Cover Lance Lau (Photo: Jacob Liu, Styling: Stephanie Levy, Shirt and swim shorts, available at Retykle)

Lance Lau is part of a new generation fighting for climate action in Hong Kong

When Lance Lau Hin-yi organised his first beach clean-up, no one turned up. In hindsight, he understood why: a hasty social media post just days before a planned event wasn’t quite the citywide rallying cry the then ten-year-old had hoped. Nevertheless, the day came, and Lance and his parents, Martina Yu and Gabriel Lau, went from their home on Lantau Island to a nearby mangrove tangled with manmade detritus. When it was clear no others were joining, the family of three made a go of it anyway. It was disappointing yet catalysing for Lance, who, after watching a video on plastic waste by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, decided to join the cause. One year after Thunberg’s first “school strike for climate” in August 2018, which would go on to become the global Fridays for Future movement, Lance decided to use Fridays to raise awareness at his school, Ying Wa Primary.

Since then, photos of Lance’s round, bespectacled face and handmade signs urging “climate action now” have become synonymous with youth activism in Hong Kong. He is a familiar presence at clean-ups and rallies, and was named a “climate hero” by local press. Since September 2019, Lance has spent Fridays sounding the alarm at his school and, during lockdown, in his neighbourhood to anyone who will listen. “I felt I had to keep my strike going and try to make a difference. And sitting at home doesn’t really make a difference,” he says.

During a pandemic that has disrupted the world and forced people to change the way they communicate, not least warranting this interview to be conducted via video call, much of Lance’s activism has been conducted online. Tatler met Lance, now 12, the night before his 93rd strike, the last of his primary school years and his final term-time demonstration in Hong Kong. On a rainy night, Lance appeared in an avocado coloured T-shirt in the family’s cluttered, colourful study in their Tung Chung home. He didn’t beat around the bush.

“If we don’t solve this problem, we’re gonna die,” he said, adding that Thunberg’s video left him with “no choice” but to spread the message. “I have to do it. It’s my future, it’s our future, the future of humanity.”

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In May 2019, more than 1.5 million young people in more than 125 countries walked out of schools, colleges and universities in the biggest day of global climate action ever. The UN secretary-general António Guterres endorsed the school strikes, saying: “My generation has failed to respond properly to the dramatic challenge of climate change. This is deeply felt by young people. No wonder they are angry.” It brought to light the uncomfortable reality that while climate change is well publicised, few societies are willing to take meaningful steps to combat it, and individuals often feel too insignificant to influence change.

When Lance was ten, he was invited to speak alongside Adrian Cheng, CEO of New World Development and one of Hong Kong’s most influential businessmen, at a sustainability forum created to spotlight the city’s changemakers. In a statement, Cheng described Lance as a “doer” with a “profound influence in the Hong Kong community”. New World Development subsequently became the first real estate company in Hong Kong to join the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, with Cheng pledging to reduce the group’s carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2030 based on 2015 levels.

Last November, Lance co-hosted a talk at TedxTinHau’s climate event Countdown with eco-activist Keilem Ng entitled “The Story We’ll Tell in 2050”, in which the two shared experiences and discussed the challenges of organising events to support their cause. A campaigner for green issues in Hong Kong, Ng met Lance when he turned up to a beach clean-up she organised, and she became a role model and mentor. “I didn’t know he was going to become a superstar. How he’s brought his family and fellow students along is really fantastic. He’s really captivated the attention of the public,” she says via telephone.

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Lance’s mother warns her son not to let the spotlight go to his head. “I want him to be aware of not falling into the trap of fame for himself,” she says. Before each interview, speech or appearance, the two have a routine. “I hold his hand and ask him to remember that this is not for him—” Lance cuts in to finish her sentence: “This is for the Earth. For humanity as a whole.”

Lance found a champion in his school’s principal, Sylvia Chan May-kuen, a trustee of the World Wildlife Fund-Hong Kong and chairwoman of its education committee. On the first Friday in which he left class to walk around with his sign, he was brought to Chan, but was offered a compromise, not a telling off: instead of missing out on learning, he would stand at the school gates each Friday morning with his sign. “He is amazing,” Chan writes via email. “I am very pleased to witness Lance’s growth in terms of interpersonal and communication skills throughout the past two years. His charm shines through his determination.”

Lance says, “For the first few weeks, some people were pretty sceptical about it. Some people called me crazy. But now other classmates and people in my grade have joined me in my strike.”

Thunberg has been the subject of constant attacks from media, corporations and even politicians. When she was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2019, former US president Donald Trump branded the honour as “ridiculous” and instructed the then 16-year-old activist, who has an autism spectrum diagnosis, to “work on her anger management problem” and “chill!” Thunberg’s response was to quote Trump in her Twitter bio. Such outright attacks are rare in Hong Kong; instead, Lance and his peers are more likely to face avoidance or denial.

