Friday, 23 June 2017

Tjonnie Li: The physicist who helped detect Einstein’s prediction and who brings his students back to earth

When he gave me his business card, he jokingly said that he is handing the cards out very aggressively, because he needs to get rid of the printed stock before he gets promoted. Tjonnie Li is not your typical physicist: instead of adopting near-invisibility behind bushy beard, his smile is all there for you to see on his cleanly shaven face. Tjonnie Li is anything but unkempt. In fact, he is easily mistaken as a professor in the business faculty, and not surprisingly, that is what Li tells his physics students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “People who do physics here are super passionate, because there’s so much pressure for them not to do physics. I tend to encourage them to be a little bit more ‘corporate’. It’s quite odd, because it’s normally the other way round. But they are so passionate about physics that I sometimes feel that I need to bring them down back to Earth. I’d say, ‘Okay, so, guys. At some point, you’re going to have to look for a job.’ Among physicists, bad language skills is taken as a good thing. They believe that they don’t have to be eloquent, to write well, or present well - it’s part of their identity. But I try to get them to learn to articulate and present well, because it doesn’t matter if they’ve done the best work in the world, if they can’t articulate it, nobody is going to notice.”

You would be right if you think you’ve read about Li somewhere on local newspaper headlines: in February last year, the US-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced their 2015 discovery of the gravitational waves, a notion predicted by Albert Einstein precisely 100 years  prior, and Li was a member of the team. The fact that gravitational waves - and the detection of them - carry little relevance to the layperson did not lessen Li’s enthusiasm in the pursuit of the waves, not least because his fascination with astronomy started at a young age. “I was amazed that there were other worlds, and maybe that’s also why I like mythology. All those supernatural, un-earthy things. I would read about them and try to imagine what they were like. That was my initial interest in astronomy, but it turned around quite a bit when I went to high school, where I studied physics, because then you get to learn about it mathematically, not just the mythical paintings anymore. I enjoyed learning physics, maybe because I’m good at it. The enjoyment and the good grades I got just reinforced themselves. And that’s another thing I find quite encouraging about Holland: you don’t have to do something with the motive of achieving something. It wasn’t like I had to study X so I could accomplish Y. That’s what I really miss, that kind of concept of studying what you enjoy, and then you can still find a job that utilises your skills; here [in Hong Kong] it is quite different.”

From his noticeable excitement about scientists now finally able to study blackholes and therefore go on to fathom the expanse of the universe, to his proposition for the Hong Kong government to introduce social measures to improve people’s general sense of security, to his idea that a good physicist needs to be ‘a little bit immature, a little bit crazy, and a little bit like an artist’, Tjonnie Li is a physicist with whom you can speak about anything terrestrial and extra-terrestrial. And yes, he believes in aliens. “Even just purely from a physicist’s perspective, they have to exist. The universe is so big, the number of things in it is almost incomprehensible, that I find it hubris to think that this place, right here, at the edge of some galaxy, is the only place in the universe where conditions are just right to make life. It doesn’t have to be intelligent, even though I do think there is intelligent life - there just has to be.”

What’s the function of the ’T’ in your name ‘Tjonnie’? 
It’s a Dutch spelling. Without the ’T’, the name would be pronounced ‘Yonnie’, not ‘Jonnie’. So to produce the ‘J’ sound, people either put a ’T’ or an ’S’, sometimes a ‘D’, to the front. Having ’T’ and ‘J’ together is actually a common combination, something that’s almost only seen in the Dutch language.  

How was Tjonnie Li like as a child - your upbringing, childhood in Hilversum, Netherlands, for instance? 
I was born in Hong Kong, and my family moved to the Netherlands when I was four. All of my education came from the Netherlands, but luckily, my parents spoke Cantonese at home, so I can speak Cantonese. 

I had a very typical Dutch education: a lot of freedom, very little homework, a lot of playing outside. Until I was in high school, I had no homework. I would leave my bag at home, pick up a ball, and go play outside until dinner time; during summer months I would continue after dinner, until my mum called me back in there to go to bed. 

