Richie Kul is a vegan activist, model, and actor living in Hong Kong.
He sat down with Plant Based News to talk about the growth of veganism in Hong Kong and across East Asia. He also shared his tips on how aspiring vegans can make it easier for themselves to ditch animal products.
Plant Based News: Hi Richie, thanks for speaking with us. What do you like about living in Hong Kong?
Richie: I think there is honestly so much to like about Hong Kong - there's something for virtually everyone here. The city is so textured and dynamic and as a result, it attracts motivated, driven and inspired people. One of the elements that truly sets it apart is that it unofficially serves as a nexus point between the East and the West, melding the best of both worlds.
Because of that, it responds very strongly to global trends, so in the last three to five years I've witnessed exponential growth in the vegan movement here. There are now a lot of great restaurants, wonderful zero waste initiatives and products here that you wouldn't have found just six or seven years ago - Confusion Plant Based Kitchen, POP Vegan, Coconut Matter, Live Zero, and the 2,600 member-strong Facebook community Vegans Hong Kong just to name a few, so it's quite an exciting time to be here.
The other thing that is great for me and Lily and what a lot of people don't realize is that Hong Kong is actually a rather lush and verdant dotted with stunning peaks and waterfalls. While it's most famous for its iconic skyline, 75 percent of Hong Kong is undeveloped land, so it's ideal for hiking and communing with nature.?
PBN: Have you ever been to mainland China?
Richie: Yes, I went to China for the first time back in the summer of 2000 when I interned for a technology company here in Hong Kong. Since then, I've returned a number of times for work, probably at least two dozen times by now. It's quite exciting to re-experience cities that I visited so long ago and note how vastly things have changed. I still remember the first time I went (I was vegetarian back then) it was quite difficult to find vegetarian food, and now during my most recent trip to Shanghai, I was able to go to a Michelin-starred vegan restaurant right on the Bund and the offerings were so innovative and avant-garde.
The highlight though remains a trip to Chengdu about two years ago when I went to Animals Asia's China Bear Sanctuary and got to see first hand the potential for how we can care for animals rather than exploit them. For people who aren't aware, moon bears in the bear bile trade are routinely imprisoned in small cages where they can barely move, and a hole is punctured in their abdomen to extract bile from their gall bladder to be used in traditional Chinese medicine.
My dear friend Jill Robinson who founded Animals Asia in 1998 actually broke ground on this beautiful sanctuary in 2000, and has now rescued over 600 bears from a life of tremendous pain and suffering. Some of them were languishing in cages for over 25 years, and now they are free to enjoy the happily ever after they rightfully deserve. It's amazing to witness their remarkable capacity to heal and forgive after being tortured and abused for so long. I hope this incredible sanctuary will remain a shining beacon for the sort of relationship we can forge with our animal friends. That's why I love supporting amazing vegan brands like Miomojo that donate a portion of their sales to this amazingly special organization.
It's great to see that China is increasingly receptive to the vegan movement and to witness the strides it's taking so I'm cautiously hopeful and optimistic. In 2016, the government issued sweeping dietary guidelines encouraging citizens to reduce meat consumption by 50 percent, and there is growing chatter on the ground regarding the positive health, ethical and environmental implications of a vegan lifestyle. It's going to be a daunting uphill climb as the country consumes a staggering 28 percent of the world's meat, but that also means that a lot of lives can be potentially saved and spared.
PBN: So true. And where there's a will (and a Jill) there's a way! Jill is one of my heroes, she's inspired me from a very young age, and ever since I've been involved with helping animals and always look up to her for the work she does.
Richie: Jill is exceptional in so many, many ways and always leads by example. Her staff canteen has been fully vegan for a few years now. How cool is that? I really love that as an animal lover, she walks the talk and doesn't confine her compassion to wildlife or companion animals but extends it to all living beings. It's wonderfully reassuring when an organization called Animals Asia speaks out for and defends all animals in Asia.
PBN: Apart from the Animals Asia sanctuary, what was the most interesting thing that you experienced in mainland China?
Richie: What I found most interesting during my visits was just how warm and friendly people can be. Growing up and having spent much of my adult life in the West, there is an overwhelmingly negative sentiment about China in terms of how it treats animals, with a lot of press surrounding the Yulin dog meat 'festival'. Some of that bad publicity is rightfully deserved, but what some people don't realise is that the people who engage in this shameful trade constitute a very small minority of the Chinese population.
When you go to modern, developed cities like Shanghai or Beijing, you quickly find that people love their pets, take them to hotels with them, sneak them into restaurants, and overall have a strong affinity and attachment to them. So there is actually a strong undercurrent of compassion already built into the Chinese people. They simply haven't had much exposure to the concepts of animal welfare and animal rights. So for me, that's the most exciting part about being in this region at this time and being part of this change - helping plant seeds of compassion amongst people who are already naturally compassionate. They just need that extra nudge that people in Europe and the US received probably 20 years ago.
PBN: It's so exciting to see all the developments. Talking about developing all the opportunities, what do you think are the most exciting opportunities that are emerging here in Hong Kong and in East Asia for the upcoming years?
Richie: What excites me most is the tremendous untapped potential - a vast population of people who naturally have compassion but haven't had ample opportunity to learn about the many benefits of cruelty-free, compassionate living. Here, you have the possibility of reaching people who are largely unfamiliar with the idea of extending their love and affinity for their dogs to other animals.
Where China goes, the world will naturally take notice, and some people might follow because it's such an influential player right now. But with great power comes great responsibility, and China has a moral obligation to take a hard and critical look at its human and animal rights records if it is to elevate its status on the world scene. Together we must continue planting those vital seeds of awareness so we can create a powerful ripple of change.
PBN: Absolutely Richie. So well said as always. If there is one thing that you could say to the audiences in Hong Kong and China, or perhaps the global audience who are curious about veganism, what would you say to encourage them to change?
Richie: The best piece of advice I can give people is to never stop challenging yourself to be better and do better. We as humans are hardly set in stone - we were meant to adapt and grow. Veganism has a way of opening up so many great pathways for growth - ethical, health, environmental and spiritual. And we should seize those opportunities when they come and pay it forward.
I think all too often, people throw in the towel before the journey has even begun. If we tell themselves that something is too difficult or too inconvenient and continually reinforce that belief, life has a way of fulfilling our prophecy. But if we step back and recalibrate our way of thinking and tell ourselves that we're actually not giving anything up and we merely stop taking what was never ours to begin with, veganism becomes a lot more manageable, joyful and deeply fulfilling. When we shift our mindsets and recognize that we're all in this together, that animals are here with us and not for us, an inclusive world of limitless possibilities suddenly opens up, and it can be downright magical.