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‘I often eat Middle Eastern food with my friends,’ laughs Anne-Marie ‘Harmony’ Ilunga, founder of Harmony HK, as we dig into an array of dolma, hummus and labneh. ‘In my culture too, you share your food with others and that’s how you bring people together.’

Sitting down with Harmony at Francis, at the edge of picturesque cul-de-sac St. Francis Street, the scene looks straight out of a photo shoot. Which would make sense, as she has been an active part of Hong Kong’s modelling scene for a while, from her start in charity shows as a high-schooler to going professional last year. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the 21-year-old psychology student and activist. At her first shoot, the designer booking her was ridiculed by others for having an African model. But in time, she started to book more gigs and rise above her detractors. ‘One lady who made fun of me for being a black model later wanted me to do her shoot!’ she exclaims incredulously.

Writer Tegan Smyth and Harmony HK founder Anne-Marie ‘Harmony’ Ilunga tuck into a Sunday lunch at Francis in Starstreet Precinct

Noticing a lack of diversity on runways and opportunities for models from ethnic minority backgrounds, Harmony felt compelled to do something to improve the situation for others. In 2018, she launched social enterprise Harmony HK, boasting Hong Kong’s first and only refugee-curated fashion show.

‘Harmony HK started because I wanted people like me to feel included and have a platform where they can share their talent because I know how it feels to not have a platform,’ she says. With deep conviction, she adds, ‘We’re also raising awareness about the social injustice happening in Hong Kong for people like me, for ethnic minorities and refugees.’

Hailing from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ilunga fled the ongoing conflict with her mother and younger brother when she was twelve years old, seeking asylum in Hong Kong. Despite the odds, she has found ways to thrive in the city while never forgetting her roots. ‘I’m so proud. I’m proud to represent Congolese art and culture here, despite the circumstances. For Congolese, it's all about fashion — for example, we’re famous for la sapologie,’ she says, referring to the subculture of dandies dressed to the nines in Kinshasa and Brazzaville.

Ilunga shares a joke

If the intrinsic link between Congolese culture and fashion wasn’t apparent already, attendees at Harmony HK’s past shows were treated to show-stopping looks in bright colours. Ilunga tells me that in the Congo, these vibrant wax fabrics are called liputa and are integral to the local culture, often with a deep symbolism in the patterned threads. Worn to special celebrations and events, such as International Women’s Day, the cloth is — pun intended — very much part of the social fabric of the Congolese.

‘I think it's important to me because I want people in Hong Kong to see what African fabric looks like. It’s important for people to know that our fabrics and clothing also represent dignity. This is a way of bringing the Congo to Hong Kong, and that's why Art Women is there every time we do a show, because we want to represent the beauty of the Congolese,’ she says, referring to one of Harmony HK’s design partners.

Foodie delights at Francis include Chicken Schnitzel with Za’atar and Aioli
Lamb ribs with orange, yogurt and coriander. Right: Manti dumplings with feta, spinach, yogurt and brown butter

Over the main courses of slow-cooked lamb, halloumi and stuffed peppers, I ask Ilunga to tell me something that people might not know about her. With a wide grin, she says, ‘I'm a good cook. I started cooking when I was eight years old. Call my parents and they’ll tell you that my food is good Congolese food.’ With perfect comedic timing, she adds, ‘There are a lot of times that people just think, like, "You cook? I think I have to call the ambulance before I try your food!"’

Jokes aside, Ilunga has an unwavering conviction for the inroads her organisation is making for representation in the city. Along with a diverse team hailing from Zimbabwe, Japan, the Philippines and Hong Kong, the models and performers in the show prove how beautiful diversity can be. ‘We give everybody a chance — we have people from everywhere; Nepal, Pakistan, India. I think in Hong Kong and Asia, I hadn’t seen a Muslim hijabi model on the runway. I think Harmony HK was the first one,’ she concludes proudly.

A cosy al fresco table suits a casual lunch

With a style icon in Rihanna and idol in South Sudanese-Australian supermodel Adut Akech, Ilunga sees the power of fashion to challenge perceptions about marginalised groups. Realising that Akech was a former refugee herself had a huge impact on Ilunga and steeled her confidence to set up the organisation. ‘I had goosebumps. I was like, “Oh my God, if she can do it, I can do it”. You are more than just a refugee. I'm more than just a person to pity,’ she says. She hopes that going forward, younger generations of refugees and asylum seekers will have more role models in the public eye, showing them that there is a future no matter what the present circumstances are.

What’s next for Harmony HK? ‘We’re preparing for the next Harmony Show — it’s happening in December,’ she says. Playing the long game, however, is also on the cards. ‘The goal is for Harmony HK to one day spread around Asia, to show diversity not through the lens of pity but as something that has value,’ she adds.

Whether it’s the practice of sharing food in Congolese culture, the shared plates of our lunch or the opportunities Ilunga is sharing with other under-represented youths in Hong Kong through her platform, there’s one thing I feel certain of as we conclude our meal: what was shared today is only the beginning, as Ilunga is clearly a young woman with a star on the rise.