Kayla Wong and Elaine Chen-Fernandez describe how they’re using love and legacy to fight for a more equal and ethical world
Seven years ago, Kayla Wong was sitting at the waterfront in Kennedy Town with her then-girlfriend when three or four paparazzi ambushed them with camera flashes and aggressive questions. “I had already come out to my family two or three years before this happened,” Wong says, “but it’s not the way I wanted to come out publicly.” She went on the describe the experience as “surreal”.
The first thing she did was call her mother, who told her to stay calm and make her way home. “The paparazzi followed me all the way,” she recalls. Wong was shaken by the experience, but it also stirred up within her a sense of responsibility and purpose. “I was able to bring about a lot of positivity,” says Wong, who has since become one of Hong Kong’s most vocal and influential LGBTQ activists.
“There’s such a lack of representation in Asia, and that’s why people are still in the closet and why they feel uncomfortable around their families,” Wong says. “I have young girls coming to me with questions about coming out, and those moments are why I do what I do.”
Wong fights for equality using her sustainable fashion brand, Basics for Basics, a photography project called Casa of Love, where she captures intimate portraits of lesbian couples, and her Instagram account (@kaylaiw), which documents her relationship with her girlfriend, Elaine Chen-Fernandez.
“I don’t want to say that LGBTQ representation is male-centric, but there could be more focus on women,” she says. “I want to show that the love and intimacy between two women are no different from a heterosexual or gay couple. Everyone wants to feel close to someone.”
Being openly gay in a conservative society like Hong Kong already has its challenges. Add to that the limelight cast on you when you come from two of the city’s most prominent families; Kayla’s father is actor Michael Wong, who starred in the 1998 hit film, Beast Cops. Her mother is supermodel Janet Ma. Elaine is a granddaughter of Thomas Chen Tseng-tao, one of the founders of Hong Kong property developer Hang Lung Group.
Wong and Chen-Fernandez are sitting in the annexe of The Wild Lot, a new creative art and event space in Sheung Wan run by Chen-Fernandez that was meant to open in early August, but has been delayed by social distancing restrictions. Setbacks aside, Chen-Fernandez is cool, calm and even optimistic as she talks about her plans between bites of a bagel sandwich.
“I want this space to really foster community building,” she says. “I like the idea of bringing Hong Kong’s creative community together to collaborate, whether that’s in the form of exhibitions, workshops, films or a discussion.”
The name is inspired by a line from one of her favourite childhood books, Where The Wild Things Are. She whips out her phone to look up the piece. “I don’t want to butcher it,” she says with a laugh: “There should be a place where only the things you want to happen, happen.”
Chen-Fernandez has a Frida Kahlo tattoo on one of her heavily inked arms and behind her, on the shelf, is a book about the stereotype-shattering Mexican artist. On the walls are skateboard decks designed by Los Angeles based Iranian artist Leila Nazarian, which Chen-Fernandez has collected over the years. “She’s a skater girl who wears a hijab, and she uses her art to empower girls to be different, to do what they love,” says Chen-Fernandez, adding that the same can be said about The Wild Lot. “I want it to be a space where people can leave their baggage at the door and let their imagination run wild. It doesn’t really matter who you are.”
Passion and Purpose
The couple met a year ago at the Redress Design Awards, the sustainable fashion design competition. “Not to get into too much detail, but I tracked her down after,” says Wong, who, normally blunt and rather brazen, softens as she recalls that moment. “She was very mysterious; I wanted to get to know her.”
Sustainable fashion is a shared passion for the couple. Basics for Basics sells ethically produced pieces made from organic cotton. “I wanted to present something comfortable, modern and sexy,” says Wong. Chen-Fernandez has an impact investing venture that focuses on eco-friendly fashion companies, including Redress, an environmental NGO working to reduce waste in the fashion industry. “After I watched Redress founder Christina Dean’s TED Talk, I was blown away,” Chen-Fernandez says.
While living in Los Angeles, Chen-Fernandez was a food and travel photographer for Condé Nast. After moving to Hong Kong and continuing with her photography, she had a 10-month stint as a butcher at the popular but now-closed Blue Butcher restaurant. “We were out having drinks with friends, it was around 1am, and Jonny Farrell, the head butcher, mentioned he was looking for an apprentice. I put my hand up and said, ‘I’ll do it!’ He laughed it off thinking I was kidding, but I wasn’t,” she recalls.
Five years ago, Chen-Fernandez put down her camera following the passing of her mother after a long battle with cancer. “I felt lost,” she says, adding that she began her impact investing career as a way to honour her.
“I always knew, especially when she was sick, that one day I would have to be the new steward for my portfolio. I had no idea how to do that,” says Chen-Fernandez. “I always felt that, particularly in Hong Kong, earning money always takes a front seat to anything else. The concept of making money for money’s sake is not something that I relate to. Impact investing appealed to me only because it had more social value.”
In whatever they do, Wong and Chen-Fernandez are mindful to support brands or suppliers with common social missions, particularly the representation of women.
Wong says, “Basics for Basics is very much about that, and about empowering different communities that are underdogs who feel like they don’t really fit in.”
“If anyone cares about the term ‘legacy’, as in so many wealthy families who are able to do so much with their finances, legacy can’t exist without the concept of a world,” adds Chen-Fernandez. “We have to take care of our world and not just give back with money, but also contribute our resources, time, support and lend our voices to the cause.”
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