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Documenting Hong Kong’s connection to wildlife

For nearly 10 weeks, Hannah Sorenson ’19 and Dorinda Stryker ’19 immersed themselves in hands-on work in Hong Kong’s Mai Po Nature Reserve.

“Many of our days were spent outdoors at Mai Po in a bird hide for hours at a time recording nesting behavior, knee-deep in a lily pond clearing invasive snail species, or carefully recording damselfly populations in the mangrove,” Stryker says.

The work was part of their internship with the World Wide Fund for Nature in Hong Kong (WWF-HK). In addition to the active participatory learning they did as part of the internship, the two St. Olaf College students conducted in-depth interviews with experts at WWF-HK, engaged in participant observation, and gathered footage of the city as well as Hong Kong’s natural landscape.

They used this experience and material to create a short documentary and interactive website titledBeyond the Concrete Jungle: City, Nature, and Environmentalism in Hong Kong that shows the outreach efforts of the WWF-HK and how it positively influences the largely urban community of Hong Kong.

Hannah Sorenson ’19 (right) and Dorinda Stryker ’19 capture the waterfront skyline on video for their documentary film project.

Sorenson and Stryker presented their work at the 2019 ASIANetwork Conference in San Diego, California, this April. As presenters at the conference, they had the opportunity to engage with professionals, scholars, and students from around the world, sharing not only their personal experience, but the stories of those they met in Hong Kong. They also gained a clear view of the real-world impact their work can have.

“In creating a digital humanities project, we intended to share knowledge in an accessible, engaging, and dynamic way; when a faculty member at the conference asked to use our work in their classroom, the significance of our project became tangible,” Sorenson says.

Their work is part of St. Olaf College’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program. The project, overseen by St. Olaf Associate Professor of Asian Studies Ka Wong, received additional funding from the Luce Initiative for Asian Studies and the Environment (LIASE). The students’ time as interns was supported by the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career, and their travel to the ASIANetwork conference was supported by the Bethke Brau Family Opportunity Fund at St. Olaf.

“Neither of us expected to have this research opportunity, but as soon as we joined the St. Olaf Asian Studies Department, the ability to participate in and share research became a major goal,” Sorenson says. “Now realized, our experience will continue to propel us as we head down our respective paths.”

Dorinda Stryker ’19 (left) and Hannah Sorenson ’19 used their summer research opportunity in Hong Kong as a way to educate others about the effects of industrialization on nature in China.

Hong Kong served as a unique setting for Sorenson and Stryker’s research and film project. Although it is a large industrialized city, Hong Kong has an abundance of natural landscape. Given the city’s dense population and unimaginably high housing prices, Hong Kong citizens live daily at the intersection of economic development and environmental sustainability. This tension is what fueled Sorenson and Stryker’s research.

“In addition to grappling with the precarious balance of economic development in a limited territory and preserving countless threatened local species, WWF-HK actively uses education as a way to engage not only with people, but with their behavior as well,” Sorenson says. “In doing so, WWF-HK is an organization focused on both environmental protection and the empowerment of local communities and individuals to knowledgeably engage with and care for their environment.”

Watch the trailer for “Beyond the Concrete Jungle” here:

Not only learning, but doing
Their time in Hong Kong enabled them to aid in WWF-HK’s community outreach to protect the environment, particularly helping preserve government-owned Mai Po Nature Reserve. In addition to working in the wetlands, they assisted with the organization’s outreach efforts in classrooms, tours, and exhibitions at Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park, Island House Conservation Studies Center, and throughout the city.

Interning at WWF-HK for Dorinda Stryker ’19 (left) and Hannah Sorenson ’19 meant learning about the importance of such an organization focused on preserving nature in the midst of an ever-growing industrialized setting.

“Mai Po is a major stopover for thousands of migratory birds, whose path spans from Russia all the way down to Australia and New Zealand, cutting through the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan along the way,” Stryker says. “In its role, WWF-HK is protecting a natural environment and species whose livelihoods have implications for the entire region.”

When they weren’t at WWF sites, Sorenson and Stryker spent time traveling to and documenting different parts of Hong Kong. They then spent significant time organizing and analyzing their collected data, which included interviews with the WWF-HK experts and film and photo footage; building an interactive and informative website; and editing their documentary — which is the culmination of their digital documentation.

Applying education to real life
Stryker, an Asian studies major, and Sorenson, a Chinese and political science major, studied the Chinese language and social sciences during their years on the Hill, all of which immensely prepared them for carrying out interdisciplinary research in Hong Kong. Putting these skills and passions to the test, Sorenson and Stryker were able to fully immerse themselves in WWF-HK’s cultural, organizational, and economic contexts.

Hannah Sorenson ’19 (right) checks the camera angle while Dorinda Stryker ’19 adjusts a microphone before interviewing a WWF-HK employee for their documentary.

Both say that their language studies enabled them to form deeper connections on an individual level and understand distinct historical and cultural contexts that would have otherwise been overlooked. “This is especially significant in Hong Kong, where the legacy of British colonization is very pronounced and a recent reality,” the pair says.

The duo sees their research as broadening their studies to life beyond St. Olaf.

“The ability to employ pre-existing skills such as language study while gaining new experiences with field research, digital humanities, and documentation has challenged us to view academic work in a new way that is more accessible and exciting, while further pushing us to use our resources to produce an honest, intriguing, and engaging picture of environmental issues in the context of Hong Kong,” Sorenson says.

Hannah Sorenson ’19The ability to employ pre-existing skills such as language study while gaining new experiences with field research, digital humanities, and documentation has challenged us to view academic work in a new way that is more accessible and exciting.

The experiences they gained through this project also opened opportunities for Stryker and Sorenson after graduation.

Stryker has been chosen to be one of two China Fellows for East China Normal University (ECNU) this coming academic year. This annual opportunity for recent graduates is a partnership between St. Olaf’s Asian Studies Department and ECNU. Stryker will be teaching English language courses for the university students of ECNU and working to host other campus-wide activities for English language learners.

“With this experience, I hope to expand and challenge my students’ understanding of English language and American culture, as well as develop for myself a deeper sense of cultural understanding and experience,” she says.

Beginning this July, Sorenson will be editing a human rights journal and teaching English to the faculty, students, and researchers of Jember University’s Centre of Human Rights, Human Migration, and Multiculturalism in Jember, Indonesia, as a part of the VIA (formerly Volunteers in Asia) year-long Global Community Fellowship.

“My time in Indonesia will be a time of experience, exposure, and reflection that will hopefully mold me into a deeper critical thinker with a greater understanding of Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and the negotiation of local-global phenomena such as migration and human rights,” she says. “It is my hope that my time in Indonesia further prepares and guides me as I move into graduate study focused on politics and people in Asia.”

And while Sorenson and Stryker are setting out on different paths in Asia this year, they will continue documenting and exploring the “Hong Kong story” and, to a certain degree, paralleling ones in Mainland China and Indonesia.

“We are committed to sharing the evolution of stories on urban cities and the natural environment with which we first engaged through our St. Olaf project, with the hope that we may reflect and amplify them through innovative media,” Sorenson says.