My parents forced very few things on me, they only wanted me to do well at school. I was a very happy child, very much geared towards hobbies and interests. I read a lot, I played chess, competitively. I played, first, football, and then volleyball. I got to play a lot of sports because the schooling was not so dense. My childhood was really just about exploring myself. I played a lot of computer games as well, spent a lot of time tinkering around computers. I wasn’t one to sleep 10 to 12 hours a day. I didn’t want to be just sitting and staring out of the window, although I did have very nice windows at home! In Holland there are flats in rows of houses built around gardens, gardens that belong to the homeowners living on the ground floor, where some people would have chickens, some would grow weeds, some would let their child play in it. There are many of these patches, so sometimes I did stare out of the window. But typically, I was always doing something. 

What did you use to read about?
Anything I could get my hands on. Of course, I was already into astronomy, but I was usually just looking at the pictures, because as a child, you wouldn’t understand much. But I was always at the library, picking through books, seeing pictures of the Jupiter, the galaxies and so on. But the actual reading was on novels. Another thing I particularly enjoyed was mythology: Greek and Latin mythology. That’s why I ended up studying Latin and Greek in high school. 

What was it that fascinated you about astronomy?
It’s just the possibility of something else out there. I was amazed that there were other worlds, and maybe that’s also why I like mythology. All those supernatural, un-earthy things. I would read about them and try to imagine what they were like. That was my initial interest in astronomy, but it turned around quite a bit when I went to high school, where I studied physics, because then you get to learn about it mathematically, not just the mythical paintings anymore. I enjoyed learning physics - maybe because I’m good at it, and that’s why I enjoyed it? The enjoyment and the good grades I got just reinforced themselves. 

At some point I decided that I was to become a physicist, without much thought, definitely. And that’s another thing I find quite encouraging about Holland: you don’t have to do something with the motive of achieving something. It wasn’t like I had to study X so I could accomplish Y. Though my mum did, gently, ask me to try medicine. So there was still some Chinese influence there. But I was convinced that becoming a physicist, I could still be working at a firm, like Google - there are just so many things you can do as a physicist. That’s what I really miss, that kind of concept of studying what you enjoy, and then you can still find a job that utilises your skills; here [in Hong Kong] it is quite different. In a discussion with my mum, she said, “If you grew up here, you may not become what you are today, not as successful, just because of the different way society is structured.” The kind of pressure faced by students here, I may have responded in a very negative way. 

Is that what you’re trying to impart in your students here, to be passionate about physics?
It’s actually quite the other way round! People who do physics here are super passionate, because there’s so much pressure for them not to do physics. I tend to encourage them to be a little bit more ‘corporate’. It’s quite odd, because it’s normally the other way round. But they are so passionate about physics that I sometimes feel that I need to bring them down back to Earth. I’d say, “Okay, so, guys. At some point, you’re going to have to look for a job.” There are things that I stress, things like presentation. Among physicists, bad language skills is taken as a good thing. They believe that they don’t have to be eloquent, to write well, or present well - it’s part of their identity. But I try to get them to learn to articulate and present well, because it doesn’t matter if they’ve done the best work in the world, if they can’t articulate it, nobody is going to notice. 

There was a time that I believed I was going to become a banker or a consultant at a bank - I even did an internship as a consultant for one of those big consultancy firms. I was stationed in a multinational semiconductor company, doing cost reduction. Very boring, if you ask a physicist. For the longest time I thought that was the way I would go - I thought I would still pursue physics as part of the enjoyment, but I would have to work in the corporate world. But during the internship it turned out I wasn’t too fond of it, so I decided to continue on in physics, though my internship showed the practical sides of physics, that a physicist could dress smart instead of wearing flip-flops. 

What about physicists in Holland - are they more ‘well-groomed’ and articulate? 
I’d say it’s more common for a physicist to be a little bit more in touch with the world than a physicist in Hong Kong, because here, there’s a lot more pressure from society to get good grades and be presentable, to be good at multiple things, and then you’ll be quickly shoved in professions such as medicine and law and economics. But then on individual cases, physicists in Holland can be just as quirky. 

Was there a time in your life so far that you believed in aliens?
I’ve always believed in aliens, I just don’t think they are here on Earth. Even just purely from a physicist’s perspective, they have to exist. The universe is so big, the number of things in it is almost incomprehensible, that I find it hubris to think that this place, right here, at the edge of some galaxy, is the only place in the universe where conditions are just right to make life. It doesn’t have to be intelligent, even though I do think there is intelligent life - there just has to be. It may not be in the form, it really may not be anything that we can compare to, but there has to be life out there. Because the universe is so vast that there has to be something out there, but then it’s unlikely that they are here. Even if they are able to make long journeys over large distances, how would they know to find us here? If you zoom out, there’s this big galaxy, there are billions of stars in that galaxy. For the life out there to find us is not easy, and likewise, for us to find them is difficult. They could be sending out signals, but either they are too far for us to receive the signals, or we don’t know how to interpret those signals. Even if aliens were able to pick up our signals, they may not discern them as signals, they may just think those are universal noise.

