Mosaic of China Season 01 Episode 08 – The Sweat Sister (Vy VU, FitFam Community Leader)
Vy Vu is from FitFam. Apart from how much I love the economy of her name, I also love the story of how someone who was feeling lost in Shanghai can ultimately lead a fitness movement that's spreading across China.
VV: It really made me realise this incredible network of people that are in Shanghai. That are so generous that they've sent me this lamp that is so obnoxious.
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I'm your host, Oscar Fuchs.
So one big correction from last week's episode with Michael Zee from Symmetry Breakfast: apparently, you can see old people walking around in their pyjamas everywhere across China and not just in Shanghai. But that's not to say it's common, there were some people on the WeChat group who said they haven't seen it since the 90s. But the bigger debate was on why it happens. There were a couple of people who looked to historical reasons, where it was a symbol of status that you didn't need to work. Then there were others who linked it to the fact that older buildings still might not have indoor plumbing. So it's common for people to pop out in their pyjamas to use shared amenities. But that theory doesn't quite explain the fact that you can still see it happening on the main roads. And that might be explained if you're near a hospital. Most of these are on the main roads, and it's common for people to take fresh air in their hospital pyjamas. But if none of the above applies, it might just be because some older people view pyjamas in the same way that younger people view sweatpants or lounge wear. Just something to wear out of convenience, if you can't be bothered to put on anything else. If you'd like to join the group on WeChat, then please send me a friend request on my ID: mosaicofchina* and I'll add you there myself. I promise it won't be about pyjamas every time, out of all the interesting things we discussed last week, I would not have thought that it was about old people in Pyjamas that everyone would have been talking about. But seeing as it's so popular, maybe it's time for me to set up my own Instagram account called Symmetry Pyjamas, and I'll give Michael a run for his money.
And so on to today's episode. Today I'm speaking with Vy Vu. Apart from how much I love her name - with just four letters, it's the most economical name that I know - what I also love is her story, which shows how someone who was feeling lost in Shanghai can ultimately become part of a fitness movement that's spreading across China and the world. You'll hear about how FitFam is not just about making people in China fit. It's also about making them confident, and making them into future leaders. We also talked about how you manage a volunteer organisation, when it's hard enough to motivate people who are being paid for their efforts. And then how to grow it, without compromising on its founding ideals. And finally, it's a good advert in general about the benefits of living and working overseas. And how you can go from knowing no-one in a city which you find intimidating, to being in a position which helps you define who you are. So if you're someone who is thinking about making a big change in your life - either moving to a new city or a new country, and especially if you're not a natural extrovert - then this episode is for you.
OF: Thank you so much for coming.
VV: Thanks for having me.
OF: I am here with Vy Vu. And Vy is - apart from being in the fashion industry - a co-founder and a community manager of FitFam here in Shanghai.
VV: Thanks for having me. I'm really glad that you asked me to come along and speak to you today.
OF: Let us take a look, what is the object that you have brought in? So tell us.
VV: It is - and it is exactly what it sounds like - a white ceramic monkey holding a light bulb. How this actually came to be in my possession… I was on this work trip and I was shopping in Galleries Lafayette, and looking at the homewares in one of the buildings…
OF: That's in Paris, right?
VV: Yes, that's in Paris. And I had randomly seen this monkey and snapped a picture of it and posted it on social media. And all I said was "This is a must-have lamp."
OF: Which was probably half in jest, was it?
VV: Yes. And it's special. Definitely special. But I had a girlfriend messaged me and say "Oh, I know someone that works there". And then when I got home from this work trip a couple of weeks later, this box showed up on my door. And I opened it, and here was this monkey that they had gotten sent over for me. It was an incredible surprise. He now sits in my house. Definitely a talking point for everyone that comes over. But it really made me realise this incredible network of people that are in Shanghai, that are so generous that they've sent me this lamp that is so obnoxious.
