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Sunday Lunch: Bobsy Gaia

The first time I met Bobsy Gaia was around 25 years ago, at my high-school assembly, when he presented me with a prize for participating in an art competition, designing a mural on Lamma Island with the message of keeping Lamma clean and beautiful. Already at that point, Bobsy had long been campaigning for environmental causes in Hong Kong.


As we sat down for lunch at MANA! Starstreet over The Shakti Flatzza, a millet-based flatbread ‘pizza’ base topped with vegan mozzarella, roasted cherry tomatoes, Portobello mushrooms, rocket and chipotle barbecue sauce, Bobsy retold stories about his life and work in Hong Kong that has culminated in MANA!

Janice Leung Hayes interviews Bobsy Gaia at MANA! Starstreet Precinct
Bobsy Gaia, founder of MANA! and several other environmental initiatives, speaks over lunch with Janice Leung Hayes

Arriving in Hong Kong in 1992, after a stint in Bangkok where he founded an eco-fashion business, Bobsy immediately felt at home. ‘It’s my destiny to be here,’ he says. ‘You know it’s destiny when you go somewhere and it feels so right. There’s no resistance, there’s no friction, and all the signs indicate that you’re on the right track. I felt exactly that way when I came to Hong Kong. I came with no money, no family, nothing. I came down here and it just felt right and flowed beautifully. There was never a moment of doubt.’


He felt an affinity with Lamma’s community (‘hippies, or people with alternative lifestyles,’ he explains) and moved there shortly after arriving in Hong Kong. In 1997, he founded ABLE Charity with the goal of re-zoning a forest in the northern hills of Lamma as conservation land, and soon after, also started Bookworm Cafe, a vegetarian cafe on Lamma — his first foray into hospitality. ‘I realised that food was going to be a lot more powerful than eco-fashion and campaigning,’ he says.

Shakti Flatzza at MANA! Starstreet Precinct
The Shakti Flatzza exemplifies the type of eco-conscious eating advocated by MANA!

His own journey towards the kind of plant-based eating that MANA! advocates came just under a decade before that. ‘I underwent what you might call a metanoia, a shift in consciousness: I had an awakening and I realised that the way humanity is living is not sustainable, and is in fact destructive, and it’s a question of time before we change our ways,’ he says. ‘I can’t be eating meat and planting trees, it’s just not compatible.’


As I sipped on my oat milk teeccino (a caffeine-free coffee alternative), Bobsy tells me that when he began this journey, he was vegetarian rather than vegan, as less research had been uncovered about the environmental and ethical issues related to non-meat animal products, such as dairy. ‘Back in the late eighties, early nineties, my vocabulary didn’t include “sustainability” and “eco-fashion”. We used to say “environmentally friendly”. The whole lexicon around this movement is not mature as it is today. This is how we grow — one idea at a time, one insight at a time.’


When you ask younger generations if they’re plant-based, Bobsy says, ‘They’re going “Duh, you might as well ask me if I have slaves”. It’s coming. Change is happening whether we want it or not, so the sooner we become aware of it, and the sooner we become aware of the necessity for change, the sooner our ride becomes a lot more comfortable, enjoyable, inspirational.’

MANA!'s spacious venue at Starstreet Precinct
MANA!’s large space in Starstreet Precinct allows it to express its ideas in full, according to Bobsy

It’s this amplification of ideas that’s at the core of what MANA!, and Bobsy himself, does. ‘I’ve found Mana to be a huge vehicle for inspiration. From the music we play to the incense we burn, how we express ourselves is all about raising awareness, through a gentler, kinder, more compassionate, feminine way of living,’ he says. ‘The word “mana” means “qi” or “prana” — life force. “Ma” in mana is the root of the word mother in all languages. Hong Kong is a very masculine city, but there’s a growing awareness about the rise of the feminine, the yin in yin and yang.’


Being part of the community in Starstreet Precinct was an important turning point for MANA!, and apart from ‘a sense of community and aesthetics’ in the Precinct, Bobsy says, ‘We have a much bigger space. This is the first time we’ve had the space and knowledge to be able to express what we’re about, not just for the yoga crew, or the hippy crew, but for everyone. Finally there’s room for state-of-the-art composting and recycling bins. This is a bigger expression of what MANA! deserves.’

Various plant-based foods at MANA! Starstreet Precinct
Healthy, tasty flatbreads and wraps with plant-based ingredients are a major part of MANA!’s menu

In Save The Human! Don’t Eat the Planet!, a short documentary made by Will Senn Lau and Bobsy in 2008, the sentences ‘Change Your Diet!! Don’t Change The Climate!!’ appear. This idea, more than a decade later, has since become one of MANA!’s core messages, or mantras: ‘Diet Change Not Climate Change’. This is just one example of how Bobsy’s messages of awareness often snowball and reappear, years down the line.


‘MANA! will have a momentum and destiny of its own that’s bigger than me, there’s no doubt about it,’ Bobsy says. ‘It must be shared. Positivity is contagious.’

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