Gerry, The Making of Fivelements Hong Kong

What was it like being a part of the making of Fivelements Hong Kong?

I’ve never really thought of myself being part of the making of Fivelements. I give all credit for that to Chicco and Lahra and their team. But what I have become is part of the on-going evolution, the creative vision, the deep foundation for the future.

What motivated me to be part of the on-going process of evolution, of deepening some aspects and expanding others, was a sense that Fivelements is the real deal. It’s not about luxury, although it is a luxury experience in a rustic way. It’s not about spa. It’s not even really about destination per se, although it is a gorgeous gem of a destination. It’s really about a deep connection with the innermost dimensions of oneself. It is finding those, and connecting with those deep aspects and enlivening them, that brings about transformation.

This is something I’ve been doing through practicing transcendental meditation, twice a day, since 1974. This aspect of deep value, deep inner dimensions and guided healing by master practitioners really resonated with me. Having done decades of work in Asia, I saw Fivelements as offering a very authentic, important and timeless offering. That’s really what motivated me to work with them, what motivated me to explore them. And then when I stayed and experienced the depth and the value, I felt this is the real deal. Not only ahead of its time; it’s timeless. I felt also the creative energy and genuine world leadership of the vision of Chicco and Lahra, who are both very sophisticated, international people – Lahra from NYC and Chicco from Milan. They bring sophistication and worldliness, through a deep sincerity and a commitment to inner development, via Balinese healing.

Please share about your research process.

My first experience of trying to get research going in Bali was research on a set of medical manuscripts of Bali called Lontar Usada. We had a consensus meeting with leading religious figures and prominent cultural figures. Then some local people, who took it over, blocked it and side lined the program. What I learned from that was that there are aspects of the culture, and political investments in ownership of the culture, that will project both their view of how cultural research should be done and their place in that research.

This really made me careful in the two subsequent research projects with Fivelements. One in particular was on Chinese influence in Balinese traditions and culture, which I don’t believe has been researched in a systematic way prior to this work. I hope what I have done will inspire historians to look more closely at this in times to come.

There are some very important discoveries included in Balinese medical manuscripts, like the Muslim Chinese sources of knowledge that the Balinese were applying in obstetrics. What that did for me was to feel that I had to be very hands-on myself and get into the field and do a lot of the research, rather than rely on others as mediators.

With the Chinese project I spent a lot of time particularly with Lahra, and Chicco too, looking deeply into Chinese influences in architecture, dance and clothing.

For example, Chinese fans are totally different to Indian fans. Indian fans are leaf shaped and flat, whereas the concertina fan is uniquely Chinese, and the Balinese use it and consider it came from their own culture, when it is clearly of Chinese origin.

Their ceramic traditions too. Some of the place names – the Chinese word Pingan, for example, in the Indonesian language means ‘plate’, like china. In fact, it is the place in China where fine white porcelain ceramic was first developed. There is a place in Bali, a Chinese temple with ceramics set into it, which is known as place of fine ceramics in Bali. The Balinese have come to consider this to be a Balinese name, but it is clearly Chinese and – like the word ‘china’ for porcelain in English – a place name has been turned into a term for the everyday object from which it derives. There is a lot of suffused Chinese culture there.

Tracing this required digging back through other research – a huge amount. I had to do it myself. The culture sends up its dragons to keep outsiders out. But it was a very productive experience.

The second thing we did research on was nutritional traditions of health and wellness in Balinese cuisine. One thing we included was the difference between royal and village level traditions. There are distinctions between village and royal traditions in Malaysia, but to my surprise, not so in Bali. In Bali there are no high traditions and low traditions, they are all the same.

We brought something new to the understanding of food traditions: a generational perspective across the age span; from pregnant women, babies, young children, young adults, middle-aged people, to the elderly and more frail.

This had not been done before and again required being very hands-on.

I worked with two research associates, both of whom have university backgrounds and with whom I had a mentorship relationship.

We looked across the age span, at food relating to child development and brain growth, for adolescents for skin health and stabilising moods, for young adults’ stamina, energy and vitality. Many Asian traditional cultures have a focus on sexual vitality, especially in adults. And for the elderly we looked at the loss of energy and how to counteract it, as well as at memory and stamina.

Then another focus was on quality of life questions. We did that because Chinese families are very generationally conscious and we were looking to take Balinese traditions to Sai Kung where Fivelements was opening a new centre. In Chinese society, the idea of the three-generation family is very much a norm, particularly in Hong Kong. Grandparents, kids and grandkids do a lot together. They will be in a club and take meals together. So it made sense to offer something with generational value.

