The Filipino farm boy chasing his dreams in Shanghai

Filipino Kelvin is keen on exploring the hidden beauty of this metropolis from various perspectives. Some are really smart angles that even Shanghai natives could learn from.

Holin's words

“I've been back three times," Kelvin from the Philippines told me with a smile when we chatted a few months ago. "I go back once a year.” He has been in China for three years.

His wonderland where he grew up— a farmland a couple of hours away from Manila — is always in the back of his mind, giving him a plain and unadorned personality.

The former farm boy lives a good life in Shanghai, and he comes across very content. He's an artistic young man who is keen on exploring the hidden beauty of this metropolis from various perspectives. Some are really smart angles that even Shanghai natives could learn from. Listening to his descriptions gives me a refreshing appreciation for my home city.

Kelvin loves to laugh. Bursts of heart-felt laughter were ever-present in our three-hour interview. We met at his office, a co-working space in Xintiandi. His colleague had to continue re-booking the meeting room for us as our time kept running out. 

Finally, we came to the video part. Kelvin broke my record of shooting these video segments, taking nearly one hour to produce a two-minute clip which featured, of course, lots of laughter. When Kelvin got nervous he would laugh, too.

But I realized that, despite all the laughing, Kelvin is also very mature. This well-educated man definitely has a passion for life, and he offers his compassionate heart to the world. 

Holin Wang / SHINE

Name: John Kelvin Co
Nationality: Filipino
Job: Creative Group Head/F5 Shanghai
Years in Shanghai: 1.5

Holin: You said you have been in China for three years, so before Shanghai, where have you been and what have you been doing?

Kelvin: Beijing. I was called for a senior position to handle the digital in a creative agency there. I was thinking about it, because during that time I also got an offer from Vietnam, but I decided that Beijing and China has more creativity.

It was a very, very new world for me, cultural-wise, and I can’t speak Mandarin. I had a hard time in adjusting. It’s a good thing my friends and office mates helped me adjust well and faster than I imagined.

Holin: Where did you finish your college?

Kelvin: It was in Manila, one of the oldest schools in Asia.

Holin: Why didn’t you just stay there in Manila?

Kelvin: Because in advertising, you always look up to these great people who inspire me, and most of the people who inspire me are in the Western countries.

Philippines has very good advertising, and even though we don’t have the same technology as China, we could always win awards. But the problem is, you can’t stay there for long, because the world is changing. Everyone is moving from traditional to digital, and if you don’t have that kind of knowledge then you will be left behind.

I think America is leading the way, followed by China. Then countries like Brazil and Singapore, they were really good before, but they are still doing traditional. If I stayed in the Philippines I think I would never reach my potential. So when someone gave me the opportunity to work in Beijing, I didn’t know anything so I just took the risk!

Holin: So what made you decide to move to Shanghai from Beijing?

Kelvin: Because, during that time, I think Beijing is a very comfortable place. The life there is a little bit laid back, even though we’re doing digital, awesome stuff. In Beijing I feel the life there is very, very slow. The environment is very cold, it’s very chilled — it feels like a provincial place for me. But I came to China to make myself better and reach my potential.

An office mate told me that Shanghai is a really good place if I want to do more things, and Shanghai is very open to other creative things. It might be because the process of Beijing is a bit strict, but for me, in advertising, there is no such thing as limitations.

Shanghai’s like a melting pot. It’s very diverse, and people have this kind of knowledge and when they collaborate together, they create something amazing. And when I landed here they were very welcoming, and they had lots of knowledge and stories, and when you hear these things, it can give you ideas and you know what type of message you want to tell.

Holin: Do you remember the moment you first came to Shanghai?

Kelvin: The first time I came to Shanghai, I came from a very laid-back city, very slow. So when I first arrived here, everything was so fast. Everything is so much faster. Everyone walks so fast. Everyone is rushing. Everyone speaks so fast.

In Beijing, when they talk, they are very slow. The way they say their words, it’s very long. But if you hear someone in Shanghainese speaking, it’s very fast.

That’s why I needed to adjust immediately, when I arrived here I felt so stressed. But the funny thing was, when I arrived in Shanghai, in Wukang Road, everything was slow, so different from the other streets.

Holin: Can you tell how long will you stay in Shanghai? Do you plan to settle down here?