OF: Well, I do get your point. Because there is a funny thing about the interconnectivity of life in Shanghai. You say something and then, you know, two weeks later, it somehow materialises. And everyone's just one or two degrees of separation away from each other. So there you are, snapping a photo of this thing in Paris. And then somebody goes "Oh, I know somebody who works for that same company". I mean, what are the odds?
VV: I know, absolutely. Halfway around the world as well. So it's incredible. And it's an Italian brand as well. So it's not even Chinese, or even French.
OF: And so this brings me to ask you then about your your life in Shanghai, which I guess this probably in some way epitomises. When did it all start?
VV: I moved to Shanghai in 2013, from Hong Kong actually. So I'd spent a year in Hong Kong, and came to Shanghai for a job opportunity. So I work in fashion, as we've mentioned, and I now work for a French brand. And before I worked for a Chinese brand.
OF: Right, so you've got an interesting mix of culture there. You are, obviously by your accent, Australian. You work here in China. And you work for a French company. So you must be in the middle of all three cultures.
VV: Yeah, absolutely. It sort of made me realise how accommodating you need to be, and how clear your communication actually needs to be across all three planes, actually. It's made me grow. And I know that I probably speak a lot slower, with a lot more clarity. Because a lot of people have actually mentioned to me that sometimes they don't understand Australians. Because a lot of the time when you speak to an Australian, they will slur all of their words together, or they will use a lot of slang. And I used to do that. But I know that a lot of friends that I've had for a long time probably didn't understand me in the first two months of knowing them.
OF: Right. They just nodded politely, but… "What the hell is that girl saying?"
VV: Exactly. Which is awful.
OF: And so tell me about how you slowly evolved your life here in Shanghai. You obviously came just for the job. But you've grown into so much more. So I want to know exactly how that progressed with you.
VV: I came here knowing no-one. And I think a lot of other people are obviously in that same position, when they first come to China. I'd come from Hong Kong, and I'd never actually even visited Mainland China before I landed a job here. You know, I genuinely did not think that China would be anywhere as clean as it is, as large as it is. I had gotten a job promotion from Hong Kong to come to Shanghai, so I took my job very seriously when I first came. And I still obviously do now. It took me about three months, and the only places that I travelled in that three months was from work, to the grocery store, home. Any one of those three combinations. So I was so uncertain how to make friends. And I had no connections in Shanghai, and I even had the secretary at work connect my WiFi for me, because I just had no idea. I met some random people when I was apartment hunting, actually. And we happen to get into an agent's car together. They ended up finding me my apartment in that first week, when I was looking. But I didn't talk to them for the first three months. We had a public holiday - it must have been maybe Dragon Boat Festival or something like that - and I had a day off. And I did not know what to do with myself. So I had messaged these people. And the first thing that they said to me was "Oh, we thought that you'd found different friends". I know it now, but I didn't know how open a city like this was. I didn't realise that it was as easy as a text message. I was not even used to having WeChat. So the first time that these people asked me for my WeChat, I felt like it was invading my privacy. Yeah, so it sort of opened up a lot of other doors. So as it does in Shanghai, you meet one person, then you meet two people, you get introduced to their friends. And it was this incredibly eclectic group of people that I would never have met in different fields. It was so social, and I didn't realise that it's truly an incredible place.
OF: And not many people would call you 'shy and retiring' now, would they?
VV: No, not at all. But you know, this is such a change from who I was. All of my 20s, I was in back-to-back relationships. For 10 years, I was in a relationship, and I didn't realise how much that defined me and the person that I was. And so it was incredible to be in Asia, on my own, and just to see where life took me, and basically discover my own identity.
OF: Yeah, and knowing you as I do, it's been the making of you. Especially with what you've done now in your spare time. So above and beyond what you've just described, tell us about how this 'FitFam' thing started.