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“I expected it,” he says, of the abuse he sees directed at activists. “People were going to be annoying, especially old, ignorant men. I just ignore it. One time when I was being interviewed by a TV news company, this old man walked up to me and said, ‘Get out of my way and stop blocking the road,’ mixed in with some slightly insulting words. So I moved and he hobbled off. And I shouted after him: ‘Support climate action!’” On another occasion, Lance recalls, a man offered him money to stop protesting on the street, which he refused. “All I’m trying to do is talk to people. If they make it obvious that they’re not going to talk to me, I think, I have an advert on YouTube, so I’m going to annoy you there. Even if I can’t get you to listen to me today, I’ll find a way.”

He adds with a smirk: “I’m just this annoying guy banging a giant gong shouting about doomsday.” Does he really see himself as annoying? “Sometimes,” he replies.

“Annoying to his parents!” his mother exclaims, laughing. Yu, for most of the conversation, is a voice off-camera, preferring to let her son remain the focus. Yet Lance’s respect for nature and understanding of his place in the world are no accident. “We don’t teach Lance what to do; we teach him to feel,” she says. “People have lost touch with the world.” Even Lance’s Chinese name translates to “Change one”, which Yu feels is apt. “No matter what changes you bring to the world, it always comes back to one,” she says.

Last November, Carrie Lam set a target for Hong Kong to become carbon neutral by 2050 by investing in green technology and improving energy efficiency and waste management. However, the pledge was criticised by green groups, such as charity Friends of the Earth, for a “lack of concrete, aggressive actions”. The colossal infrastructure scheme Lantau Tomorrow Vision will reclaim 17 square kilometres of extra land from the sea in a HK$624 billion response to the city’s chronic lack of housing, and may be the final blow to the city’s endangered pink dolphins, which live in the waters around Lantau Island. The irony of the situation was not lost on Lance. “At school, we learn about dolphins and are told we have to protect them. But then the government builds the giant airport, invading their habitat. Then we’re told, ‘That’s why you have to recycle: to protect them.’”

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This month, Lance starts school in the British city of Brighton, to which the family will also relocate. He will continue campaigning, maintaining his focus on Hong Kong and supporting its young activists, a small community alive with ideas and positivity. As well as student-led groups like Climate Action Hong Kong, a group fighting for policy reform and education, and the Hong Kong Green Schools Alliance, set up to oppose the Lantau Tomorrow Vision and propose greener housing solutions, other children and their families have taken it upon themselves to spread the word and call for change.

Dhaanya and Reaha Ganeriwal are two sisters who have been campaigning for climate action for more than 100 weeks. Under the Instagram account My Green Mantra, which is managed by their mother Sheetal, they spread information related to sustainability and climate change, and have cultivated a large following. After a video of a turtle strangled by plastic in 2018 sparked a family discussion about climate change and waste, the two decided to stand in public plazas near where they live on Lantau and hold signs and use games to spark conversation. “I wanted people to think, ‘Why are children taking action instead of us?’ says Dhaanya, nine, who spoke at the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong’s Women of Influence conference last November in a dialogue entitled “My courage is having a voice that is loud despite my age”.

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I wanted people to think, ‘Why are children taking action instead of us?
Dhaanya Ganeriwal

For the month of February, the sisters did a beach clean-up every day, collecting up to 30 kilograms of rubbish each time; in April, they held Listen to the Kids, a forum for discussion and sharing ideas for young activists, and launched a petition calling for Starbucks to stop charging extra for non-dairy milks. When travel resumes, they have their sights set on representing Hong Kong at COP, the United Nations climate change conference, which they say will give them a platform to lobby for systemic change.

The pair are natural communicators whose messages are carefully researched and clear. “Mantra means a practice—doing something repeatedly. So we thought if we use the word mantra, people would know we were doing a practice over and over,” says Reaha, eight, on a video call from their home.

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“You are never too small to make a difference,” said Thunberg at COP 24, the 2018 edition of the conference. Young activists like Lance, Dhaanya and Reaha instinctively understand the iterative power of everyday actions when shared: a social media post promoting a beach clean-up or choosing a reusable cup over single use ones can have ripple effects that change the way institutions, businesses and even entire countries are run. Among the sisters’ goals is encouraging other children to grow a larger community whose voices will be increasingly difficult to ignore. “When younger kids see us doing something, they want to know why we’re doing it. They don’t know about the problem, so we explain it to them. And they want to help, so they go back and tell their parents,” Dhaanya says.

For Lance, change involves everyone in society seeing themselves as a small but important part of a much bigger machine. “Our teacher would say, ‘So you think you can get up and yell in the middle of class? What if the 30 other students also think that? It’d be like a fish market!’ The same philosophy applies to climate change: if you think not using a straw [won’t have an effect] and 7.9 other billion other people think so as well, we’re all going to go extinct,” he says. “But if you think that refusing straws is important, your actions not only affect yourself, but other people. Every post you make, every dollar you spend, counts.”

He continues, addressing adults whose choices today impact the world his and younger generations will one day inherit. “It’s your choice: have your kids suffering from heat, from sea levels rising, from fires and natural disasters. Or build a bright future, that we can all work towards for us and all the animals, to make the world a more equal place.”

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