Explain to us, in layman terms, the gravitational waves the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) team has discovered? 
The way I got into this exact type of research is quite random. I was finishing up my master’s degree in Cambridge, I was thinking of doing solar cell physics, but somehow I also wanted to do more astronomy. What I ended up doing was, I rang up the father of a friend of mine, who is an astrophysics (the study of stars) professor in Amsterdam. The conversation lasted a whole minute. I asked him, “Do you have a job for me?” “When can you start?” The conversation ended with him saying, “I’ll get it done.” So that was it. I knew what kind of research he was doing, I’ve always thought it was interesting, but there wasn’t really a deep, long urge that I wanted to do this kind of research. It was just that there was this person I knew, doing things that I was interested in, and so it just rolled together, and I wanted to do a PhD in that. I must admit that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It wasn’t very well thought through, it wasn’t like a job with a clear job description; I was just interested in it and wanted to learn more about it. That’s how I got into the LIGO research. If I knew then what I know now, I may not have done it. (laughs)

Is it relevant to people of the general public? The answer is: no. In 1916, Einstein came up with the notion that gravity is nothing but curved space. Spacetime is like a fabric. If you pull tight a cloth or rubber sheet on all its edges, you’ll have this nice, flat surface; but if you put a heavy marble on it, it’s going to make a dent. So that’s what mass does to spacetime: mass bends spacetime. When you put the marble on the fabric, you’ll see the marble rolling down into the hole, and that’s gravity, according to Einstein. With this notion also came the concept that you can shake the fabric so that ripples appear. Another analogy is, you have a still pond, and you throw a rock inside, then you can see these waves rippling out on the surface. Gravitational waves are exactly these waves, but in spacetime. So spacetime vibrates. 

Now, what does this mean in real life? What does it mean when space vibrates, when time vibrates? When time vibrates, it basically means that time goes faster and slower, periodically. So when a gravitational wave comes by, time stretches and squeezes. It’s the same thing for space. Space can stretch and squeeze: something that used to be a metre may become 1.1 metres or 0.9 metre. So for a brief moment, I’m a little bit taller, a little bit slimmer, and for a brief moment later, I’m a little bit shorter, and a little bit wider. The only problem is these effects are so small that we will never experience them. We had to build these very large machines, and that’s LIGO, to pick up these tiny changes in the lengths of space or time. That’s how we were able to find gravitational waves. 

What is causing those waves then?
Anything that moves, in principle, will ripple spacetime. Anything I throw in the pond could cause ripples, it doesn’t matter whether I throw a stone or a twig. In this case, the signal that we found was two blackholes colliding. It’s just like two marbles randomly going around on the fabric, and in certain circumstances, two blackholes meet each other, and they bump into each other. But in the case when two blackholes collide, it shakes spacetime so much that, even though it happens very far away, we can still feel the shaking of spacetime here on Earth. That’s gravitational waves, the shaking that we were able to detect. The whole signal we found lasted about 0.2 second - that was the part of the signal that we could detect. So for 0.2 second your body stretched and squeezed, but of course, as a human, you won’t notice it, because the effect is just so small, there’s no way you could have felt it. To give you and example how much that stretching and squeezing is, imagine something as large as a distance between us and the stars, and you stretch that distance by the width of the hair, that’s how little stretching and squeezing happens, and for us, on a human scale, the stretching and the distance is less than that. There’s no way for a human to notice it, but if you can build very sensitive machines - and in our case, we’ve shown that we can - then you can detect the effect. 

And this comes back to what it means for us humans. This means that we can now study blackholes. Blackholes, as their name suggests, are black, so we can’t point any telescopes to blackholes and study them. Any blackhole that collides or moves or does something, it would make gravitational waves, so now we have this way with which we can almost observe invisible objects in the universe. As long as something moves, shake, explode, we now have the ability to detect it. 

