It was back in 1997 when Greenpeace first opened its Hong Kong office. Last year, we celebrated 20 years of tough but rewarding campaigns in Hong Kong and across East Asia with YOU by our side. Anne Dingwall, our very first Executive Director, recently visited us and sat down with our current Executive Director, Sze Pang-cheung (KT), to discuss exactly how was it possible to grow from an outfit of seven people in a Kowloon flat using mahjong tables as work desks, to more than 400 staff spread across the four offices of Hong Kong, Beijing, Seoul and Taipei.

KT:On behalf of all of our staff, congratulations on your retirement. Even so, I can feel that your heart is still with Greenpeace. During your career, you paved the way for a lot of new opportunities for the organization; you helped to set up many offices around the world. What was your part in setting up the Hong Kong office?

Anne:Thanks. It’s a real honour to be here again in 2017. You know, the Hong Kong office is like my baby, and it’s really wonderful to see that my baby has grown up into Greenpeace East Asia! Clearly, Hong Kong is the gateway to mainland China, and China is the place that matters on the environmental front. Back then, we did some research and wrote a five-page proposal about the potential in Hong Kong, and a few days later it was approved by Greenpeace International. We started setting up the Hong Kong office in January 1996. Our first office was in my apartment in Mei Foo, using mahjong tables and plastic chairs. At that time we only had seven staff. The Hong Kong office was legally registered on Valentine’s Day, 1997.

Greenpeace Hong Kong staff (1997), Anne Dingwall is in the centre.

KT:I joined Greenpeace in March 2002. We had already launched several campaigns in Hong Kong, campaigning against toxic PVC children’s toys, genetically engineered (GE) food, and poisonous e-waste and so on. We were talking about building a small office in Beijing. We were buzzing with excitement, both from the possibility and the uncertainty. But what was sure was that we couldn’t have done anything without the strong foundation that you built up in Hong Kong. How did you do that?

Anne:We were in Hong Kong to campaign on important environmental issues. It wasn’t about Greenpeace, the brand. I think we brought some creative ways of campaigning such as engaging with media to report on our actions, and making environmental issues more relevant and appealing to a broader range of people.

KT:At the time, were you thinking of further expansion throughout East Asia?

Anne:It was always in our plan to open offices in Taiwan and South Korea, it was just that we couldn’t do it all at the same time. But in September 1997, we heard Taiwan was going to ship nuclear waste to North Korea so we worked with NGOs in Taiwan and South Korea, and in the end the Taiwan government cancelled the shipment.

Brands with GE ingredients in popular Hong Kong food products, 1999.

KT:Asia is the fastest growing economic region in the world, but it faces real threats such as climate change, forest destruction, and vanishing ocean resources. We have to make our voice louder in the region, so we decided to speed up our expansion plans. We announced the launch of Greenpeace East Asia in late 2010, so that we could make more effective environmental campaigns in the region and have stronger cross-border coordination.

Greenpeace East Asia staff: redefine the Good Life with us!

Anne:Indeed. And that, no matter how much we have grown, the “Greenpeace” spirit remains unchanged, and that means bearing witness to, and confronting, environmental crimes.

KT:We live in a very different world now. Greenpeace has changed a lot as we try to stay ahead of the curve. But its DNA has not changed: when the occasion calls for it, we need to act, no matter how difficult. We need this kind of can-do spirit to stop catastrophic climate change, reverse biodiversity loss and take on other environmental challenges. Our optimism and action today will shape our tomorrow. I look forward to witnessing it, together with all of our staff, allies, donors, supporters and everyone who is looking to redefine the “good life” with us.