'I don't mind moving, but I never realised this would be my life'
18 December 2016
By Tara Jenkins. Photography Suzanne Goodwin
Amsterbam, Paris, Beijing, Nepal, Hong Kong and beyond. Saskia Bowers has a long and intricate expat trail and along that trail she's made a point of squeezing every ounce out of each opportunity that has come her way. It also means she has an innate ability when it comes to interior design and home decor to make a house feel like home.
Forget any old-fashioned notion about the hearth being the heart of the home: in her light-filled, cheerful space in Stanley, it’s all about the fridge. Here you’ll find memories, pictures and keepsakes that are special to the family, including six-year-old Orlando’s first attempts at writing, hand-made cards from friends in far-flung places, and numerous photographs, including one of an appealing little boy in school uniform, beaming cheek to cheek. “That’s Navaraj, the Nepalese boy we’ve been sponsoring since he was four,” smiles Saskia. “He’s now 11, very handsome, and is doing incredibly well at school. Twice a year I get a letter from him with an update, and a picture of the Manchester United or Real Madrid club logo, where he’d one day like to play! Instead of giving money randomly to charity, you can see the impact of your giving this way, and you know a little boy will be better off because of it. It’s a brilliant and strategic way to be involved.”
Actually, Saskia’s involvement is far greater than sponsorship of one little boy: she’s the Chair of the Nepal Youth Foundation in Hong Kong, and was responsible for setting up the local chapter. It’s a well-trodden route – financial services executive frustrated with money markets decides to invest time in something more meaningful – but Saskia’s approach to getting involved was via a cerebral path, and rather than merely helping raise funds for the underprivileged, she helped orchestrate strategies for change in communities. “I started volunteering with an organisation called the Asian Charity Services, who match a number of different professionals with small to medium charities in Hong Kong,” she explains. “
Then a chance meeting in Starbucks with a colleague sparked the beginning of her involvement with Nepal: on the day Saskia resigned from her job, he invited her to accompany him on his next trip to Kathmandu. In 2009, they stayed for ten days with Olga Murray, the inspirational founder of the Nepal Youth Foundation (NYF). “That was it: I fell in love with the country and the charity,” says Saskia. “There are so many fantastic charities out there – this isn’t the only one – but I really felt every dollar made such a difference, and I could see Olga was affecting real change.”
It’s true the NYF has made impressive gains so far – Murray’s initiative to offer poor Nepalese families a piglet or goat in return for a promise not to sell their daughters into bonded labour (girls as young as two were being sold into slavery, where they might be sexually abused or starved) has resulted in an official ban of the practice by the government. A different programme aims to train selected mothers in hygiene and nutrition, and in how to grow local vegetables and prepare them, before sending them back to their local community to spread the knowledge. “After five weeks with us, the mother is transformed, and goes back to her village with a healthy, happy child” explains Saskia. “The scheme has been going for 10 years, and has a 93 percent success rate. Eventually the government got wind of it, and asked us to attach a unit to a hospital in each of Nepal’s 16 districts. So far we have set up six units: we keep a management team there for five years to help train and support, and then we pass it back to the government. We’re lucky to have such a good relationship with them – when the earthquake hit, we were uniquely placed to respond within 24 hours. And because we’re smaller and less bureaucratic than many charities, we can move faster.”
Saskia has had her fair share of experiences since leaving her hometown of Amsterdam, and the Stanley house is crammed full of precious keepsakes from her travels, and those of husband Kieran. Originally British, he’s lived in Japan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia since leaving the UK, and has also collected a host of mementos along the way. So there are hand-worked, beaten copper bowls from Nepal, antique silver scrolls from India, Dutch paintings, a delicate baby’s christening gown – framed – from an antique market in Paris. “My parents spent whatever money they had on travelling, and I remember visiting Paris four times a year when I was a child,” says Saskia. “There’s a special magic about Paris for me and my sister. I remember being there at Christmas, and seeing the twinkling, magnificent window displays at the Galleries Lafayette; and then we would always visit this restaurant called La Grande Colbert. My mother eventually got me a little tray from there, and it’s one of my most treasured possessions!”
The tray is displayed – along with other intriguing keepsakes – in a beautifully made walnut wood and glass cabinet, which Saskia commissioned during a posting in Beijing. “The guy who made the cabinet is an amazing magician,” she enthuses. “He loves puzzles and fitting pieces of wood together – there isn’t one screw in there, but it all works together perfectly!” The same man made the fabulous bed in the boys’ room, which is shaped like a London bus, complete with authentic steering wheels and blackboard paint. “It doubles as a climbing frame when the boys have play dates,” she laughs.
The couple spent three years in Beijing – they had previously lived in Hong Kong for seven – and Saskia relished her sojourn there. “Every day was both exciting and surprising; there was always something you could laugh about, whether it was funny or just frustrating!” she says. “The expatriate community is so interesting and diverse: journalists, ambassadors, even spies – people who have spent time in places like Iraq and Moscow. Living in Hong Kong is pretty easy, and no one really says no to a posting here. But not everyone says yes to China, so the expats there are the real pioneers, the adventurers!”
One of the advantages of returning to Hong Kong in 2013 was the country trails; Saskia’s a keen runner: “I used to go running with my dad in the forests in Holland, and I really miss them!” she says. “It’s not easy to run in the country in Beijing, so I was happy when we came back to Hong Kong. I didn’t realise how much I missed being outside, and being part of nature. When I run, I have a permanent smile on my face. I turn a corner and see these beautiful pristine beaches and islands, and I literally start smiling!”
Otherwise, she’s happily exploring everything the city has to offer, from the best place to have breakfast on the island (a tiny place on the corner by the carpark in Shek O) to the quirky Eslite bookshop/café (“it has planting, seeds, organic vegetables, and a hydroponic system!”) before Kieran’s job moves them on once again.
“I don’t mind moving, but I never realised this would be my life,” says Saskia reflectively. “At some point my cousin asked me, when are you coming back to Amsterdam? And I thought, I don’t think I’ll ever go back. Not to live. We won’t live in Holland, or in England, so who knows where we’ll eventually settle? Italy perhaps? I’m not sure I can stay in one place anymore!” One thing’s for sure: wherever she ends up, she’ll be making the most of every single opportunity.
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