VV: We started as a handful of friends just working out together at 卢湾 [Lúwān] Stadium, way back in 2015. We motivated each other to get out there almost every single day. And we bonded because of that. And we were out there consistently at 6am almost every day. We had a rest day on Sundays. And we found that people were interested in what we were doing. So one person would join, you would tell your friend, and then two other people would come. And all of a sudden, it was 15-20 people on the field. And then someone moved house. So with anything like fitness, you want that to be convenient. So Igor and Katie had moved house, and so they had taken FitFam with them. And so they started a new location. I'd started 静安 [Jìng'ān] stadium with a couple of different friends. And so we sort of organically grew basically out of convenience. And then, over time, we realised how important and impactful it was on our lives, and how that could actually impact others. And it sort of just grew from there. So now we're at 32 locations in Shanghai, and over 63 sessions a week. And then we've recently gone into 10 other cities throughout the world: Beijing and 常州 [Chángzhōu] in China, and then we've got Hong Kong, Taipei, and then also some in North America, Canada, Malaysia, France.
OF: And so it's purely run on a volunteer basis?
VV: Yes. There are about 90 active leaders that lead workouts across all of those locations, and globally as well. So 100% volunteer-run, non-profit. Yeah, we've grown a lot in the last couple of years, actually.
OF: And you having also worked in a more corporate environment, what would you say are the differences - or maybe just the similarities - between that and running a volunteer organisation?
VV: Volunteer engagement is probably one of the most difficult things. Because the reasons why I FitFam and you FitFam might be different. And also, not having it rely on one person - and one person only - for me at the start… And for those that know, and have worked with me, I'm a control freak… So it was hard for me to share until it was really, absolutely, necessary. Because it was almost detrimental to the growth of what FitFam is today. For me to not feel like something was a burden to someone else, I would do something myself. And when it becomes that 'I'll do something myself' for thousands of people, obviously that is an enormous workload. And then some of that fun actually gets sucked out of it, if it's only just you.
OF: It's quite a levelling factor, you know, you could be a secretary who is doing FitFam next to the CEO, right?
VV: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that that is one of the most exciting things, actually. When you wake up - and I and I wake up at 5:20 most mornings - but when you wake up at 5:20, and you roll out of bed - and honestly, I really hate mornings - but you roll out of bed, disliking life, and you show up on the field, naked face, your raw self, nothing is more comforting than seeing 20-30 other people on the field, also the same. And you know, getting that workout done before anyone else has even woken up is so powerful. And that high five at the end, because you got through it all together, there is nothing like that feeling. I've been so so proud to see some of our participants graduate, and now lead these workouts, they're just such powerhouses within FitFam. So we probably have maybe 40% Chinese leaders - or at least bilingual - And then 60% foreigners. We would like to probably even it up a little bit, because we want it to be able to give workouts to more and more people. I have seen mothers that haven't worked out in 10 years, come every day, then run their first marathon, then become triathletes and run ultramarathons. And obviously, that's an extreme story. But just in general, I've seen people be so shy when they first come in, and then gain confidence. And I'm so incredibly proud of these people that have gone from zero to 100. And then some of them have become personal trainers, and all of this sort of stuff. And you would never have guessed something like FitFam could influence their own life, let alone allow them to be able to do it for others.
OF: That leads me to ask you, what is the future? What is the the goal for FitFam, and where do you see this going into in the next few years?
VV: Everybody has always asked whether we would monetise. And for us, that is not important for the time being. The experience that FitFam is, we would really really love to give that to as many people as possible. What has been magic for us is that when a different location has been started, it's probably been started by someone who was an original in Shanghai. So they understand. They understand our values and why we do it. And they you know, we do it because we love it. And we give our time, because we want to.
OF: I guess my last question, knowing you and your background as I do… Because your family were traditional Vietnamese, they were refugees into Australia. And they've tracked your course over the last few years. What do they think about your life now here in Shanghai?
