Meet 4 Women Who Are Breaking Taboos in Hong Kong
Generation T is Tatler’s platform for the leaders of tomorrow, and every year it releases the Gen.T List, a definitive guide to the young trailblazers shaping Asia’s future. This year, Hong Kong has the highest proportion of female honourees since the list was founded in 2016, at 53 per cent, and a striking theme unites four of them: breaking taboos.
These four women each take an innovative, unabashed approach to their work—and draw inspiration from their personal challenges. Megan Lam, founder of AI-driven company Neurum Health, equips people with personalised daily mental health data, empowering individuals to monitor and treat problems sooner; Anca Griffiths is bringing to light other health concerns through expert-led sessions on sensitive topics such as postpartum healing and menopause; artist Claudia Chanhoi uses humour in her illustrations to share deeper messages about the female body and sexual pleasure; and Olivia Cotes-James, founder of Luüna Naturals, wants to remove the shame often associated with menstruation through education and access to organic and reusable period care products.
Together they represent a new wave of female-driven businesses working to raise awareness and drive societal changes that benefit all genders. Here are their inspiring stories.
Megan Lam, Founder and CEO, Neurum Health
Let’s begin with a statistic: 87 per cent of employees have reported work-related stress during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Mental Health Association of Hong Kong. It’s grim, if also unsurprising and rather abstract; you likely read it and move on. What Megan Lam does is make stats tough to ignore because they’re personal.
“We use data to piece together your own mental health story and give you options to rewrite it on a day-to-day basis,” Lam says of her app Clara, which uses AI to track a person’s individual behaviours. It’s a wellness companion that provides support through screening questionnaires, articles, exercises and, if needed, alerts to seek in-person help. “Our goal is to raise awareness and help people maintain their mind and lifestyle health where they work, live and play.”
We use data to piece together your own mental health story and give you options to rewrite it on a day-to-day basis— Megan Lam
Lam’s motivation for setting up her business is also deeply personal. While growing up in Hong Kong, she lost her maternal grandmother and an aunt to suicide and saw her mother struggle too. “I had zero mental health knowledge or vocabulary at the time,” she says. “It was a very helpless situation, watching it unfold and not knowing what to do about it.”
She was accepted to law school but dropped out at the last minute and ended up at a clearing fair where she met a rep from the UK’s Durham University; there was one spot left for applied psychology, and she seized it. During her studies, Lam became interested in online interventions and ways to reach more people more frequently than through clinics, feeling that the traditional model often provides too little, too late.
“I realised there’s this massive gap between public health services, private clinical care and real human beings in their everyday life,” says Lam, who joined forces with software engineer Caleb Chiu back in Hong Kong in 2018. They developed Neurum Health from the ground up, using an evidence-based and inclusive approach for both their research and the app’s design. They continue to review the community data to ensure they are addressing a cross-section of needs and identities.
Gender is a key consideration because men are less likely to seek treatment and be treated for mental illness than women. “There are still certain stereotypes of what ‘a man’ is,” says Lam. “Men who can’t speak openly about their emotions may be less able to recognise signs of ill health.”
She adds that while Clara isn’t male-specific, it does string together all the touch points, from recognising behavioural changes to getting support, in a non-judgmental, accessible way that is intended to make anyone feel comfortable.
In thinking about the language to use around mental health, Lam is mindful of cultural nuances. She launched a podcast whose name, Have You Eaten?, is inspired by how she imagines broaching the subject with her late grandmother, preferably over rice with Taiwanese braised beef.
The Clara app now has 120,000 users and counting, thanks to partnerships with companies that see its value as an employee wellness benefit. And Lam is hopeful that a paradigm shift is underway, so that mental health is not immediately equated with a severe condition or an inherent, all-encompassing identity.
“We would never say ‘He’s so diabetes,’ but how often have you heard, ‘They’re so bipolar’?” Lam says. “Behavioural health is an entire spectrum and, as dynamic humans, we move along it, from surviving to thriving.”
Claudia Chanhoi, Artist
Saucy illustrations of breasts, bums and genitals populate Claudia Chanhoi’s Instagram account @brainxeyes. It’s a feast for the eyes, sure, but stop scrolling long enough to read her often thought-provoking captions, and you’ll see where the brain part comes in.
