Yes, 2020 is a year that many of us are ready to leave behind. But despite all its woes, it has brought with it unprecedented change and thus, immense growth. James Wong, Irisa Wong, Mayao, Afa Lee, Louise Wong and Jamie Xia of our #legend100 take a moment to reflect with Alyanna Raissa J Payos on their year of self-discovery
Confined to our homes, four-seaters at restaurants and the lone treadmill at the gym, it feels like quite a while since we’ve been on an adventure. In the past year, there have been struggles of every scale and magnitude, and it’s worth reminding ourselves that as clichéd as the saying may be, we are not alone.
It goes without saying that the involuntary pause we’ve been forced to take has given all of us the opportunity to take a long, hard look in the mirror –something that’s been on the back burner as we busied ourselves with our frenetic lives.
Questions of purpose, well-being and character are just a few things our #legend100 have asked themselves as they’ve navigated their way through the past year’s fog, proving that there’s no better journey to be on than that of the self.
Easy-going and adaptable, fashion model Louise Wong believes that focusing on the present is key to pushing through a COVID-stricken year. “2020’s been a tough time for everyone and for the fashion industry as well,” she acknowledges. “But we just have to live in the moment. So I’ve been spending a lot more time with my daughter and family, and feel even closer to them now. We just binge-watch Netflix – Ratched is a favourite!”
Despite the myriad ways Wong has been engaging in self-care this past year (including her mastery of low-sugar banana bread), nothing beats time spent with family. “Family over everything,” she declares. “I’m a Cancer mom, so I just really care about the family and want to give them a good life, to provide the best for them.”
It appears that the selflessness Wong exhibits in her self-care habits also translates into her practices for self-confidence. “I don’t think feeling good in my own skin comes from [the way I look],” she says. “I try my best to treat everyone with kindness and respect because when people around me are comfortable, I feel more confident. It comes from the inside.”
She goes on to reveal that she’s “the kind of person who always feels insecure about a lot of things” and still only feels confident in front of the camera – but watching her work on-set, you’d be none the wiser. Striking pose after pose with not a single shot rendered unusable, it’s as if Wong can’t be separated from her natural panache.
As a creative juggernaut and self-proclaimed workaholic, Mayao’s greatest difficulty was the pause itself. “It’s been challenging, having a lot of my own time,” he admits. “For the past few years, I haven’t really spent time with myself to experience the calm and absorb everything around me because I’ve been working, working, working. This year, I finally got to slow down and think about what I want to do. Is there anything that if I didn’t do it, I’d regret it in life?”
Mayao decided that there was in fact, something. In August, the stylist embarked on a new passion project titled Lab Zero, in which Mayao covers tunes he enjoyed as a youngster, collaborating with the original artists to modernise the songs. “When I first started this project, I thought, ‘Is this gonna work? Are people gonna like it?’ But it turns out most of the artists, who I don’t even know personally, really enjoy the process of recreating their songs and giving it new life,” he recalls. “That was a wake-up call for me. This is how this industry should be – everyone enjoying what they’re doing, instead of just waking up with a busy schedule, not knowing where I am or which city I’m in. Sometimes when I work, I don’t even have feelings; it feels like I’m on autopilot. So this project was really a turning point.”
For Mayao, the long-overdue break resulted in an influx of awakenings. Apart from breathing new life into his career, he’s come to have a different perspective on self-care as well. “You need to feel good about yourself,” he says. “It’s about hei zat – the aura. Sometimes appearance is not everything. I used to try to hide my flaws. I wasn’t a very confident person, even three or four years ago. Now I’m very sure of myself, especially after COVID. I came to see that nothing really matters as long as you’re happy. That’s the important thing.”
With her hair now dyed Barbie-blonde, Irisa Wong is a walking ray of sunshine. She exudes positivity and is in constant pursuit of fun wherever she goes. At the shoot, she grows restless from posing seriously for the camera and begs for a goofy shot – which she gets. It’s not difficult to see why the past year has surely failed to put a damper on the spirit of this young model and influencer.
But on days where she’s been “sitting at home super-bored with nothing to do” or in moments of temporary hardship she’s managed to forget, Wong leans on the people closest to her. “My family is everything to me – they’re the best,” she says, swaying side to side with Mayao, who is locked in her tight embrace. Clearly, friends are no exception.
For the most part, though, Wong has counted on herself to get her through the year. “I feel like I take pretty good care of myself,” she says, laughing. “Staying happy and healthy is the most important thing to me.”
It’s also evident that authenticity is on the list of things important to her. Despite a continuously growing social media presence, she doesn’t liken herself to an influencer. “I’m just a normal person and I enjoy posting stuff on Instagram,” she says. “I try to be the most ‘me’ on social media. I feel like people just enjoy seeing that – stuff that is more natural.”
She’s not wrong about her followers’ tastes. Wong’s feed is a collection of silly faces and mid-laugh smiles. As someone who carries an unwavering message of self-confidence and loving the skin you’re in, Wong says there’s no secret formula. “Everyone has flaws and insecurities, but you just have to embrace them,” she says. “There are days where I feel really shit, take a million photos and still find myself super-ugly. But it’s just life. Everybody goes through those days. The next day will be better – you’ll feel better!”
