When Two Worlds Collide: Eaton Workshop opens in Hong Kong

“I think it was his outsider status, and that sense of always searching,” says Katherine Lo, founder and president of Eaton Workshop, a new hotel brand with locations in Washington DC and Hong Kong.

In the co-working space of Eaton DC, we’re discussing Lo’s personal connection to Holden Caulfield, the angst-riddled protagonist of American classic The Catcher in the Rye. The novel recounts Caulfield’s inability to connect with the world around him, frustration, and refusal to conform to societal expectations.

It’s an unexpected kinship but, in a way, it makes sense. Lo was born into great wealth but has been an advocate for social change. Born in Hong Kong and raised in the US, the 37-year-old has always seen herself as an outsider, caught between worlds – be that America and Hong Kong, or her privilege and the people she fights for.

For context, Lo’s grandfather founded Great Eagle Holdings Limited, which is the parent company of Langham Hospitality Group. In Hong Kong, Great Eagle manages more than 4.8 million square feet of hotel, office and retail space across three brands – The Langham, Cordis and Eaton Workshop. As of December 2017, the Group’s net asset value was estimated to be approximately HK$72 billion. Lo’s father, Ka Shui Lo is the current chairman, and his personal net worth is listed as roughly US$1 billion by Forbes. This makes him the 50th wealthiest man in Hong Kong.

“In Hong Kong, if people know who my family is, it affects how they see me,” says Lo. “I don’t fit in with local Hongkongers, and I don’t fully fit in with expats. I’m always in the middle.”

Perhaps it’s this third-culture experience of observing communities from a distance and straddling divergent identities that’s granted Lo the perspective to marry two seemingly incompatible industries: hospitality and social services. 

Nicknamed the “anti-Trump” hotel by US media, Eaton Workshop is equal parts hotel, social-activism hub, wellness centre and co-working space. The new hospitality venture aims to create a community for artists and activists, liberals and progressives, where they can “maximise their dreams and ambitions,” as Lo puts it, through talks, events, and exhibitions.

“People today want to feel part of something bigger, and connected to others,” Lo says. “That’s the driving force behind the Eaton Workshop brand. We are part of a global counter-culture movement.”

Opened this September, Eaton DC aims to be a catalyst for social impact

Rebel with a cause

Despite her wealth, Lo paints a picture of a fairly normal upbringing. When she speaks of her family, she radiates warmth. Lo remembers feeling inspired by her mother, a doctor, and laughs when she remembers a gentle ribbing from her father. “Last Christmas, my dad introduced me to his friend as his ‘anti-Trump’ daughter’. He didn’t even give me a name!” she recalls with a laugh. “He has a good sense of humour.”

Lo says her parents never pressured her to join the real estate world. Instead, they offered her the freedom to find her own path. As a young woman, Lo found her calling in the humanities, earning a Bachelor of Arts with distinction in Sociocultural Anthropology from Yale University, as well as a Master of Fine Arts in Film Production from the University of Southern California. Her passion for the arts would later inspire the creation of Eaton Media – the hotel’s production arm that focuses on film, photography, journalism, prose and art.

It was during her university years that Lo found her voice as an activist – a calling that had been sparked in her as a child. Growing up with great privilege, she remembers being confused by inequalities around her. “One really prominent memory I have from Hong Kong is that some kids had private drivers, and some kids didn’t. I would be driven to school by a driver and look out the window and see people in buses. I felt that there was something unequal, or different, there.”

Though it sounds simple, this memory shaped the way she saw the world and was a catalyst for her activism. By high school, she was discussing economic and social issues with her family at home. By university,  she was fighting against them in public.

As a student, she lobbied for Greenpeace in The Hague, in the Netherlands, organised protests against the World Trade Organization in Hong Kong, and campaigned as a passionate anti-war advocate during her time at Yale. These were, she reminisces, the “formative years” of her life.

In 2003, Lo was arrested in Miami with hundreds of others, while protesting the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a trade agreement that would compromise human rights and the environment. The charges were ultimately dropped, as Lo and the other protesters were found to be within their legal rights to peaceful protest.

Later that year, she stirred controversy on Yale’s campus by hanging an upside-down American flag from her dorm room window. It was a silent protest against the just-launched war in Iraq. “I felt [the US] was in duress, and I was protesting what I, and many others, viewed as an unjust war.”

