Cathy Chon is a mentor to the mentors. She is one of the smartest, quickest and most deeply empathetic people I have ever met. Small in stature, but mighty in spirit, her mission is to inspire those around her. In my ears echos her refrain “you must ideate more deeply on this” — meaning, in her gentle eastern way, we can do better, let’s elevate this. She requests excellence in all things, including her human relationships, which are deeply caring and enduring. To be friends with Cathy is to have an ally for living a better life.
From humble roots in suburban LA, she founded her own agency, CatchOn, in Hong Kong, and is now a sought after global authority sitting at the nexus of Eastern and Western travel trends. In a time when we need more bridges between people and nations, Cathy is there, demonstrating with her energetic grace that the two worlds, while very different, are also mutually rewarding.
You grew up in Glendale, part of Los Angeles. Why did you move to Hong Kong?
I moved to Hong Kong in 1997 for “love” — to join my husband who was living there. I thought it was temporary and we’d do only a few years. But we ended up staying on because of the tremendous opportunities in Asia, and specifically being at the doorstep of mainland China at such a pivotal time.
You have a tremendous reputation for your work in the higher end of the travel and hospitality industries. But early on you worked at the other end of the spectrum. How did your early experience inform your current work?
Most people don’t know that I started out in non-profit for homeless causes and at LA County’s Department of Mental Health. Then in my mid-20s I switched over to consumer retail and luxury and stayed in this sector for about a decade. This was in the early ‘90s and while I was working on consumer products, much of what I did had nothing to do with the actual products. It was all about aligning our brands with purpose-driven platforms, doing cause marketing, and brand collaborations that tapped into the cultural context of those times. Looking back on those years, I didn’t realize or appreciate that what I was exposed to would serve me well in the next phase of my career, when I started my consultancy upon moving to Hong Kong.
When I started CatchOn, my value was initially in bridging East and West, decoding Asia for Western clients. And now, vice versa. I learned early on that the hard and soft skills required in brand marketing and communications are the same no matter what industry or sector you’re in — having the ability to be able to tell a compelling story, to win people over to your side, and to harness connections in the “in between.”
Even today when the sectors we work in are categorized as travel/tourism, design, wellness, food, and hospitality, these worlds overlap and our work is to make meaningful connections between them.
As an American of Asian heritage, who works and lives in Hong Kong now, how would you contrast the Western vs Eastern view of people our age?
It’s widely known that Asians regard aging as a process that confers wisdom and reverence partly because we take a long view of our multi-generational legacy. Asians tend to live their lives and make decisions around what the implications would be for generations down the line. In that sense, seniors are looked upon as stewards and sages for the next generation.
Food and Wellness in LA and HK
What are your favorite places to eat in LA? How about in HK? Give us Cathy’s high/low mix of great food.
Oh goodness, how long have you got? When I’m in LA, I load up on 3 “essential” cuisines because I think this city has some of the best — Mexican, Korean and Persian/Armenian food. For Mexican, I’ll try any roadside taco stand. For Persian, Raffi’s is an institution, and I love Mini-Kabob. For Korean, BCD’s soondufu is a must, any bbq place in K-town, and Shiku at Grand Central Market.
I think Hong Kong has one the best food scenes worldwide. Whether it’s Chinese or international, we just attract some of the most exciting talents globally. For Chinese, too many to mention but my top 2 faves are the Chairman & Nove at the Fringe. For other cuisines, New Punjab Club, Amber, Hansik Goo, Estro, Belon, Mono, Ando, and Grissini.
How do the wellness trends in HK differ from those in the US?
Hong Kong, and for the most part China, are very receptive to all wellness trends coming from the West. Whatever is trending in the West will find its way to us eventually. One difference, and for obvious reasons, is that traditional Chinese medicine principles have a pervasive influence on how we approach wellness.
What are some of your favorite things about living in HK?
The speed and efficiency of the city; the can-do spirit of the people. It’s a very international place.
Your children must see themselves as truly global. What are their ambitions?
Being third culture kids, they may lack roots but they have a significantly bigger sandbox. Right now, their (and my) ambition is just to finish school and use that education toward a greater good that serves more than just themselves.
“Whether it’s doing a 2-month cooking course in Sicily, followed by a design residency in Copenhagen, I’d like to indulge my innate curiosities and combine it with travel”
Now that the kids are out of the house, what are your ambitions for the next 10 years?
I hope to continue consulting but at the same time be a perpetual student on the go and pursue interests I’ve long deferred because of work/life obligations. Whether it’s doing a 2-month cooking course in Sicily, followed by a design residency in Copenhagen, I’d like to indulge my innate curiosities and combine it with travel. I feel I have a creative side I’ve suppressed because I needed to be more analytical and pragmatic. Well, that’s about to be unleashed, baby!
You are part of what I would call a girl gang, The Magic Sisters, a couple of whom we have featured in AGEIST. Tell us about this crew. What are you up to with them?
This name came out as folly and it just stuck, though I admit it sounds cringy. We’re really just a group of 4 very opinionated and zany women drawn together at a point in our lives when we’ve achieved a level of authority and agency. Each of them are highly accomplished in their respective fields and it’s been a huge blessing to have them as confidantes. The pandemic has certainly brought us closer.
I understand you have taken up boxing? Interesting choice. Why boxing?
I actually started kickboxing in the ‘90s when Billy Blanks was the rage. I picked it up again last year during the pandemic because gyms were closed and one of the Magics turned her home into a makeshift boxing club with our own personal trainer. It’s been a good outlet for our frustrations.
What is your advice to others about creating a community like the one you have?
As you get older, you realize you really don’t need a lot of friends, just the right ones who will uplift you. But at the same time, it’s also important to cultivate friendships across different age groups so you’re constantly learning and you don’t get stuck in a time warp. But “community” is a lot more than just about friends. It’s also about supporting small businesses, connecting people, championing causes you believe in, bringing together seemingly disparate dots to form a much bigger and interesting picture.
Do you all plan on living near each other as you age?
We hope so!
Are there trends germinating in HK that we in the west should be aware of?
Not just Hong Kong but Asia in general. Much has been said recently about the future being Asian and how developments in this region will define this century because of geopolitical, economic, and demographic factors. I definitely think so.
Travel and Reading
You are a travel aficionado. Where are you looking to go in a post-COVID world?
I have always wanted to do the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage walk in Galicia but with an RV following us and a foot masseuse on board! On my bucket list is the northern lights whether in Norway or Iceland. Sailing the Aeolian islands and Ponza, or the Spice Islands in Indonesia on the Dunia Baru. Visiting remote places that feel like they’re lost in time — Taroudant in Morocco, Faroe Islands, the Azores…
I’ve got far too many across different genres and the list changes every year. But it goes without saying the classics never fail. But if we’re thinking of just travel, the works of Pico Iyer and Paul Theroux are always transportive. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. And every now and then, I re-read CP Cavafy’s short poem Ithaca to remind myself that it’s not about the destination but the journey.
Guilty pleasure streaming shows?
I just finished the Velvet series—54 episodes — in one week. Insane, I know.
Cathy Chon is the founder and managing director of CatchOn – A Finn Partners Company, with offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
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