Shanghai traffic is bad on a good day. During the height of typhoon season, it’s downright hellish. That’s why I can forgive Alex for walking in 45 minutes late to our interview. There’s also the infectiousness he has that engages while he speaks. In a time where most people – especially in China – share more life experiences with their iPhone screen, it’s a refreshing experience. This is the infectiousness that comes from someone passionate about something, and Alex’s passion is water.
I met Alex Ho not too long ago at a Shanghai Rotary meeting. He told me about a social experiment he was doing that would have people live for a week on 10 liters of water. Mind you, most people use close to 200 liters a day. His experiment immediately got my attention. What really lured me in, though, was the infusion of art into the project. After going through (and, I assume, showering), participants would create pieces to express their experience. Of course I knew of other artists, including Cai Guo-Qiang, that focus on social and environmental issues in their work. This was the first I had heard of someone adding in what I would later discover Alex calls a “challenge” component to things. I had to find out more.
Sitting down in a quaint coffee shop behind one of Shanghai’s main commercial thoroughfares, Alex begins by telling me this is entirely new territory for him. Not the coffee shop. The art. Until about a month ago he was a designer at a major architecture firm. He’s always considered himself a doodler and a creative, but found the 9 to 5 uninspiring. Alex is also one of those precious few in China that look beyond the glitz and glamour of development to see the gaps in between. In Shanghai, he started to see gaps in how different groups share information. “The art community is the art community. The creatives are the creatives. The environmental community is the environmental community.” Why, he asked, couldn’t they all work together to effect change?
The real a-ha moment for Alex came during one of Shanghai’s brutal freezing spells this past winter. All throughout the city, pipes were bursting and people had to make due without water. Some for hours and some, like Alex, for days. To go from 200 liters to zero was certainly a shock to the system. Once the water began to flow again, he noticed simple behavior changes as a result of the experience. This was the nucleus that became central to his art: give people the right experiences and you will drive lifelong change.
Thirsty Stories, the name he gave his artistic experiment, did provide that experiential avenue. While it’s too early to know if there has been lasting change on the part of participants, the work has certainly raised awareness around water usage. Eleven of China’s provinces are below the World Bank’s benchmark for water scarcity. Consumption, especially within the agriculture sector, is unsustainably high and some estimates point to China running out of fresh water by 2030. This past February, the city of Lintao in dry Gansu province did in fact run out of water, potentially portending things to come for the whole of the country.
Like me though, Alex is a positivist about things. “China has a lot of possibilities…” he tells me, but there is a lack of “…awareness, meaning people are unsure about things and have a fear to speak out.” His aim is to counter this. He wants to take Thirsty Stories to “…the next level…” by having people actually live in water-starved areas of the country. There are also other challenge-type projects in the works, including one to raise awareness of food waste and nutrition.
The weather outside has turned from torrential rain to its inevitable follow on, stifling, heavy humidity. As we get up to leave, Alex asks me about my values in life. He tells me that his are transparency, equality, trying everything twice, and believing that with great power comes great responsibility. His belief is that any decision one makes in life should align with their individual values or else it is, by definition, a bad decision. His values are pointing him squarely in the direction of a change maker. Walking away, he tells me “…if you can give the younger generation the right knowledge, you can change everyone’s behavior.”
It’s a hopeful message for the future, and one I’m sure Alex will spread far and wide.