In the US, hanging an inverted flag is a historic a symbol of distress, used to communicate a life-threatening situation. To hang a flag upside down in protest, rather than danger, was in violation of the country’s flag-defamation laws. Since 1990, however, the act has been protected under America’s first amendment right to freedom of speech, and is a legal form of peaceful protest to demonstrate one’s displeasure with the country’s policies. But just because it’s technically legal, doesn’t mean it’s accepted unanimously.

Yale Daily News articles from the time report a frightening series of reactions, including a group of angry students who attempted to enter her dorm bedroom. When they found her door locked, they left her an aggressive, note: “I love kicking the Muslims ass bitches ass! They should all die with Mohammad… Fuck Iraqi Saddam following fucks. I hate you, GO AMERICA.”

Though shaken, Lo was undeterred, soon her actions became a “positive symbol of anti-war activists on campus and around the country.”Dozens of students hung upside-down American flags out of their windows in solidarity.

These were defining moments for Lo, who remains proud of her actions. “Moments like these made me further realise how important it is, during urgent times, to stand up for what one believes in,”she says. “It puts the world in perspective… It taught me that it is necessary to use my fortunate resources to speak up for those who need help.”

An open dialogue

Eight years after her arrest, Lo joined the Langham Hospitality Group and helped her father open The Langham Chicago hotel in 2013. It was an unlikely move for Katherine Lo the activist, though perhaps an expected one for Katherine Lo the heiress. But she didn’t enter the family business to maintain the status quo. She came to change it.

“The Eaton Workshop ethos is a perfect fit for Hong Kong,” she explains. “For as long as I can remember, the city has mostly had access to mainstream cultural events. Eaton is a refreshing change from that. Habits are shifting ­­– people are abandoning material possessions and focusing more on meaningful experiences.”

To that end, each Eaton Workshop location – including upcoming openings in Seattle, Toronto and San Francisco – is also home to co-working space, movie theatres and radio stations, available at a discount to progressive groups striving for positive change. Artists’ residences are in the pipeline, too.

In September, Eaton Workshop in Jordan held the ambitious Women’s Festival – the first event of its kind in Hong Kong. Running for nine days, it invited the community to explore topics such as wellness, communication, and sex through musical performances, seminars, screenings, and workshops, including a bondage tester session hosted by sex-focused lifestyle brand Sally Coco.

Notably, the festival was almost exclusively held in Cantonese. “I wanted to host something that catered to local residents,” Lo explains, admitting her own language skills are “rusty” since she no longer lives in Hong Kong. “If we had run the programme in English, we would have only reached expats or foreign-educated Hongkongers. That was not our intention. Those groups already have their spaces, or they have the resources to find them.”

For many of the participants, Eaton Workshop offered a sense of freedom to express themselves and explore sensitive topics. “[Hong Kong] is going through a period of political turbulence, and we are experiencing censorship at different levels of society,” says Petula Ho, an associate professor in the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong, who was also a panellist at the Women’s Festival. “People have responded by playing it safe. We need a space where we can discuss things and find new ways to form formal and informal alliances, so we can face challenges as small groups rather than as helpless individuals.”

Professor Ho says Eaton is instrumental in protecting the very future of Hong Kong. Without it, she adds, many of the conversations had during the festival – including her own, a discussion titled “Women in Protest”– would have not been possible. “[Other venues] would not want us to talk about social activism, sex, sex toys, sexual pleasure, sexual harassment, or anything they consider too sensitive. There was no censorship on what we wanted to say, and so we could make our political views and frustrations with the system known without fear.”

My dad introduced me to his friend as his ‘anti-Trump daughter’. He didn’t even give me a name!

Katherine Lo, founder and president of Eaton Workshop

From privilege to purpose

Not everyone has been accepting of Lo’s vision. Some critics of Eaton Workshop have described her efforts as insincere, and claimed the entrepreneur is too removed from everyday life.  “Some [news] articles have stated that because of my background, all of this work must be, somehow, not real. It’s belittling, but I’ve learned to grow a thick skin and not care so much about that. Anyone who walks through Eaton Workshop, or is a part of it, will see that [my] intentions are sincere.”