Do we know how many blackholes there are in the universe? 
That’s one of the big unanswered questions we are working on. The longer our detectors are in operation, the more data we can collect from the blackholes. We can now make a better and better guess at the number of blackholes. It’s like being in one street, and you count the number of cars that come by. From that, you can roughly guess how big the road is, then you can roughly guess how big Hong Kong is, and you can roughly guess how many cars there are in Hong Kong. In our case, we see how many gravitational waves come past, and we know, roughly, the size of the universe, so we can start guessing. The longer we stay there, the more signals we will receive, the more we can guess the number of blackholes in the universe. Nobody has a definite number, but we definitely know there’s more than one. 

What is the significance of being able to study blackholes?
Blackholes are, theoretically, the most compact and extreme objects. Everything about blackholes is extreme: the gravity is so extreme, in fact, that space and time gets curved up, and that’s why nothing can escape from a blackhole - spacetime is just bent so much that you can never escape from a blackhole. Extreme things, things that we typically can’t imagine, happen closely or inside the blackholes. And that’s the perfect way to test a physicist: Do we understand physics? Because, in ordinary circumstances, we know how physics works, but we don’t know whether the physics that we know on Earth still applies to very extreme environments. Do clocks still go the way that they go? We think - we have evidence - that that is not true. Time goes very differently from inside to the outside of the blackhole. Have you watched Interstellar? They kind of played with the same concept: two astronauts were placed on two distant planets, and they stayed there for half an hour, but outside, time goes so much slower. It’s these things that we can further study. It’s one thing to study physics on Earth, and it’s another thing to study the physics of extreme things. One of the reasons I study physics is that physics is extreme, because the universe, as a whole, is extreme. And to test and study these extreme things, you need to study blackholes.

Do you think it’s possible for humans to ever have a clear grasp of the expanse of the universe? 
There’s a lot of things we think we know, for some people that is sufficient. We do think that we know a lot of things about stars, about the size of the universe…but there are always more unknowns. For scientists, they want to go further and further. Take the detection of gravitational wave. For scientists, it’s amazing, this is the holy grail that scientists have been looking for for a hundred years before we found it. In 1916, Einstein predicted it; in 2015, we found it. For society, this may never have an impact. This is why scientists can be very detached from society. I think it is safe to say that within our lifetime, and for the person who reads this article, gravitational waves will never have an impact. The impact is so small to be felt, and we don’t expect to be communicating with aliens through gravitational waves anytime soon. From a scientist’s perspective, I don’t think we’ll ever know enough, because I always want to know more. 

Has it ever occurred to you how Einstein came up with the concept of gravitational waves 100 years ago?
Einstein came up with this simple set of equations, he wondered what he could do with them, what the consequences of the equations were, and one of those things was gravitational waves. It wasn’t any physical intuition, it was purely mathematics, there wasn’t that stroke of genius, yet in coming up with the set of equations was a stroke of genius. This equation describes the behaviour of the universe, it describes how the Earth moves around the Sun, it describes gravitational waves, it describes stars, it describes how stars come together to form galaxy, so many things. Simple equations like these are one of the reasons why I like science - there’s very little to memorise. I don’t have to memorise names, what happened and where. Here, I only have to memorise four or five formulae, and things just flow out for me. Science is for lazy people! (laughs)

What was that stroke of genius that led to Einstein’s creation of this formula? 
This theory of Einstein’s is called the General Theory of Relativity, and the important part is relativity - everything is relative. The stroke of genius is to understand that gravity is…you can make gravity disappear. If I was in an elevator, and someone snaps the wire, and I’ll fall. But because I’m inside the elevator, I can’t see the outside. Till I hit the ground, I’m just floating. There’s no difference between that and me being in the outer space - I’m just floating. So gravity, in this sense, is just how you look at it. That is perhaps one of his strokes of geniuses to take this concept, and formulate what gravity is, and this concept of relativity. The moment you hit the ground, though, the situation changes. Gravity is not absolute, and there’s no way for you to find out, because if the elevator is closed, you could be in outer space, or you could falling to your death - you don’t know, and there’s no way to find out, until you hit the ground, and then you’re dead. It’s through experiments like these that led Einstein to formulate what gravity is, based on the notion that spacetime is curved. And that, in my opinion, is a stroke of genius. He has many strokes of geniuses, this isn’t his only contribution, and that’s why he’s such a legend. I’ve taught these equations to both undergraduate and graduate school, it’s not something that students are incapable of understanding. But to come up with the equations is definitely a stroke of genius.  