Kelvin: Well, China showed me how technology is very important to a person or to a country. Science and technology are the future, if you invent something big like Facebook or Google, right now they’re earning a lot and producing more technology, like driverless cars and that kind of thing. So Shanghai opened my eyes to that.

If Shanghai gives me more opportunity to stay, why not? And if I have a kid here, if there’s a chance that I have a kid here, I’ll be happy to… because there’s a chance he will be positively influenced. That’s very important.

Holin: What impressed you most in Shanghai?

Kelvin: It’s more like a physical thing — when I arrived in Shanghai, I saw the buildings and it was very beautiful, in terms of the preservation of the old buildings.

For me, when you are a type of person who loves history, you’re just reading everything in books, but everything is still a mystery because you’re only reading it. But being in Shanghai, it gives you permission to walk through the past. You can feel it, it’s like a time machine! It might be… because, I really like buildings.

For me, Shanghai is like the old Manila, but the problem is, in Manila the way they see progress is to destroy it and build a new one. It might be progress for a city, but the thing is, you are depriving your young generation from the culture they need to know, because these buildings are like an identity for someone who lived here.

Holin: Which place do you like best in Shanghai? 

Kelvin: My favorite place in Shanghai is probably the West Bund, because it gives me an observation in why open spaces are very important to a city.

There you can do a lot of things. It’s a big, open space with a lot of tools. You can jog; you can work out; you can relax… They have space for skateboarding and other things.

So why do I like it?

When I first went there, I saw different kinds of people, like those who are less fortunate and those who are fortunate in life. 

If you go to West Bund, people who don’t have money can still play, relax, and have a picnic with their family, without spending too much money.

A city should make their citizens happy, not just by building malls and condos. Open space gives us a natural kind of happiness. You don’t ask for something material, you will receive a happiness that you get just by sitting. You feel more relaxed.

Holin: Besides sitting and enjoying the West Bund, how do you spend your weekends here?

Kelvin: I joined a group called “Shanghai Dragons,” they’re a dragon boat team in Pudong. They practice every weekend. It’s very open to everyone, anyone who wants to be part of it can come and be part of the team.

Besides dragon boating, I usually go for a walk or do, like, Mobike or Ofo and just go around the city. Because I do photography, so I like to go to those places that are great but not that popular.

Around the former old French Concession areas, there’re these hidden cafes and galleries that you will see. I don’t know the exact street names, but you can find interesting things once you just walk around those places. I go there to take photos and then I try the food afterwards.

And I like to go to the outskirts of Shanghai, because I’m curious to see what I will find at the end of these metro lines. I’ve tried two lines, I want to see the other side of these lines. I have this curiosity about what this part of Shanghai looks like. For me it’s worth it, because other parts of Shanghai are so busy, but if you go to the end of the lines, you will see a different kind of life that you will not usually see at the center of Shanghai.

Ti Gong

 Rowing dragon boat is one of Co’s favorite pastimes.

Holin: Wow, it’s a really special but smart way to discover and enjoy a different Shanghai. So, will you finish all of these lines one day?

Kelvin: Well I don’t know about that, because advertising is very busy! But if I have the feeling of like “let’s go!”, then I will try. It’s a good thing, you will see different faces, different restaurants, when you try the food maybe it tastes different. The feeling in those areas far from the center is different.

I also really like the Power Station of Art. The thing I like the most is the way they used an old power station — instead of destroying it they turned it into an art gallery.

Holin: Yes, we should be proud of that cos’ Shanghai has many places like that.

Kelvin: Yeah, but this one is different, because you can see the electric power plant, but how did they think of preserving it and turning it into a gallery?

Holin: Yeah, you can make everything come true in Shanghai if you just think of an idea. I think that must be an element you like about Shanghai, right? What else really makes you like Shanghai?

Kelvin: I think first the diversity. You will hear different types of stories. You can go to a place and you can meet someone from other parts of China, and a mix of things. Shanghai food with a touch of European, there is always a fusion of things here.

Most especially I like the transportation. If you have a hard time getting a taxi, you can get a Didi (a popular app helping you to call for a taxi). If you have a hard time taking a Didi, you can just walk or use a bike. If you don’t want, you can just use the Metro. If you want to see the scenery, you can use the bus. There are so many options that actually, some of the cities I’ve been to, don’t have. Even in my hometown, I think what is lacking is a nice kind of transportation, which actually I think Shanghai is very lucky to have.