She is not ashamed of her family’s wealth, and you won’t find her apologising for it. “I’m extremely fortunate to come from a place where I can use the resources I have to make a positive impact,” says Lo.

With the Eaton Workshop brand, she’s harnessing that privilege to empower others. “There are groups of marginalised people who don’t want their stories told by others, but rather, are looking to craft their own narratives,” she says.  “I put extra effort into making sure we directly commission female artists, or [minority artists such as] Native American filmmakers. Eaton Workshop is more about the platform, giving them the tools to tell their own stories,” she explains.

Others have also questioned if the arrival of a place like Eaton Workshop could contribute to local displacement and gentrification of the Jordan district, an area known for affordable local food and housing.

Lo doesn’t have an answer for those concerns, but instead offers a counter point. By respecting the heritage of each location and sharing a place for residents to thrive, she contends that Eaton Workshop can preserve each neighbourhood it enters. “This way we can become a resource [for the community], while still preserving the identity of the area, instead of just coming in and opening a Starbucks.”

Ethos of empowerment

This summer, Lo turned her relocation from Los Angeles to Washington DC into a cross-country project for Eaton Media, commissioning Native American filmmaker Jesse Littlebird to join her and create the brand’s first commissioned documentary.

On the weeklong road trip, Lo and Littlebird stopped in cities across the country to connect with indigenous communities, radical voices and those fighting for environmental justice. “We met Native Americans who had protested at Standing Rock [in North Dakota and South Dakota, against the Dakota Access Pipeline] and are protesting an oil pipeline in Bayou Bridge, Louisiana; we saw how oil refineries polluted communities in Houston; we saw a Vietnamese community fighting for its neighbourhood against a gas power plant in New Orleans; we visited the site of a former slavery plantation in South Carolina.”

It was a moving experience, one that prompted philosophical questions of history, identity, land and action. Lo flew the activists to the American capital for the hotel’s opening in September, giving them the opportunity to share their stories directly with the Eaton community through panel discussions. “We want to expose and build awareness and action around the contemporary struggles they are battling this very day. It’s important to provide these activists with the means to express their voice.”

This ethos of empowerment and visibility is consistent throughout both Eaton Workshops. In Hong Kong, the property has already partnered with numerous artists and charities, including the Justice Centre Hong Kong. The non-profit human rights organisation has been granted a residency in the Eaton House co-working space, and together they have produced events and panels to raise awareness of the plight of Hong Kong’s most vulnerable. “As a member of Eaton House, you’re truly connecting with the local community and supporting social good,” says Lo.

In addition to championing community, Lo is also taking steps to ensure her brand is as sustainable as possible. As such, she is in the process of registering Eaton Workshop as a Benefits Corporation. Certified “B-Corps”, as they’re known, are corporations that meet the highest standards of practice across social and environmental factors. “This allows a for-profit business to build ethics into its corporate charter, so you’re legally indebted to your values,” explains Lo. Her hope is that Eaton Workshop will pave the way for more companies in the future. “I really hope we can show Hong Kong that it is possible to be environmental and profitable.”

Among hotel openings and community events, travelling between continents and launching a media production venture, Lo stays grounded with a personal mantra: Follow your bliss. From almost anyone else’s mouth, this would seem – at the risk of sounding like Holden Caulfield – phony. But somehow, from Lo, it rings true. A succinct, three-word summary of the dynamic life she’s led. “It’s a good reminder to follow your true self. It’s the best compass one can have.”

The Good Fight

Meet the social enterprises and NGOs fighting for change at Eaton HK in Jordan.

Planet Ally

Homosexuality is still criminalised in over 70 countries and, in some cases, punishable by death. Planet Ally brings together the LGBTI community and their supporters to campaign for stronger communities and equal rights for all people.

Learn more  planetally.org

The Justice Centre

This non-profit human rights organisation provides Hong Kong’s most vulnerable – refugees, torture and human trafficking victims, among others – with free legal and social assistance.

Learn more justicecentre.org.hk

Open Culture Lab

Community leader Holok Chen is launching a social incubator and lab that develops digital applications to solve real-world problems. One such project is a legal services search engine, to provide clients with a faster, more transparent legal experience.

Learn more onelawyer.org | collaction.hk