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Humans of Hong Kong: Sense and serendipity with Sarah Greene

By Nicole Hurip 16 June 2020

Welcome to Humans of Hong Kong, a brand-new story series on Localiiz that takes a deeper look at the many colourful characters and unique personalities that call our beloved city home. Belgium-born Sarah Greene is the owner of an independent photography gallery in Sheung Wan that has a strong focus on exploring Hong Kong’s culture and identity. We took a walk with Sarah and her dog Lulu around the backstreets of Noho.

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“I came to Hong Kong for this ship brokering job, did that for a few years, even moved to Shanghai for a bit and back. I tried other things, went back to shipping a few times, but it was a good job. With the third one, one of the first bonuses I got, I bought myself, very impulsively, an industrial space in Fo Tan.

“At the time, those places, it was 1,500 square feet, it cost $700,000, so cheap at the time. So I thought, with all the things I wanted to do, and I was kind of playing with the idea of maybe working with antiques or art—because it was just a very strong vocation, I dreamt about it. I like storytelling a lot, and I feel like when you sell art or antiques, there is a lot of storytelling involved, and that was what attracted me. My father was also an antique dealer, so maybe it is also where I got the idea from.”

“I looked at art and antiques since I was a young kid, and my mum told me that, apparently, in school, they were telling my mum that my sister and I were quite unusual. It was a Catholic school, we would be small, like seven years old, and we would look at a painting and talk about it, and criticise it, and discuss it. They say normally kids don’t do that, you know. Or I would go to someone’s home and say, ‘That’s not really an antique piece,‘ or ‘That’s really bad art.’ I have this sense, since I was young, because my home, they changed the interior all the time. So they would buy new things and put them in the house. They would sell it, and all of a sudden, we’d have a new TV cabinet. It was all antique, and my dad had a story for everything that was in there. I think it was natural for me.”

“I think my father very much influenced me, because he was such a fantastic storyteller. Some people say I’m not that bad myself, but when I’m at home, I don’t say very much because my dad is such a great storyteller, it’s hard to compete with him. So is my sister, and she’s very funny on top of that. We always share a lot of stories.

“Sometimes, he was quite funny with his stories. At one point, I was sleeping right above the antique shop, so I would wake up in the morning and I could hear the stories he was telling the clients. And he would very often say, ‘Oh, this piece, it comes from some special lady, and she lives in a chateau, some castle,’ and people would be like ‘Oh, really?’ and I would be just giggling in my bed, thinking that he probably made that all up. And he sometimes did. When it was about the piece itself, the why and how, of course not, but where it came from, I think he added some juice to it.

“Sometimes, what would happen was people ask him years later about a piece and the amazing story he told them, and if he remembered and can he tell it again, and he can’t remember it. The core was always real, but sometimes he would kind of enhance the story a little bit, to make it more attractive.

“He had stories for everything. He’s the kind of guy who would make stories about nothing. Most of us have a day, and we don’t really feel like we have a story. He would go to the shop and come back, and he’d have a whole story about that. How he met that person, and imitate that person. Some people have that quality, and you’d just be laughing your head off, and all he just did was go to the shop and come back. It’s hard to say what my favourite story is.”

“The story I’m trying to tell changes all the time. There’s always a little bit of me in most of the exhibitions I do, but it’s not so obvious. There was one exhibition called The Places We Haven’t Seen; that was one of the last exhibitions I did in Fo Tan. It was just before I was about to close that space. It was pictures and drawings of places that someone wanted to see but hadn’t seen yet, something like that.

“It became really personal for me because that was the time when my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. And I was thinking, my God, there are all these places you haven’t seen yet, that I want to take you to. That’s why I chose that title at the time; it was symbolic to me because I was going to close that space and venture to something new, but it also reminded me that I hope my mum survives this and I can take her to those places we haven’t seen. And she did survive. It was a horrific period, we were so afraid of losing her. But once she got out of it, I have been taking her on holidays every summer. We go on cycling holidays. The last place we went to was Slovenia, for two weeks. It was so much fun.”

“In November, because it was such a cool, nice season, I started to do a lot of walking in Cheung Chau, where I live. And one of the places I really love to go visit was this huge graveyard, five minutes away from me, from my house, and it's a fantastic place. It’s got amazing views because the graves are looking over the ocean and trees. That’s where my interest in birds came from, because there were beautiful birds everywhere, and they’re easy to spot in trees. It was just such a magical place. This place of death, you see so much life. I thought it was so fascinating.

“I kept going there for my morning walks, and it was there where I saw, in December, that there was a new litter of puppies. They have wild dogs living in the graveyard, and nobody does anything about it. It’s got something to do with the fact that they might be souls reincarnated, or they protect the souls, they’re part of it. They feed the dogs, but once they have puppies, they normally try to take the puppies away and home them, so the pack doesn’t grow too big.

“There are about thirty dogs up there, wild dogs. It was like things were coming my way, and I already had it in my mind that if I were to find a puppy in this place, I would be tempted to take it home. SPCA came in and caught the litter, you can’t do it yourself, it’s illegal, and that’s how Lulu came to me when she was about three, four months old. From the jungle, into the gallery.”

“Hong Kong is a very intense city, it’s full of energy. I like how you can mould Hong Kong into whatever you want it to be. If you’re a very sporty person, you can go wakeboarding and hiking and trail running. You can make that your thing in Hong Kong, you have so much nature around here. If you’re into culture, you can go see new openings every night. Now you have Tai Kwun, you have M+ coming up, so there’s a lot of things happening in that direction too. Lifestyle, wine, and dining, my God, it’s the best place to be. So it’s like, whatever you want the city to be. You want a very Chinese way of living, no problem, Western way of living, can do. You want to mix both of them, do as you wish, and that’s what I like about it, that it’s so flexible. For other cities, that’s just how it’s going to be, you don’t have much choice, but here, you have all the options.

“With Hong Kong, there’s not one thing that defines it. It’s all these different things that are present. It’s being flexible if you have to pick one thing. It’s so many things in one thing, but that’s the one thing.”

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Nicole Hurip

Travel editorial director

Never content with sitting still, Nicole has turned her passion into a career. Hong Kong is her home, but she’ll always have a soft spot for L.A. and London, where she spent her college years. She loves exploring hidden places, hunting for cool vintage pieces, and talking to interesting people. Her vices include consuming excessive amounts of wine and cheese, a debilitating weakness for sparkly things, and spending too much time on Instagram.