With a new business set to open mid-December, personal trainer and fitness influencer James Wong has set his eyes on a goal most would turn away from, considering the current situation. But he remains as resolute as ever. “I’m opening my own personal training studio,” he reveals. “That’s quite challenging right now, because there’s a lot of studios that are shutting down. It’s a risk for me and my partners. But then again, there’s no business without any sort of risk, so we’re just trying to see it in a positive light – just trying to grind through.”
That confidence and determination isn’t out of character for Wong at all. Though he speculates it has to do with being more focused this year as a result of learning how to better “program” himself, it seems to be an extension of his physical prowess into his mental strength – something he feels is integral to fitness. “I would be bold and say that results are a by-product of fitness, so your mental well-being is what you should really aim for,” he says. “Obviously everyone wants to look good; it’s human nature. Especially now with social media, we’re constantly taking pictures to post online. That’s not a problem, but I think striving to be better mentally is more of an important factor when it comes to fitness.”
Looking at the bigger picture, Wong also remains steadfast in the power of positive thinking. “In times like these, I feel that not only influencers or those with influential power, but everyone, should have a positive mindset,” he says. “My way of tackling [adversity] is through fitness. It’s therapy for me. I’ve spent the past 10 years of my life doing fitness, so I’ll try to showcase that. I love my girlfriend – I try to showcase that. That’s how I want to influence people if I can. Spend more time with your loved ones. Work out. And stay positive, even at the darkest of times.”
Owing to travel restrictions set in place due to the pandemic, families spread thin across the globe have had to do without their vital support systems. Having moved to Hong Kong from Seattle more than five years ago now, model and actress Jamie Xia has found herself aching for home more than ever. “I haven’t been able to go home to see anyone this whole time,” shesays. “I think the last time I saw my sister was last May. It’s been tough, but in order to cope, I just exercise a lot, keep myself busy and focus on the small things in life.”
One such small thing she’s paid extra attention to this year is sleep. “I used to not take naps,” she says. “I used to be really anxious about it. I don’t like falling asleep, then waking up and realising it’s dark outside. It’s not so much about being unproductive – because sometimes you can be and that’s good for you. But this year I’ve learned that sleep is actually one of the best healing tools. It’s weird – no one needs to learn how to take naps, but I definitely did!”
The learning didn’t stop there for Xia, either. “Over this past year, I’ve definitely taken a hard look at the mirror,” she says. “I used to think I knew a lot about myself, but I’ve realised a lot about how I can improve. Self-love, I think, has a lot to do with not just embracing yourself, but consciously practicing how to be better – instead of just being like ‘I love this and I love that’ about myself. Confidence is one thing, but I think being able to understand your need for improvement on certain things is also very important.”
As someone who has chosen a career that constantly places her in front of the lens, it’s taken time for Xia to understand that confidence isn’t all about appearance. “Being in this industry for a few years now, I’ve gone through phases where I struggled with feeling comfortable or wanting to change my body,” she admits. “I was always thinking ‘My shoulders are too broad’ or ‘My boobs are too big’. But I see things from a different perspective now. I used to be a gymnast and a swimmer, and my shoulders did me so good. I’m grateful for my body.”
Now that she’s conquered one of the most pervasive challenges that comes with being in her industry, Xia has been ruminating on her growing status as an influencer in this age. “During this time, it’s not so much about how you look, what you do for a living or anything like that. Anyone can have an influence. I don’t think it necessarily has to be someone that has a lot of followers. If you have a good message, a good heart, and something substantial to say that’s actually going to better the people around you and yourself, then you’re an influencer in my eyes.”
Due to the introverted nature of her job as a visual artist, Afa Lee (aka Afa Annfa) admits that her pre- and post-pandemic days have looked more or less the same: staying home and painting. But that’s not to say that Lee hasn’t run into obstacles. Like most people, the past year has inevitably disrupted plans; in her case, she’s had to cut short her government-sponsored work attachment in Taiwan.
To combat her frustrations, she’s thrown herself even more into her work. “I think being creative has been the greatest way for me to overcome this tough period,” she says. “To me, painting or creation is the best kind of meditation. I become so focused and can escape reality for a while, which gives me peace of mind.”
However, she confesses that the source of her comfort is also the source of much of her stress. “Because of the toughness of the pandemic and isolation, and my tight schedule, I’ve been going through all these health problems, like with my skin, pimples and insomnia. I’ve had to show up for shoots, so I feel a lot of pressure to keep myself looking okay while at the same time working overnight for my upcoming exhibition. It’s quite difficult for me to maintain the quality of both. When I feel bad about myself, my performance gets even worse. It’s interrelated.”
Lee’s journey to self-acceptance and love has continued on its path this year, perhaps not quite reaching a conclusion, but at the very least, an agreement. “I’m still not so confident about myself in so many aspects, not just physically,” she says. “Being an artist as well, there are so many talented people around. But I’m much more determined than ever to become a successful visual artist.” #
Go behind the scenes of our November 2020 fashion cover shoot:
CREDITS Photographer / Lim Tse Wei Photographer Assistant / Bosco Videographer / Terry Styling / Karen Ling Hair / Kolen Make-up / San Chan Make-up Assistant / Sarah Dai Styling Assistant / Clover Law
Get to know the #legend100:
For the first-time ever, we’ve created a home for the #legend100 list of Hong Kong’s top influencers online, where you can see the latest stories on the #legend100, browse through the influencers’ profile pages and link to their latest on social media.