How did it feel to be part of the team that proved Einstein’s prediction is correct? 
When you’re working in this field for so long - I’ve been working in this field for six years prior to the detection - at that point, it was nothing special. It’s become so normal to do these studies and analyses and other things that physicists do that once you’ve found it, there’s no profound moment that would make you go ‘Wow!’. There was some excitement, because it was the first time to see, but on the other hand, it’s also become a routine, because you’ve been doing it for so long. 

But when we talked to the media and I had to explain to the press, that’s when I took a step back and realised what a special, amazing thing our team has done. But that was many months after the actual detection, by then we were all so tired after getting all the results out. Those two moments were so far apart, they were four months apart, that it was a little bit of an anticlimax. There was never this eureka moment because we were so well-prepared with everything. Even the moment when the finding was internally confirmed came weeks later. There was the team of 50 to 100 of us, looking for all possible ways to chip away the rest of the doubt. Everything takes time, there was not this one moment, like in a sports game when there’s the final whistle. It all happened very gradually: We started something, we saw something that may look real, a couple of weeks later we thought this was real, and more possibilities that this was not real, and then came the moment when we realised that this is real. But overall it was a very good experience. 

Surprisingly, the Hong Kong press was very interested. There were colleagues who told me that the press won’t care, so even when they were organising the press conference, one of the professors told me that there might be 10 or so journalists attending, coming in to ask a few questions and take pictures. It turned out the whole place was packed, and I stood there for three or four hours. It was much bigger than I’d expected.

Could it be because of the fact that you were born in Hong Kong?
That’s my suspicion, yes. And most of the reporting was more concerned about that aspect, that someone from Hong Kong was participating in the research, rather than the discovery itself, or even the accuracy - there was a lot of things in the press about not what I said. There was one part, I still remember, where one journalist asked me if this discovery was going to win me a Nobel Prize. I said, yes, 100% sure, but I added that it was not going to be me, because I’m such a small cog in the team - I’ve only done it for six years, others have been doing it for 30 or 40 years. But then the next day, it was on the newspaper, and it literally said, “Hong Kong Scientist: Sure to Win the Nobel Prize”. I said every word in that, but I also said it’s not going to be me! I only knew because my dad called me, and asked if I thought I should go and rectify it, because I wouldn’t want to be the guy saying that he’s going to win the Nobel Prize, especially because I’m not going to win. But I’m like, if I have to chase every journalist down for misrepresenting me on something, I might have to spend the rest of my career doing that. So I told my dad not to worry about it. As long as nobody holds it against me when I don't get the Nobel Prize - which is always! - then I’m fine. 

What do you think are the things that make a good physicist? 
A good physicist, in my opinion, is a little bit immature, a little bit crazy, and a little bit like an artist. You have to do the crazy things, you’ll have to be willing to shut down what the environment thinks of you and expects of you, and go your own way. The reason I say that is that funding agencies, where we get most of our research fundings, really want us to go the other way, to be in this industrial complex where we churn out things that could benefit society. My impression, and also from history, the people who have made the biggest contributions to the world were always these outliers. Einstein was a complete lunatic: he flunked out of class just because he didn’t think it was interesting. So it’s people who are a bit outside the box.

A few years ago, a guy called Andre Geim, at the University of Manchester, found a new type of material called graphene. It is widely hailed as a revolutionary material. The way he found graphene was with a pencil and sticky tape. He wanted to isolate some carbon from the tip of the pencil, with sticky tape. On the coloured layers of the sticky tape, he found a single sheet of carbon, which is graphene. A pencil and sticky tape were literally what he used to discover graphene, nothing more. And it’s really people like that that sometimes stumble upon things that are of major impact. But because funding agencies want research to be driven more towards having impacts on society, having measurable things, science has now become more plan-able, to provide incremental improvements to things, or immediate impact to society, and that kind of goes against the quality that science should have, which is a little bit of craziness and creativity. 

