A peep into how Hong Kong became Home Kong for this one-time backpacker.
Janet Walker is a well-known name in Hong Kong’s eco-tourism circles, speaking for those well-loved animals that can’t speak for themselves. As the spokesperson for Hong Kong Dolphinwatch, she is passionate about protecting these charming, but endangered animals. Janet came to Hong Kong nearly 24 years ago planning to stay for less than a year, but her love for the city, its animals, her family and her work at a leading international school have kept her anchored here. She talks to us about how she manages to retain her balance while juggling so many responsibilities.
Tell us a little bit about where you were born, brought up and how you landed in Hong Kong.
I was born and brought up in the UK, in Yorkshire, and came to Hong Kong at the end of a long backpacking trip. We had been working in Japan and left in late 1994, travelling south till we got to the bottom of New Zealand, then turned around and made our way back north, arriving here in January 1996. At that point, we planned to stay for six to 12 months and work here to pay for further travels.
When did you hear about Hong Kong’s famous pink dolphins?
I vaguely knew about the dolphins and I saw a tiny ad in the SCMP classifieds (which was a whole separate section of job ads back then!), looking for a Japanese/English speaker to work as an eco-tourism guide. There was no name, only a PO box, but as I do speak Japanese and I’ve always been a bit of a tree hugger, I applied. I was thrilled to get a postcard of a dolphin back, thanking me for my application!
How was HK Dolphinwatch set up and in what capacity do you work with them? Has your role changed over the years?
Bill Leverett set up HK Dolphinwatch in 1995, with the hope of raising awareness about the dolphins and I joined in 1997 when he was getting a lot of Japanese tourists.
I haven’t been dolphin watching in a while now because I have been busy with theatre rehearsals, but I am still handling media enquiries and liaison. I usually lead two or three trips a month, plus a few more during school holidays. Before my daughter Sam was born, I did most of the trips. Back then, I also used to do some Japanese-English translation (mostly, writing English subtitles for Japanese TV shows!).
What do you see as the future for HK’s pink dolphins?
It’s pretty bleak – with pollution, habitat loss, overfishing and more. Not at all what I was hoping for when I started the job! But certain things are impossible to fight.
Does conservation and environmental awareness (or the lack of it) in the city frustrate you?
It’s terribly frustrating and change is far too slow. When I first got here from Japan, I’d been used to having to separate rubbish into numerous categories for recycling. There was no such system here – I couldn’t believe it! Even now it’s purely voluntary and no-one is sure if the items actually do get recycled. Small changes, like bins, have appeared in the last few years, but I don’t see any urgency among the powers that be.
How have your views and interests impacted your parenting and your daughter’s own interests?
Hmmmm….Sam certainly loves the theatre! Many say that Hong Kong is a cultural desert but I’ve taken her to every possible show over the years. It’s our one luxury! We’ve always talked about current affairs at home and indeed it turned out that Politics and Drama were her favourite IB subjects. I’d have been very surprised if she turned out sporty!
Now that your daughter is 18, and you even work with her, how easy or difficult is it to “parent” her?
We do see a lot of each other these days, both working at Kellett School and Faust. Sam plans to study Theatre at Leeds University next year. But for now, she is taking a gap year. She is a TA at Kellett too, in learning support for year 2. She also works with the 8 to 10-year-olds at Faust, while I work at a local Kindergarten for Faust. Currently, we are also playing mother and daughter henchmen (or women, rather!) in Hong Kong Players‘ upcoming Christmas panto, Sleeping Beauty.
I try to be hands-off as a parent now, but I’m not one for biting my tongue, so it can be tricky. Being a double act in the panto is great fun though. As my cousin said “Well, you’ve been practising for 18 years!”
When did you start working in Kellett? What is most rewarding about working with little children?
I did supply teaching at first, about 11 years ago. I then went full time in 2010. The Music TA left that year and I was offered the role. Now though, I work more on the drama and admin side of things than music. My days at Kellett are so varied. One day might be spent in classes, another will be about rehearsing or costume sorting! I did a drama degree, so I specialise in all the theatre aspects more than the music side of my role.
I love working on the assemblies and Christmas shows, as well as our big musical every spring. The confidence that the children gain is amazing. Luckily, we also have many enthusiastic and creative class parents who work with me on costumes for shows and assemblies.
I also run the school’s knitting club and it’s fantastic to see the kids master something they think is impossible. I’m sure lots of Kellett parents have been surprised with lovely handmade gifts over the years.
Which one of the many roles you play – teaching assistant, theatre tech-in-charge, Dolphinwatch spokesperson or mum – is the most challenging? Why?
Oooh, they all have their challenges! Setting boundaries as a parent, getting the message through as the “dolphin lady”, juggling the various facets of my multiple roles at Kellett – all come with their own set of difficulties. Luckily, I work with a great team and there’s always someone ready with a “brew” when I’m buried under elf costumes or fiddling with the stage lights.
What did you enjoy about bringing up your daughter in HK? Was there anything you missed when you compare it to your own childhood?
It would have been nice to have more space! Especially during SARS with a toddler – I missed having a garden and outdoor space. But overall, it’s been a safe place to grow up and we live in a friendly community, where there have always been other families around.
What do you enjoy most about being a mum?
That’s varied over the years. I loved the bizarre chats you can have with little children, and Sam was always setting up complicated scenarios with her teddies or Playmobil, then later the Monster High dolls. We have the same sense of humour, so life is still entertaining. She will be off to university next year and I’m dreading the empty nest!
After a long day, what’s your favourite way to unwind?
Knitting! It might seem strange in this climate, but you always need something for the air-con, and there’s always someone having a baby. It’s a rare day when I don’t pick up my needles. I’ve also met some lovely ladies through it.
What would be your top tips for mums trying to instil love and respect for the environment in their kids?
Make it part of your everyday life so that carrying your own bags, recycling, not dropping litter etc. become second nature. And stop using single-use plastics, especially bottled water!
Any advice to eco-tourism entrepreneurs in HK?
- Research the market
- Use social and other media
- Don’t lecture people
It is tough out there, but don’t give up!