These days, we may call Brenda Scofield a hustler, considering the many businesses she's started in Hong Kong, and this ability to morph and change alongside a range of different people led her to her greatest discovery
Hong Kong is filled with a bunch of magical women. From artists like Cath Love and Kylie Chan to successful businesswomen such as Sarah Lai and Diane Younes you don’t have to look too far to find inspiration. One woman who has had a coloured time in the region since 1977 is Brenda Scofield, a former teacher, one time owner of sex shop Fetish Fashion, and general lovely lady. She will be speaking at TedxTinHauWomen this year with her talk Old & Bold: an alternative journey through life, and we sat down with her to find out more.
An interview with Brenda Scofield
What was the transition like coming from South Wales to Hong Kong in the late 70s?
Oh, I thought it was great; I loved it! I got off the plane and the restaurants all used to have huge paper signs outside for celebrations, and I just fell in love with Hong Kong. We lived in the Lee Gardens Hotel in Causeway Bay for ages as my then-husband was with the government. The place smelled of moth balls and we had two little girls, so I would wash the cloth nappies in the sink, and then take them around the corner to be spun and dried, and it was just such an adventure.
There were lots of welcome cocktail parties when we arrived too, and I remember one that was held in what is now the Tea Ware Museum in Admiralty–I forget who was living there at the time–and there was me, this unsophisticated young women from South Wales. I remember this terribly handsome man looking down at me and saying: “You know, you have eyes the colour of thrushes eggs.” And it was a very ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore’ moment.
Ha! So it was a fun time then?
Yes, an amazing time. More fun than now! (laughs) But, I did feel uncomfortable in some ways because honestly Europeans in the 70s had it too easy. There were so many privileges, and you could just get away with murder, which is wrong. I felt awkward and embarrassed by it in some ways. There was more money than I had ever seen.
I think that what happens to people sometimes when they come to Hong Kong is that they forget their background and their feet are not on the ground. People get swept up in the charade and the pageantry, but it doesn’t do it for me. I hate cocktail parties now, unless I’m there to support a genuine purpose–they just don’t seem important.
What was like life once you settled in?
So I wasn’t working when the kids were little. We moved into our first apartment on The Peak in Hong Kong, and I made friends quickly. I took Ikebana classes, which I loved. But I got bored, so I started some part-time teaching. I was working with some Jewish adults, just helping with English and it was very interesting.
Then, we’d heard some stories about maids having terrible, terrible times with their employers, so on a Sunday we set up a sort of clinic for any maids who needed help. Concurrently, I’d launched an agency for maids already living in Hong Kong, so my husband would advise on the legal side of what was happening, and I would try and get them out of their current situation and into somewhere else. But ICAC eventually came around and started asking questions. I suspect, because I was helping people at the proper rate, rather than charging huge sums of money. So I decided to go back to full-time teaching.
Tell us about your days of teaching and working full-time in Hong Kong
Well, I started with the British Army in Kowloon Tong. That was an amazing experience. The kids would come in and out depending on the regiments, and sometimes they’d only be here for a short time, and they were kids who travelled around the world but actually knew very little about the world because they were constantly living in an anglicised environment on the base.
Then, I went to Island School as a drama teacher, and I was there for over a decade. By that time I was separated, and being separated in Hong Kong was very difficult financially, so I needed to make money where I could. I was teaching, but I was also doing voice-overs, singing for adverts, and I was singing in clubs on the weekends. I remember rehearsing at home and my girls would say: “Mum! Stop singing!” but I’d have to remind them that my voice bought their shoes!
It was a tough time and we were living in a small one-bedroom apartment, but there were opportunities. The thing is, if you have lots of money and you only live in the lap of luxury here, you don’t get the full experience of Hong Kong
You’ve had a fascinating life. What can people going to your TedxTinHauWomen talk expect?
It’s about getting old. Turning 70 felt so different to 69; I just felt terrible. I had depression and I just needed to find myself again because I felt like giving up. But gradually I got back to finding out that what matters most to me is connection with human beings: real human connection.
There’s the word in Welsh called hiraeth, and it translates loosely to returning to where your spirit lives, and that phrase really woke me up. I’d become a qualified counsellor years ago, but I hadn’t practised while the kids were growing up, so I decided to go back to that line of work and now I’m on the board at Samaritans in Hong Kong.
I believe that if we pay attention to little connections, there’s a magic in them, and that spark leaves an echo with the other person, even a smile with someone makes a difference. It’s these tiny little transient moments that are really important in the bigger picture we call life.
Catch Brenda Scofield at TedxTinHauWomen on 6 December, 2019.