I’m happy to say that I’m not one of those good physicists - I’m not yet, because I have to make sure that I don’t get fired first, so I can’t do very silly things yet. Maybe in the future, I can go very silly. The same guy who discovered graphene from pencil and sticky tape tried to levitate frogs - it’s completely crazy, but sometimes you would stumble on something useful, and you get the Nobel Prize. We need more people like Geim. In universities and funding agencies, there’s very little room to do that, because every dollar is accounted for. We’re not encouraged to take more risks. They want to be sure how many papers we publish, how many patents we get, with metric-based evaluations involved, and that sometimes kills creativity. It’s surprising how creativity our job was, but how quickly funding agencies take that away from us. But I understand that, it’s taxpayers’ money. Imagine telling someone on the street that their tax money is going to someone playing with sticky tape and pencil. Still, I think a lot of outreach should be focused on the fact that science is not planned, that sometimes it’s the random, silliest things that give you the major breakthroughs. Because I’m employed on tenure here, the university can’t fire me, and that’s the time to go crazy! Maybe in about five or six years, I would have gone completely mad, you’ll visit me again, but I will be in a crazy asylum, all strapped up. With some of the greatest scientists, even the scientists at that time didn’t understand them, so it’s hard for society to do so, but I do hope we could go back to more grassroots science.

When and why did you come back to Hong Kong? 
In September 2015, the Chinese University of Hong Kong offered me an opportunity to work here, as an assistant professor. For someone with my experience - which was very little at the time - it was a very good opportunity. Another reason I came back was that I wanted to discover a little bit about my history. I was born here, I look Chinese, I speak Chinese, but I’ve never really felt Chinese. I wanted to see the city where my parents came from, to get to know about myself, the culture behind. We used to come back here once a year or once every two year on holidays, but those were like family visits, a lot of yum cha, but not living here. So I wanted to be part of this society, before Hong Kong changes too much. 

What were the things that amazed/surprised/shocked you about Hong Kong then?
That it has changed so much already! I’ve always known that there are a lot of people in Hong Kong, but when you’re only on holiday, you’d think that’s quaint, that’s fun. But now I’m living it. Like the local education system. I knew that people of my age were doing crazy amounts of homework, it’s always school, school, school. If you come second in class, you’d be asked why you aren’t doing better. I knew that, but I couldn’t fully grasp the portion of it until I was here. When I’m interacting with my students, I understand that this is the way they were brought up. So these are my major discoveries. And then there’s the MTR, which is good because it’s very convenient. Before I came back I was in the United States, and I had to do everything by car. Here, you can literally just go into the MTR system and get to anywhere anytime. And since the MTR stations are usually connected to shopping malls, I’m spending so much more time indoors that I think I’m actually getting paler! The MTR can also be a ‘bad’ thing during rush hour, when even the grannies feel the need to fight with you over space - I wouldn't dare to take her spot! I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing, but it just reflects how society is. Like the Occupy movement, it’s much easier to grasp why that has happened, and why that hasn’t happened X years ago or that wasn’t to happen X years in the future, when you’re actually living in the city. Before coming back to Hong Kong, I was very neutral about CY Leung. But after coming back, I understand why certain people hold certain views about him. 

Your favourite aspects of Hong Kong? 
Convenience. Let me put it this way, maybe it’s not something that I really like, but it’s the perceived convenience. Everything is open till very late, and the MTR goes everywhere, but surprises me that it takes me an hour to go everywhere! I can probably get to places faster by running. The MTR is very convenient, for instance, but somehow it takes me an hour to get anywhere. I don’t know why this is so. So it’s this kind of contrasts that you find in many places, but it’s nice. 

What do you think needs to be done to make Hong Kong a happier city? 
One of the key things, from my very limited time here, is Hong Kong people’s low sense of security, not necessarily job-wise, but just, you know, it’s always about money. Hong Kong people are always like, if you get ill, something can happen; you need to buy a house, because you’re going to get married. It’s things like these that show that there is very little sense of security in Hong Kong. I grew up with the Dutch sense of security, which is about doing something that you enjoy, nobody cares, nobody would force you to become a doctor, but if you want to become a doctor, you could. The lack of security also applies to healthcare, and buying things. When people buy things they are worried if they’re being scammed, if they’re paying a higher price. If you go to a market, some women would be asking for free spring onion, people haggling everywhere. I’ve learnt recently that you can actually haggle at Fortress the electronics chain - one of my foreign students has successfully haggled at Fortress, and then I read online that Fortress does have a range of price for the same product.