“It feels quite liberating to send a message through my art,” says Chanhoi. “I never really like to be completely explicit; I tend to play subtly with body parts and use different objects to represent ideas.”
Art always came naturally to Chanhoi, who was raised in Hong Kong in a Catholic family where discussing sex was taboo. While studying at the London College of Communication, she experienced her first serious relationship as well as some harassment. She devoted her final project to the sexual objectification of women—and followed that theme when she launched her Instagram in 2016 as a creative outlet while working as a graphic designer.
“My early message was to be able to express your sexual desire as a woman, especially in Hong Kong, where women are asked to be desirable visually—we have to be beautiful and sexy—but we can’t desire sex because then you would be a slut,” she says.
Her work caught the attention of Rain Lily, a sexual violence NGO that enlisted Chanhoi for a fundraising project. She created pieces blending female anatomy with botanical elements like flowers and bamboo. For a follow-up collaboration on periods, she illustrated a curvaceous waist and a glass of red wine placed discreetly below the belly button, with a little spillage on a neon pink table. “Shame shame,” she posted to Instagram, “Body is shameful! We have to hide!”
Food frequently pops up in Chanhoi’s work, with suggestive pickles, fruit and pudding-like desserts as common motifs. For her first NFT—a one-of-a-kind digital artwork—in July 2021, she created an animation of a spoon approaching a bowl as a melon’s vulva-like pit closes (the accompanying hashtag is #BadSexualChemistry). And for a commentary on the throwaway culture of online dating, she illustrated labels for Spam cans with cartoon bottoms and lines like “Bummo: fresh for 60 days”.
My early message was to be able to express your sexual desire as a woman, especially in Hong Kong— Claudia Chanhoi
Alongside her personal art and charity campaigns, including a breast cancer line of accessories with Swedish retailer Madlady, Chanhoi works with commercial clients, such as cosmetics brand Lush and ad agency AMV BBDO. She has also held exhibitions in Asia, Europe and the US.
Her solo show last autumn at Hong Kong’s Mihn Gallery was themed around dating in relation to sex, age, money and alcohol, inspired as ever by her personal life. Her captions tend to pose questions, rather than give away her own answers or opinions.
“I think people in general are quite shy in Hong Kong, but I hope they will have an open heart to look into the issues I bring up and discuss them,” says Chanhoi of her shows. “It’d be a great idea to bring your partner along— you’d get to know the person a lot more than with the usual first-date questions.”
Anca Griffiths, Co-founder and CEO, OM
When Anca Griffiths was expecting her first child about five years ago, her husband was travelling frequently, so at a friend’s recommendation, they hired a local nurse for a month.
“I didn’t know about Hong Kong’s confinement rituals and didn’t think I’d need to be taken care of. I just figured if she has experience with babies, it’s reassuring,” recalls Griffiths. After delivery, she was blindsided by her own physical and mental needs. “But I finished that month feeling really resilient, and I saw my experience diverged from that of friends in Europe and Canada.”
Intrigued, she dug deeper into Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and connected with practitioner Gigi Ngan, with whom she co-founded OM, a women’s health platform. While the original plan was to write a book on postpartum healing, Griffiths’s scope expanded as one women’s health expert referred her to another.
“Experts kept telling me, we’d love to educate on why changes are happening so that women can support their bodies. It’s not only postpartum: it’s the same with menopause, women go through it, they suffer and they don’t understand what’s happening,” says Griffiths.
After a few years of research and developing a global network, Covid-19 hit, accelerating the telehealth trend. Griffiths took OM online to offer women everywhere classes and private sessions led by medical experts on sensitive physical and mental health subjects. And she began pitching OM to private medical insurers and employers in Hong Kong and beyond.
“I would meet with inclusivity teams and with men, and they’d find our work super interesting,” says Griffiths. “One male CEO told me, ‘I want to understand menopause better because I have a lot of women in my company in that age group.’” What surprised her was the unenthusiastic reaction from women: “I’d see them shutting down.”
Thinking back to her corporate days in consumer insights, it occurred to Griffith that many associations with women’s health suggest instability or weakness. “As a woman, you want to prove that you’re the one who doesn’t need help: I’m not PMSing, I don’t have baby brain, I’m not going through menopause, don’t rule me out,” she says.