VV: Look, my mum was uncertain. I was a very defiant child, the black sheep of the family, because I went into arts and design in the first place. So for quite some time when I moved to Asia, my parents were very cautious. But then my other siblings had children, so then they just let me be. But eventually, I mean, they can see how happy I am, and how much I don't want to come home. Not 'want to come home' because Melbourne is an incredible place to live. But just the opportunities, the big smile on my face, that genuine happiness. That's what they were probably looking for, for a long time, for me.
OF: Well look, thank you so much. Let's move on quickly, then, to our second part, which is… the 10 quick questions.
VV: OK, great.
OF: So let's start. Number 1, what's your favourite China-related fact?
VV: Well, everybody knows the four great inventions, which were gunpowder, the compass, paper and printing. But no one knows that they also invented the fishing reel, the wheelbarrow, kites and the umbrella.
OF: And the umbrella?
VV: Yeah, amazing really.
OF: But it rains so much in Europe, what the hell were they doing? Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
VV: 麻烦 [Máfan]. It describes every every single situation.
OF: And for those who don't know Mandarin, explain what that means.
VV: It's a word that sort of means 'troublesome'.
OF: And if something that's just a little bit too difficult, but you don't quite want to say 'no', you can just say 麻烦 [máfan].
VV: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
OF: Love it. What is your favourite destination to travel to, within China?
VV: I am gonna say my own street. I live in 长宁 [Chángníng] district, and I recently did a walking tour with Duncan from SHANGHAI FLANEUR, and looked at all this architecture that was just right in front of my nose. I've been living in my apartment for five years, and I never realised that this was just under my nose. And how much I did not know about where I lived.
OF: If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?
VV: Probably the convenience actually. And this is my 'miss most' and my 'miss least' because I think that it's incredible that everything comes to your door. You run out of toilet paper, you run out of oil to cook your eggs, it's all just honestly a couple of clicks away. Which is incredible, really.
OF: And the downside of the same thing?
VV: Probably the wastage, actually. You know, everything being 快递 [kuàidì]'d to your door…
OF: … And 快递 [kuàidì] being the Chinese for 'fast delivery' right?
VV: Yes. And so it means that there's packaging, and a lot of packaging. And so I've been really conscious of that lately. So if I need to go get something to eat, I will make the effort of leaving the home.
OF: Is there anything that still mystifies you about life in China?
VV: I mean, we talked about it before, but 28 million people.
OF This is just Shanghai, right?
VV: Yeah. And this is the entire population of Australia, packed into this one city.
OF: Oh, well that puts it into context.
VV: Yeah, and just how well Shanghai is able to move people from A to B so efficiently. It is really phenomenal.
OF: Where is your favourite place to go, to eat, to drink, to hang out?
VV: Blackbird, actually. Have you been there?
OF: Oh, in Columbia Circle?
VV: Yeah. So I only just recently discovered Columbia Circle actually. But it's the perfect mix of everything. You've got great food on the lower floor. You've got great cocktails in the middle. And then you've got this gorgeous terrace where they play movies and everything. But it's just this really great gorgeous space. You know, it's a shame that Colombia Circle hasn't actually taken off as yet. But I'm really liking Blackbird.
OF: What is the best or the worst purchase you have made in China?
VV: Probably my most expensive, and best, is my scooter actually. You know, I can't Shanghai without it.
OF: What is your favourite WeChat sticker?
VV: Gosh, people are gonna hate me when I say this, but I actually don't use WeChat stickers.
OF: Get out.
VV: No, honestly, which it's awful. I'll talk about my most used emoji.
VV: But it's actually the cleaver, the knife. And don't think that I'm a serial killer, but I actually use it in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. So actually I use the phrase "or else" - and then I'll throw in three cleavers - a lot. So this will just be in a regular social context, like "I'll see you tomorrow… or else" and then I'll throw those in. So the cleaver is my go-to and my most recently used emoji. All the time.
OF: OK, it's not a sticker, but I do like it. So I'll let this pass. Just. But I am quite scared of you when you say that too. What is your go-to song to sing at KTV?