So any measure that can help increase people’s sense of security, whether it is better social benefits or more online shopping so prices can be compared, so that people will be less stressed. I often see these senior citizens collecting used cardboard boxes. It’s not just the money that they need, because even if I give them money, they aren’t going to stop doing it, because they don’t know when the next portion is going to come. So maybe a little bit more socialism. It’s a bit weird to say this, because Hong Kong is super capitalist, they don’t even care if you die on the street. Having been brought up and raised in a very socialist country, taking care of the people is one of the things that I would like to see more of in Hong Kong, and I think that could alleviate some of the stresses in society. How could we achieve that, I don’t know. I’d be more than happy to give up half of my salary, if it helps 10 people in need, but that isn’t the silver bullet. From my own perspective, if I could help alleviate the younger generation of Hong Kong from the education-related stress, that would be my 30-year plan. The mentality that kids need to go to cram schools in order to get into universities is awful, because that means the kid comes home from school to go to more schools! Personally, I hope that’s an area where I can influence. 

What’s the best thing about being Tjonnie Li right now? 
My students, and my students doing well. Many of my students are actually doing exceedingly well, and I think that’s something that I take pride in, at this very moment. 

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

La French Cut: Handcrafted Elegance, from Strap to Heel

Alice Sachot is an interesting lady. She is both athletic and artistically inclined, fascinated since a young age with sports and Japanese aesthetics. The young Sachot’s idea of ‘fun’ was to stay home and knit while her friends preferred, naturally, to spend time in the playground. Upon graduation from university, she packed her suitcase and went to Japan, where she found work in a traditional Japanese setting, learning the social etiquettes and language from the locals she worked with. For a long time she thought she was going to marry a Japanese man. Yet as life’s twists and turns would have it, she met a fellow French hailing from not far away from her hometown, and the knot was tied. 

After spending two years in Hong Kong making everything from her own dress to decorative items for her wedding, Sachot thought it was an auspicious moment to start her own business in hand-crafted shoes - her way of eschewing the wasteful and characterless fast fashion. 

Four years on, she is still very much in love with Hong Kong, the birthplace of her business Le French Cut. “Being an entrepreneur is not easy - you need a motivation. My motivation is doing what I like, and to see people happy with the results.” 

How was Alice Sachot like as a child? 
I was energetic, I loved sports and arts, I was always day-dreaming, making things. Provence, in the south of France, where I came from, is very rich in terms of arts and culture, which has always offered me sources of inspiration. 

I’m interested in gymnastics, and for six years now I have been practising aerial silk, a circus art; I’ve done a few competitions in Hong Kong. I learnt the art of aerial silk in Japan. I’m glad I got to train with the locals here at the aerial silk studios in Hong Kong, people from all walks of life and yet we share the same passion. 

Tell me the story of, when you were seven years old, that your mother introduced you to sewing and knitting? 
In France - and I believe in many other places as well - people from my mum’s generation were taught and used to serving their own needs by making things. By my generation, the tradition began to disappear because people don’t find making your own things useful anymore. My mother taught me how to sew and knit when I was seven years old, and I loved it. All my friends then were wondering why I would prefer to sit still and sew and knit, like a grandmother, while the rest of them were out playing, but I’ve always felt a misfit with strange interests. I later learnt to make patterns, and so I was able to make a dress from scratch. I also learnt to work with leather and to make shoes. I have always wanted to make that my career, but my parents didn’t want me to go to fashion schools, so I had to make it happen in my own ways. My parents said, “Art is not a job.” When I said I would study business, they were okay with it. I believe that if your’e meant to do something, you’ll end up doing it anyway. 

When I was in Japan, I knew that if the opportunity arose for me to create my own business, I would take it. It wasn’t so easy to start your own business in Japan, so I picked up experiences in business as much as I could. When we moved to Hong Kong, I felt that I was ready to start my business; the timing was perfect. When I discovered the places that sell fabrics and materials in Sham Shui Po, I was very excited. I’ve spent so much time in the area that I now know it by heart.

What is the appeal of making things by hand? 
It’s relaxing, and it gives me peace of mind. There’s something calming about being able to focus on the one, single task on hand. 

Why do you think slow fashion is necessary in this day and age? 
It is necessary because the fashion industry has gone too far - too far in terms of mass production and mass consumption, and now there is the huge problem of waste all over the world. I think people are increasingly realising that we need to go back to the root of fashion, which is making clothes for needs and style, but not for cheap production costs. People sometimes buy 10 pieces of clothes without even trying them on, and if they don’t like the clothes, they’ll just throw them away. 