This attitude highlights the need for better awareness of and education on female realities, including the positive, such as the growth of certain brain areas postpartum and phases of enhanced creativity or coordination during the menstrual cycle.
The male body has been studied as the ideal for the past hundred years and, because of that, everything we apply to our body is really made for men— Anca Griffiths
“The male body has been studied as the ideal for the past hundred years and, because of that, everything we apply to our body is really made for men,” says Griffiths, who has partnered with Dr Alyson McGregor, a leading US-based researcher in gender health bias. “When it doesn’t fit, either we’re told that it’s in our head or we say to ourselves, ‘Well, I didn’t do it right.’”
Griffiths is part of a sea change in interest and openness around women’s health taboos. She cites celebrities and everyday women alike sharing struggles with miscarriages, breastfeeding or pelvic floor issues in social media posts along the lines of: “Now I pee in my pants when I laugh #momproblems.”
While she commends the sharing, Griffiths says it doesn’t go far enough because these aren’t insurmountable problems and shouldn’t be glorified as such. They have solutions that women can understand and begin to leverage, which is where platforms like OM come in.
Olivia Cotes-James, Founder and CEO, Luüna Naturals
Luüna Naturals wants you to have your period and your fun, too. In its brand imagery, it features women with tampons dangling like earrings, or smiling while waving organic pads. “We’re really proud of the way we get people laughing and warmed up,” says Olivia Cotes-James, who is serious about reframing the negative relationship many women have with menstruation.
Cotes-James recalls feeling sad and scared herself upon getting her period around age 11 in the UK. “My first thought when I looked down was that my life, as I knew it, was over,” she says. “It’s a testament to how shrouded in shame this topic is around the world.”
Her instinct was right in that she quickly began to suffer from debilitatingly heavy periods that compelled her to stop playing sports and socialising, and filled her with dread. She secretly tried her mother’s tampons a few years later and found them empowering.
After university, Cotes-James relocated to Hong Kong, where she experienced the first of three frustrations that inspired Luüna: lack of product access. As a result, she became a tampon mule, bringing a stash back from London each time she visited. In 2015, she was stopped at Heathrow because her bag exceeded the weight limit and forced to unpack tonnes of tampons as the passenger queue grew behind her.
I’ve literally been stopped in the street by people saying that we’ve changed their lives— Olivia Cotes-James
“I reacted the same way I might have if they actually were drugs,” Cotes-James recalls. “I was faced with my own menstrual stigma because the fact that I was so mortified that people had seen these products—balls of cotton, basically—was really shocking to me.”
Cotes-James began talking casually about periods in Hong Kong, where tampon use is minimal, and then in Shanghai, where she encountered similar taboos and lack of education (the second frustration). At her workshops, the feedback was eye-opening. One attendee revealed that her boyfriend asked her not to use tampons because he didn’t want them to change the shape of her vagina.
Another woman’s question about what is in tampons brought the third frustration to light: lack of transparency. Cotes-James didn’t know offhand, and her research revealed synthetics and conventional cotton treated with carcinogenic pesticides. Horrified, she stopped using tampons, and her recurring yeast infections also stopped.
“If you put plastic or synthetics in your body, it can lead to hormonal disruptions and increased rates of infertility,” says Cotes-James. She became inspired to develop Luüna’s organic, hypoallergenic pads, liners and tampons, as well as reusable silicone menstrual cups, a more eco-friendly and cost-effective choice—and the first such product to be stocked at major retailer Watsons.
Luüna partners with schools and offices to supply product dispensers; runs workshops for both mothers and daughters as well as male-dominated companies; and donates to underprivileged communities across Asia.
In Hong Kong, Luüna collaborates with the Zubin Foundation to combat the period poverty right on our doorstep and is developing online expert resources written in traditional Chinese to reach more people. Cotes-James wants to educate all women to better manage their health and not be dismissed by any doctor who says bad period pain is just a problem to live with.
“I’ve never been so totally consumed by an issue, and every conversation I have reminds me of how needed what we’re doing is,” says Cotes-James. “I’ve literally been stopped in the street by people saying that we’ve changed their lives.”
See also: 16 Women Fighting For Fairness In Asia
- PhotographyAffa Chan
- StylingKim Au
- HairJean Tong
- Make-UpAntonia Rudebeck
- Make-UpWinnie Tong (Manicure)
- Stylist's AssistantSam Yeung