What new things did you learn?

What did I learn?

I’m looking at a project in another small mountain country in Asia, which has strong influences from a neighbouring culture in it, particularly in cuisine. What we are keen to do in creating an authentic wellness cuisine is to locate remote areas where there is no influence from a dominant neighbour’s cuisine. We want to dig into what is truly authentic.

The Balinese have forgotten there is Chinese influence. Like the girls’ headdresses with the metallic stars and flowers, which is classic southern Chinese from Yunnan province, but again, this is something that the Balinese consider to be their own, or that it came from India which has nothing like this.

The same thing happens with cultural influences from a big dominant neighbour. But in the new mountain context, we want to go to remote areas and reverse the process, explore where outside influences are not present.

Regarding the generational perspective, I had already developed that framework for both the Qatar Foundation’s project on Wellness Traditions of the Islamic world and also for my book on Malaysian Health Traditions, so I brought that in to Fivelements.

What do you think is the future outlook for Fivelements?

I think time will tell what kind lasting legacy Fivelements has in terms of a wider ripple effect. The world is very commercially oriented. Increasingly, one sees Asian therapies offered in a commercialised form – a sort of tradition-lite. Offerings that we may have been excited about ten years ago, but that now are very routine.

When I was digging into cultural traditions to understand the global spa industry for my book “Understanding the Global Spa Industry”, the expectation was that the industry would take these traditions deeper, but by and large they haven’t. They have stayed on the surface because that is sufficient to keep guests happy and most places are not looking for deep transformation.

I think Fivelements’ lasting legacy is to a very niche, but important, sector; the sector of deep personal transformation drawing on cultural traditions. While cultures are different they do have a common end point – connection with deep values of oneself and, through that, connecting with oneself, society, nature and the universe. There are many roads to the mountaintop, but only one mountaintop.

Fivelements stands as a model and I often recommend people I work with to visit Fivelements and experience it. Not to take any therapies away, but to understand the deep principles and experience them being applied. Like the Agni Hotra ceremony and the unique and personal approaches of the older very traditional therapists working at Fivelements.

I think Fivelements is a masterclass for the developers of deep healing retreats and destination resorts. That, in my view, is its lasting legacy.

In a broad sense across the sector, I’m not sure if there will be a big ripple or not.

Anyone can use some randomly selected Balinese techniques. But I do think it’s a very niche and deeply important sector related to creating a paradigm shift.

I think that the guest takeaway from Fivelements is what wellness guests will increasingly want more of. They will want something to take home, but some reason to come back too, because they feel that it is more than practices. Fivelements represents a sense of place, the power of the place, which takes guests somewhere deep and allows them to reorient their priorities.

It will be important to help guests find ways that work for themselves to keep that reorientation on track. It is so easy to lose it. Like sitting with the master and then going back out into the world, then coming back to the master then going back out. Into the ashram and out.

The point of that retreat experience and return to the world and then retreating again, is to re-experience and begin to stabilise new experiences and orientation. Then, from that place, decide on new practices and priorities. It doesn’t necessarily happen instantly. Over a period of committed reorientation people will make choices. For example, “I’m going to do yoga three to four times a week”, or “meditation every day”, or “cut out red meat”.

This experience gives people a reason to want to do those things because they know they can experience a deeper level of connectedness. Or once they’ve been through the stress release-detox-roughness of that inner journey, they find a place they feel equally at home in. They may have some re-experience of a childhood happiness or at-homeness.

Then for a lot of people, they’ll feel they want to put some anchors in place that will keep them on this path. Coming back is therefore important, and good for the business model too. Both aspects work together.

People can come in smoking and drinking six espressos a day and then go through a big detox. The shock of withdrawal from that is significant, particularly for the Europeans who are so addicted to this espresso/smoking/vino lifestyle that’s normal for them. Then they start to withdraw from that and experience the brain working without that stimulus, or rather without that combination of stimulus and suppressant, as caffeine is stimulant and alcohol is a depressant. They will experience a deep joy of connectedness and expandedness that can be there from profound meditation and an inward experience.

It sounds like you had a deep experience with Fivelements. What guidance would you offer them looking ahead?

I feel that Chicco and Lahra are family. They feel the same. I am like an older brother, in a sense. They don’t need a lot of guiding because they are so smart, experienced and intuitive. But particularly going deep into knowledge where they do want guidance and exploration, that is the nature of our exchanges.

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