wah talks about transitioning from law student and Greenpeace campaigner to Lonely Planet editor and walking tour guide. 

It is a surprise to meet Chow Chung Wah for the first time. From her biography and published writings, she comes across as a straightforward and no-nonsense girl. Yet in person, she is a slip of a girl with long hair and a waif-like quality. Appearances can be deceiving. After half an hour in her company, Chow’s steely determination and strong opinions are evident even conversing about the most mundane of topics.

The lady clearly has a way with words; it is no wonder that she boasts a bachelor degree in law from The University of Hong Kong and a master of art in translation studies from The Chinese University of Hong Kong. “I didn’t know what to study at first,” she shrugs, “so my family suggested I pick law. I knew I would never practise it, though. I didn’t enjoy commercial or property law – and while I liked criminal law, I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it my career.”

Plagued with itchy feet, Chow confesses she worked for two years at Greenpeace and Amnesty International respectively because she wanted to see the world. “I like to always be on the go,” she admits. “I don’t want a job where I have to wear make-up and high heels and sit in an office.” While working as a campaigner at Amnesty, she welcomed the opportunity to help refugees and asylum seekers. She travelled more frequently on behalf of Greenpeace than Amnesty International to attend workshops and field trips predominantly in China, but found it tough going. “After a while, it is depressing to see the worst of the world – I wanted to see more of the earth’s beauty.”

Around that time, Lonely Planet was seeking a Hong Kong-based English language writer with knowledge of Chinese. Chow began writing for it in 2006 and has since contributed to guides for Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Guangdong, Fujian, Guangxi, Jiangsu and Xinjiang. “I wrote about the places I wanted to visit,” she notes. When Lonely Planet started publishing guides in Chinese, she helped it set things up. Along with research, writing and editing, she trains new contributors by occasionally “shadowing” them as they observe her going about her activities on behalf of the guide.

“Xinjiang in 2008 was a real challenge due to the Olympics,” she recalls. “There were lots of restrictions for non-Chinese passport holders; I couldn’t stay in certain hotels, for example. People there would take notice of me when I pulled out a map. “Because I am Han Chinese, there were places where I could sense their hostility. I had to explain that I was not from Mainland China before people there spoke more freely to me.”

In 2013, co-founder Paul Chan asked her to help start Walk in Hong Kong (WIHK), a highly successful walking tour business that provides insider knowledge of the city’s historic districts. Offered in Chinese and English, the tours include a visit to the city’s oldest cemetery and insights into Wan Chai’s colourful past.

“Cemeteries are really beautiful – the Happy Valley one has preserved the city’s original landscape,” she explains. “Hong Kong’s founders are all there. It’s like an outdoor museum.”

Initially a business intended to target curious tourists and locals, WIHK is now being sought out by other businesses for customised experiences. “We have designed tours for Leslie Cheung’s fan club that stops at his favourite haunts in Central, and partnered with The Peninsula to offer a tour of its properties, including Kadoorie Farm, Kadoorie Avenue in Mong Kok and, of course, the hotel itself.”

Through her tours, Chow has become a spokesperson for the preservation of the State Theatre, a landmark in WIHK’s North Point tour. “The site was purchased by New World Development,” she says. “It is part of our collective history and should not be demolished. Walkin is leading the conservation movement to transform it into a declared monument.” Chow may no longer be a full-time activist, but it seems you cannot take the activism out of the girl.

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