Recently, veganism has enjoyed something of a modernization in the West. Having long been associated with sprawling, armpit-hair-clad, animal-rights warrior types, the animal-product-free lifestyle is now more closely aligned with ripped, mildly hipster-ish gym bunnies such as bolshy bloggers Vegan Bros. These days, twentysomethings wearing leggings and "Tofu power!" sandwich boards go on vegan pride marches in New York, and earlier this month The Guardian declared that veganism had undergone a full-scale reinvention.
This hasn't quite happened in China yet, despite an increase in the number of vegans in the country in recent years (some estimates put the amount of vegans among China's 1.3 billion population at around 50 million, but there are no official statistics on the issue). Veganism and vegetarianism are still more associated with Buddhism than metrosexual Millennials in the country.
V Girls, a Hong Kong-based squad of five young, Instagram-friendly, workout-loving vegan women, are trying to change that. Formed by fitness trainer Angie Palmer last year, the V Girls release quirky videos of themselves trying out vegan recipes, restaurants, and events, and testing more obscure vegan products such as toothpaste and sleep-aid spray. They've built up a community of around 1,000 members, known as "earthlings", many of whom were introduced to veganism through V Girls' social media output and events, such as picnics and restaurant trips.
Part of V Girls' appeal might come from all of them being gorgeous. The profiles page on their website looks like that of a modeling agency, with dating website-esque blurbs (Eaven, one of the V Girls, lists mushrooms, the color green, and Whitney Houston as being among her favorite things). As the head of the operation, Angie—who became vegan in 2009 while undergoing cancer treatment in the US—has arguably become the face of modern veganism in Hong Kong. I spoke to her to find out more about the inspiration behind V Girls.
MUNCHIES: Veganism is becoming viewed as fashionable in the West, but how is it perceived in China? Angie: If you eat vegan or vegetarian here, people are like, "Oh, are you Buddhist? Or are you sick?" It's seen as old-fashioned, because vegans and vegetarians tend to be older, so it's not a cool thing. But these days, more and more people travel around and bring other ideas about it back.
The V Girls project seems to be mirroring the modernization of veganism we're seeing in the West, at least partially. This is something I really wanted to do with V Girls. Maybe in the West, veganism was seen as hippy-ish, while here it was seen as 'old style'. I want to break that stereotype, so I want to use fun young girls. Most of them are pretty good-looking.
Do you have to be hot to be a V Girl? That wasn't in the job description. But I did choose everyone myself [the team was eight-strong at one point, but has been re-shuffled to feature five women]. I wanted to let people know, "Hey, she's really cute, and she is not stubborn or stuck-up… she's just nice."
By being both youth-orientated and vegan, you're carving out quite a niche. We're the minority of the minority. Maybe in the States, people are more open-minded, but here when people are eating vegan or vegetarian, it's not usually something they're proud of. A lot of people here don't do it for animal welfare reasons, whereas in the States or Europe they might. As I mentioned, here it's more for Buddhism and health.
Cantonese cuisine is very meat-heavy. Is it hard finding food that adheres to your diet in Hong Kong? Definitely. When I came back to Hong Kong from the States four years ago, I would order dishes and ask if there was any meat in them. Waiters would say, "It's just a little pork, it's OK", or ask me if I ate fish. Eating fish is not vegetarian. Still, now, you could order veggie soup but they might use chicken stock in it. A lot of places don't have awareness that something is not vegetarian just because they don't see meat floating in it. Still, a lot more vegetarian restaurants and shops have opened over the last few years here.
Some of your videos are pretty straightforward, while others, such as the toothpaste one, are more weird and quirky. Was that the intention? The twins, Li Li and Mei Mei, are certainly quirky. The other girl in that toothpaste video, Elaine… we have a slang phrase in Hong Kong, gong zhu bing, that we use for her in a jokey way that can sound kind of derogatory. In English, it translates as something like, "A princess you have to worship and put on a pedestal". Every girl has her own character: funny, quirky, cool, or whatever. I don't tell people to act, it's natural.
Are you getting kickbacks from the vegan food, toothpaste, and sleep-aid spray companies you feature in your videos? We're not paid to endorse products; it just happened that I tried that toothpaste and liked it. We don't accept money for featuring products at all.
I read that being diagnosed with cancer in 2009 led to your first step in becoming vegan. What happened? When I was in the States, I discovered I had endometrial cancer and was told I had to have surgery. The symptoms were bad. I had bleeding and irregular, long periods and blood clots… a lot of things. I didn't want surgery; removing a uterus takes away your opportunity to have a baby. That's kind of huge. One doctor said that they should remove my ovaries as well, which would cause me to go into menopause. I didn't want that. There could also be complications with the surgery.
How did this lead to you becoming vegan, though? I had hormone therapy, but I didn't continue with it because it gave me so many side effects. Then, I was at a documentary screening where there were only four people in the audience: me, the organizer, and two vegans. We started talking, and I got into a nutrition book they recommended called The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell. I researched more, went to a vegan nutritionist, learned how to cook vegan, and went to the store with the girl I met at the screening. She showed me how to survive being vegan.
I also read that you recovered from cancer without surgery? Within six months, I got a report from my doctors saying I was cancer-free. They didn't believe the results at first—they sent the sample to a clinic in another state to double check. They didn't attribute it to anything. They wanted me to have surgery in case it relapsed, but I didn't want to discuss anything with them.
The timing of your change of diet may have correlated with you getting the cancer all-clear, but isn't it potentially very dangerous to promote the unscientific idea that veganism can help cure cancer, beyond the notion that a healthy diet is generally good for you? I always have a disclaimer: I'm not a doctor, I'm not a nutritionist. I'm sharing my story and experiences.
Catherine Collins of the British Association of Dietitians recently said that going vegan was like "having the latest fashion" and warned that it could be bad for long-term health. What's your reaction? Wow. OK. Let me take a deep breath. Well, whatever diet you're on there's a certain danger. Even if you're a meat eater, there's a danger in that—you still need to eat in a balanced way. For any diet, if you're not educated, and [you don't] eat a balanced diet, you won't be healthy. I'm surprised to hear that from a dietitian association.
Which non-vegan foods do you miss the most? I still eat pizza—just with no meat or cheese. If you'd asked me a few years ago, I would have said chicken wings. That's something that mock meat hasn't come up with a proper replacement for. The skin: you can never make it quite the same.
Don't you ever walk past a KFC and feel the urge to give in and have a bucket-binge? I've been vegan for seven years. I look at food I used to love, like roast duck or deep fried chicken wings or lobster, and I don't have a reaction. To me it's just an object—it's not food anymore. It should be alive somewhere.
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamiefullerton1
Find out more about V Girls at www.vgirlsclub.com