Wilson Li, who counts Lady Gaga among his fans, wants to ‘save lives’ at Tree of Life
There are so many people crammed inside Sai Ying Pun’s Tree of Life community and charity centre on this busy Saturday afternoon that it’s like being over at the market in Mong Kok. This place in Eastern Street is packed to the rafters, except the shoppers here are hardly the same as those searching for a decent deal over in Kowloon. Most of these bargain hunters are homeless, addicted to drugs or just seriously down on their financial luck. This market stall selling free clothes in a SYP building that’s more than 100 years old has been created simply for those who are so desperate they could die on the streets unless they were given this charitable lifeline.
It’s a tough scene to watch as these desperate souls sift through the donated secondhand clothes looking for rags that will keep them warm at night. Yet, as the chaos ensues, the man behind it all looks on and beams with excitement. Wilson Li, a fashion designer who’s seen his creations worn by celebrities like Lady Gaga, is beaming because he knows these destitute SYP residents will have more chances of surviving Saturday night when they’re wearing the clothes they’re snapping up. He’s also smiling because many of these people are also in a warm and welcoming environment where they can socialise, forget about their plight for a moment and ‘feel some love’. Li and his team have created much more than just a community and charity centre here. They’ve created a safe haven.
Wilson Li is a fashion designer, working under the name of Wilson PK, who graduated from London’s Central Saint Martins college in 2014. The 26-year-old, who was born in Hong Kong but lived in England from the age of 12 until he moved back to our city early last year, has a body of work that centres around ‘the modern silhouette’ and he uses a range of textiles and materials to create an array of pieces that are ‘inspired by biological references and his religious beliefs’. He’s worked with famous fashion houses like Alexander Wang, Iris Van Herpen and Craig Lawrence, and he’s also the proud holder of an Umbria Cashmere District Award for his work with this soft material. Pop queen Lady Gaga has worn some of his pieces, calling him a ‘stunning young recent graduate from Saint Martins Fashion School in London’ back in 2013.
But what led Li to designing Tree of Life? Early last year, while still living in England’s capital, he says he’d just finished showing his wares at London Fashion Week when he decided to ‘give something back to the UK’, so he did some charity work with street sleepers in London with homeless organisation Crisis. He says it was a ‘unique and worthwhile experience’. “I started collaborating with Crisis,” he tells theDesk, “and inviting street sleepers to my shows. It made me wonder whether there was more I could do than just spending all my time designing for the luxury market and celebrities. I asked myself whether this was really what the world needs most. So it just so happened that I had a business trip coming up in Hong Kong, where I could see my family too. I went, decided I felt good in Hong Kong, got a shared studio on Hollywood Road and have stayed here ever since.”
Li says that, soon after moving back to our city, he finished work one evening and decided to explore Sai Ying Pun as he’d never been there before. “So I went walking,” he says, “and I met a fragile old guy called Mr Chen, who was pushing a rubbish trolley that was three times bigger than him. I’m a Christian, so I gave my ricebox to him and told him about Jesus. He seemed to appear happier and certainly enjoyed the food, however, when I walked away, I couldn’t help but angrily look up at the sky and ask God why he wasn’t doing anything to help people like this who are in need. So I decided, there and then, I would do something to help those who need it most.”
A week later, a ‘long lost family friend’ contacted Li ‘from out of nowhere’ saying she’d bought a five-storey building in Sai Ying Pun. Li says: “She had a vision that this building would be like a shining light in the SYP neighbourhood. It was in Eastern Street and was a restaurant at the time. She wanted to know if there was anyone willing to create something there who would be both creative and have a passion for humanity. I went and met her there. At the building, I just broke down in tears. Just outside was the spot where I’d given the ricebox to Mr Chen. It was a calling and I immediately said I would begin a project there that would have a passion for humanity. And that was the birth of Tree of Life and my calling to help the homeless and needy.”
Li says he got a team of volunteers, renovated the building and then started his charity clothing events. Soon enough he was bringing in the homeless and local drug addicts for food, clothes and support. He also launched the community centre side of the TOL project and also worked with local artists who wanted to get their works out. He says he chose the name Tree of Life because of a passage in Revelation 22 in The Bible. The passage details a ‘tree of life’ which bears 12 kinds of fruit and leaves that ‘are for healing the nations’.
Li notes that being based in the Sai Ying Pun neighbourhood really fits in with TOL’s ethos. “SYP is a really old area and it was one of the first to be developed in Hong Kong,” he says. “Broken people are swept into hidden corners of our city and this is certainly massively evident in SYP. For instance, we’ve got to know an elderly lady whose life is spent picking up rubbish to sell so she can make enough money to live. But we’ve also found out that her son has a gambling addiction and her grandchildren need help because they can’t express themselves when it comes to the problems and poverty in their family. These people need food and clothes, sure, but mainly they need emotional help and we give them that too. Tree Of Life not only helps street sleepers and drug addicts. It also helps anyone who needs support and love, like struggling young artists and those elderly people who are lonely.”
“Hong Kong is an important centre of finance,” continues Li, “but, as a result, there’s a huge disparity between the rich and the poor here, not to mention the extreme social hierarchy that’s so evident. I love this vibrant concrete jungle but about a fifth of the population is suffering under poor conditions, with many having mental illnesses that are a result of living under these conditions. Some of these people consider suicide as their only resort. We have a high suicide rate, from teenagers to the elderly, in Hong Kong. Surely it’s the responsibility of the rich to look after the vulnerable poor? Not a choice. A responsibility for a better society.”
Tree of Life runs a range of projects. One of them sees volunteers recycling fabrics to make sleeping bags for the homeless. “We’ve been so far donated five-and-a-half tonnes of fabric to make the bags,” says Li. “We like to sew encouraging words into them too.” Another project is a regular art session for mentally ill people from around the SYP community. “This helps them to relax and express themselves,” says Li. “We have an art therapist here who focuses on these sessions. It’s hugely rewarding work.”
Tree of Life also runs regular events where it invites those in need into the building to eat with the TOL team. The volunteers’ families cook food for the visitors and everyone chats, creating a real homely atmosphere. Plus, it isn’t just homeless people, drug addicts and the poor who come in. Struggling young artists also join the group. “I’m a designer,” says Li. “So I understand there’s an excessive focus on materialism and sometimes people’s creativity is often repressed out there. It’s difficult for young artists to develop and express themselves. Many young creatives have a dream of becoming an artist but can’t do so because of poverty. At Tree of Life, whether they’re painters, singers, designers or photographers, we speak to them and help them see they can still have that dream. It’s about having no fear.”
There’s now an outreach arm of TOL, where members head out to schools and education centres to tell kids about how many people are ‘broken and in need of help’ in the city. Li hopes this will mean the youngsters will want to help others in some way when they’re older. Some children already help with events, from making cupcakes to joining the team on the streets when they’re promoting their services. “These kids,” he says, “are our future. They can bring good to Sai Ying Pun, to Hong Kong and to the world.”
Tree of Life is Christian. It is run by Christians and some members do ‘spread the word of God’. But Li is keen for people to know that anyone, believers of any religion and non-believers too, can join in and support their work. “It’s just heartwarming,” he says, “to see different people from across Hong Kong come together for the poor and needy. It’s important to not judge each other’s differences but to focus on each other’s light. Wherever I go in this concrete city, finding broken people and showing them love is the main reason I live my life. Yes, my business of fashion design is important to me. But nothing beats helping those who really need it.”