The ones who are already on the top, or they’re too busy to see, that they are just like people were before — they were all hopefuls who want to change their life too. That’s what I mean about compassion — you just need to be nice, even just a simple smile can make someone’s life much better, more positive.

Holin: Which road do you like best here? 

Kelvin: This is a little bit cliché but I really like Nanjing Road E. Maybe because when I first arrived, that was the first place I went, and everyone was singing. To others, it might be noisy, but for me, it is a good place to express yourself.

In the middle of the road, you’ll see old people dancing and singing; young people too, playing their guitars. I think, as an advertising person, I like those kinds of things. In order to work in advertising, you need to observe people.

Nanjing Road E. has a lot of stories to tell.

Holin: Do you have anything you dislike here? 

Kelvin: There’s two things that I dislike, but it’s not a physical thing. It’s more like, the attitude of the people who arrive in Shanghai, or it might be the problem of very progressive cities — life is so fast that we forget things that are happening.

I think Shanghai is lacking in passion and compassion. I first noticed it when I was talking to my office mates. Everything they see, like a migrant worker, they will expect or think immediately that that person is not working hard or they’re just begging for money.

But the way I see it is actually different. Probably this guy just wants to have something different about his life, so he takes the risk to move from a far part of China, and gambled his life here in Shanghai and now he looks poor or like a beggar, but I think, they just want someone to understand them. Just be nice to them.

For passion, I think that’s one of the main problems I’ve seen, really. Shanghai is a place where you can fulfill your dreams, if you want to. But once people arrive in Shanghai, their main agenda is material things, getting the highest pay check that they can immediately. It’s not really about being passionate. For me, if you’re passionate, you will do anything to make things come true.

At the end of the day, once you finish, you will feel proud of what you’ve done because you created it. But here people make apps because they want someone to buy their app, but it’s not something they were proud of, something they were passionate about.

If you have passion, you will create the trend — you won’t just follow the trend.

Holin: Compared to your country, are there any shortages in Shanghai? 

Kelvin: Probably the compassion and passion thing. Shanghai is a very comfortable city, but when you’re living comfortably — I think there are consequences of living in a comfortable life, compared to people who experience hardships or lead a chaotic kind of life.

If you’re living a chaotic kind of life, you will try to push yourself to have a good life, but because Shanghai is very comfortable, you can access everything you want. And if you’re Shanghainese, you have access to everything, like healthcare and schools. I think that’s where the passion and compassion problem comes from, because life became so easy.

Holin: Do you have any impressing memory during your life to share with us?

Kelvin: It’s pretty weird because I grew up in a farmland. My father is an immigrant, he’s Chinese. He’s from Xiamen. 

Holin: So you have Chinese origin! But you can’t speak Chinese, right?

Kelvin: No, I can’t. My father can speak Fujianese. When I was a kid, I just grew up in farmland besides Manila, because my father wanted a simple life. So, of course, I needed to move to the city because we didn’t have a great education in those places. I moved to Manila when I started college.

Holin: So, you had a lot of time on the farmland, maybe 18 years?

Kelvin: Yeah, like 16 or 18 years. The life there was really different on the farm. I’m really happy with my life there, like I could play with tree houses. Sometimes we planted vegetables like eggplants, we cook them easily in our tree house with friends, and we’d also hunt for birds, but that’s bad!

Life there was very slow and simple. We had like 20 dogs. When my father lived in the city, he had a pet shop, selling many different kinds of animals. When he had his family, he moved to the farmland, because he wanted a simple life. I think our house at that time was like a zoo. My mother had a tough task because we had ten aquariums at home.

So, my most impressing memory is my childhood.

My father is an immigrant, and my mother is a migrant from Vizayas (one of the three principal geographical divisions of the Philippines). When they moved to Manila, they had a hard time. They taught me how to be strong. They said: “Money is nothing if you are weak.” Because money will be gone after you spend it. But when you are strong, even if your money is gone, you will still find a way to earn it.

Holin: Exactly! Thanks to your parents!

What does Kelvin want to say to himself in the future? Have a look! Kelvin is sending a message to himself in the future10 years from now!

Filmed by Holin Wang and Joan Zheng. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Translated by Jack Zhou. Special thanks to Andy Boreham.

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