VV: This is really embarrassing, but anything by Mariah Carey. Apparently I know all the words. And as soon as a song comes on, I'm just belting it.
OF: This is a telling question because that is a very adventurous and ambitious goal. And I believe you to be a very adventurous and ambitious person. I think that speaks volumes about you, that question?
VV: Oh gosh. Don't invite me to KTV.
OF: OK. And finally, what other China-related media or sources of information do you rely on?
VV: I've been listening to a lot of China History podcasts.
OF: I know the one you mean.
VV: Yeah. So that's quite good. And I actually really like it when it's a little bit entertaining. So that what I listen to. And then also Inside China, that's a bit similar as well. So that sort of goes through the history of, for instance, how the dumpling came about, and that sort of thing.
OF: Oh, wait, I don't think I knew that one. OK, I'll have to check that out.
VV: There aren't a lot of episodes, but that's quite a good one.
OF: The final question in this podcast is, who would you recommend that I interview from your friendship circle, next on Mosaic of China?
VV: I'm going to nominate Miao Wang. I actually met her about two or three years ago. But she more recently has been raising awareness for shark conservation, actually. So she started this incredible project, where she is talking about educating the general public about underwater life in general. But she also has launched a swimwear label, and it's actually made from recycled fishing nets.
OF: That's awesome. I look forward to meeting Miao. And thank you so much for your time Vy, it was a real pleasure today.
VV: Thank you so much for having me.
OF: So that was Vy's story. The way she described her network growing in Shanghai will be quite familiar to people here. I've lived in quite a few cities in Asia, such as Tokyo, Singapore, and Hong Kong. But there's something unique about how connections and introductions are made so openly in China, and especially in Shanghai. In fact, I can still remember the person who first introduced me to Vy. It was Gabby Gabriel, who is one of those people who is very generous with her introductions. So a special thank you to Gabby.
Since this recording was made, FitFam groups have since popped up in 杭州 [Hángzhōu], 无锡 [Wúxī], 温州 [Wēnzhōu] and Mexico City. You can see more on the Instagram account @fitfamchina.
Vy made a reference to the Dragonboat holiday in China. This happens every year in June, and I just heard the other day actually that it goes back to the ancient state of 楚 [Chǔ] around 300 BCE. You don't need to know any of that really, all you need to know is that you get the day off work, and you're supposed to eat a snack called 粽子 [Zòngzi], which is sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. Speaking of historical China, Vy also mentioned the four great inventions that China brought to the world: paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass. I wanted to mention actually that this concept originated from a Western scholar. Chinese scholars prefer to highlight other inventions, and there's a whole debate which you can find online. Vy also mentioned her scooter, that's the third scooter now after Philippe and Jorge. She also mentioned a place which has a terrace as her favourite place to hang out. And that's the fourth mention of a terrace There's definitely a terrace conspiracy going on this podcast. This one was on top of Blackbird, so there's a photo of that on social media. Just look for @mosaicofchina_* on Instagram and @mosaicofchina on Facebook. There's also a bizarre graph I happen to find which illustrates the population of Shanghai versus Australia, which is something Vy mentioned. And then finally, there is a picture of her favourite WeChat emojis rather than WeChat stickers, which were those bloody meat cleavers, three in a row. There aren't actually that many emojis on WeChat - maybe 100 or 150 - so I have no idea why a bloody meat cleaver should be one of them. Does anybody else know?
Mosaic of China is me Oscar Fuchs, editing by Milo de Prieto, artwork by Denny Newell and China technical support from Alston Gong. See you again next week.
*Different WeChat and Instagram handles were mentioned in the original recording. These IDs are now obsolete, and the updated details have been substituted.
Oscar Fuchs was the Co-Founder and Managing Director of a global executive search firm dedicated to the Human Resources profession. He was born in the UK and has lived in Asia for 18 years, including 3 years in Hong Kong SAR, and 7 years in mainland China. In 2019 he sold his company, and launched Mosaic of China.