Making clothes for needs is a no-brainer for me. If a woman wants her clothes and shoes handmade, I can discuss with her, understand her needs and preferences, and then I can come up with something that is unique for her. It means a lot to me to have customers coming to me, finally having a pair of shoes that fit her size or preference or style that which, for some reasons, she wasn’t able to find before. That’s what keeps me going, because being an entrepreneur is not easy - you need a motivation. My motivation is doing what I like, and to see people happy with the results. 

Things that are handmade are unique and different, yet, unfortunately, many people find it difficult to go back to the good old way of thinking that values craftsmanship. For me, it takes two to three weeks to make a pair of shoes, because my maker makes it one by one, but some people think the whole process should be faster - but hand-making a pair of shoes in two to three weeks is fast! I like to think that what I’m doing is a bit of consumer education on slow fashion.

What are the challenges of making shoes by hand? 
It’s a long process, with a lot of materials involved. I’m constantly looking for good makers, because the handcraft industry is shrinking - not just in Hong Kong, but elsewhere in the world too. And then there’s the sourcing of materials, which I usually do by myself. Every time I travel, I make sure to look up places that sell materials and fabrics. I would pick a small quantity, and try it myself, so that I can check the quality of every different piece of material. 

I try to make my designs elegant and timeless, with a hint of originality, so that my customers can wear them with a dress or jeans or whatever that suit the occasion. 

Were you originally from Hong Kong, or did you come to Hong Kong as an expat? 
I left France 10 years ago. I first went to Japan. I was living in Tokyo for six years, and after that I came to Hong Kong. I travelled to Hong Kong a few times while I was living in Tokyo, and I loved it here - the energy, the mix of cultures, which I found very interesting. 

I met my husband in Tokyo. Strangely enough, he is French. I wasn’t expecting that, because I was so into the Japanese culture that I thought I would marry a Japanese man one day and live in the country. (laughs) Turns out my husband is from not very far away from where I came from - sometimes you just have to go to the other side of the planet to meet somewhere who lived so close by! We had the opportunity to come to Hong Kong, I was very happy. When we left Tokyo, he proposed to me. The first two years I was in Hong Kong, I was making things for our wedding - I made my dress, my mother’s dress, my shoes, all the decorations…everything was handcrafted. I spent two years completing everything, and I felt that it was an accomplishment of something that I have always wanted to do before. 

Once the wedding was over, I sat down and thought, maybe it’s time that I started my own company. Having made everything for my wedding by hand, I realised that I didn’t really like the idea of hand-making over 100 pieces of the same item. So I decided that I would do the design, and to have makers doing the repetitive production work for me. I have been living in Hong Kong for four years now. The first two years were spent preparing for my wedding, for a year and a half, I did custom-made shoes - I took measurements and did fittings all by myself. Back then, it took me two months to make a pair of shoes. In the end I decided to make shoes with the same pricing, but also to keep the whole process simpler for my customers and myself. Now, I produce shoes in a range of sizes, and adjustments can be made according to the customers’ needs and preferences. 

Why the move to Japan? 
I have been a big fan of Japan since I was a kid, watching anime, and fascinated by the Japanese aesthetics, culture and history. Once I got my college degree in France, I packed my suitcase and moved to Tokyo! When you’re young you don’t think much about the future. I didn’t know how long I was going to stay there, but if everything failed, I could always come back to France; I thought I just had to give it a try. I got a student visa, applied to a Japanese language school to learn the language and the culture, found my first job at an entirely Japanese company. 

Your first impressions of Hong Kong? 
The Japanese culture is very specific, and I knew that as a foreigner, I had to conform to their culture. And I wanted to learn more about the culture, as I didn’t want to stand out as a foreigner. But sometimes that could be a bit too much, so coming to Hong Kong was very relieving. I know there are certain codes of behaviour here, but I didn’t feel such a big need to conform. I definitely felt that Hong Kong is more cosmopolitan, that I’m more at ease, not so afraid of doing something ‘wrong’. I also love the mix of city life and nature. In Tokyo, if you want to see the nature, you’d have to drive quite a distance, so it is quite a trip if you want to go hiking somewhere. But in Hong Kong, you can be at the Peak, the beach, the hiking trails in 10 minutes to half an hour. Hong Kong is one of my favourite cities, I’m so happy here. But it would be difficult to choose between Japan and Hong Kong, because there are things that I love and love less in both places. 

What’s the best thing about being Alice right now? 
That I’m able to do what I love, while making people happy.