Wellness Warriors is Lifestyle Asia’s dedicated monthly series spotlighting the talented and varied specialists of Hong Kong’s health and wellness scene. Whether spa director or yoga guru, fitness instructor or environmental advocate (or all of the above), these experts share with us about their place in the rapidly growing wellness sphere as well as the road that took them there.

With Hong Kong’s frenzied pace of living and unrelenting work hours, it’s unsurprising that residents are progressively searching for health and solace in between the hours of intense work and play. Perhaps the men behind Hybrid Group would know best: Charlz Ng, Gianni Melwani and Gary Wan are all partners who met while working in the nightlife events industry. Today, they’re behind what’s known as Hong Kong’s largest wellness festival, Iris: Your Escape, which celebrates its 7th iteration on 27–28 April.

The shift from late nights at the club to weekends at the gym was a natural one, Charlz Ng tells Lifestyle Asia. “It’s funny, we are actually working with LKF Group, to try and emphasise the whole idea of retox and detox,” he says, referring to the idea of making sure to balance out high octane partying with periods of rest and recovery. As the Managing Director of events and marketing agency Hybrid Group Asia, Ng co-founded the company at age 25 in 2015, swapping DJ Tiesto gigs for hosting digital detox camps in the early days. Ng went on to bring the global obstacle course challenge Spartan Race to Hong Kong. He is also the Director of Ceremonies for the highly anticipated Gay Games 2022, to be hosted in Hong Kong — the first Asian city to make a bid and win, proposing 36 sporting events including Dragon boating, trail running and a tower run at the ICC building.

From starting as a small free event for a community of yogis in 2015, Iris: Your Escape has grown significantly in just four years. But beyond bringing a fabulous array of new and innovative workouts to the public, the festival has also gained repute as a wellness conference of sorts for brands and businesses in the wellness sphere, helping to strengthen the existing community of wellness experts.

We recently sat down with Ng at House of Fitness, a Sheung Wan gym that he jointly owns with two other partners. Looking ahead at Iris: Your Escape, we discussed how a weekend of wellness can spark a lifelong interest in self improvement — and how this awareness has affected his day to day life for the better.

IRIS: Your Escape - Charlz Ng

Let's start from the beginning. How did the three co-founders of Hybrid Groupcome together and what motivated you to launch a wellness festival?

We were in nightlife and entertainment, so it was more a force of nature. First off, being in the events industry is really stressful, because they’re so hard to coordinate. In nightlife, you’re up until 5-6am in the morning most nights, so it was really physically and mentally exhausting. Each of us were finding balance in our own way. One of the things Gianni [Melwani] did was yoga. He has since obtained a yoga teaching qualification and will be teaching at Iris: Your Escape this year. Gary and I were more focused on gym workouts.

That’s how our first yoga event started in 2015. We looked at the market, and there were a lot of yoga events out that were free for the public. They were pop-ups and taught by a single teacher. We thought, why don’t we collect a couple of teachers and bring together a community interested in wellness? Things took off from there.

We started off in Discovery Bay; our first event was in the middle of summer, it was really hot, but we still got 80-90 people who showed up. In 2015, at that time we were not very digitally advanced. We didn’t use much advertising, instead we asked all of our friends, and had our student reps from the nightlife industry. It was hard at first with our nightlife network, but it also became a natural marketing message.

IRIS: Your Escape - Charlz Ng

Four years on, how do you think Iris has helped to shape the wellness landscape in Hong Kong?

In terms of physical wellness, I think we have launched and introduced a lot of workshops; or a lot of activities that weren’t too popular two or three years ago. Zumba, for instance, is now a very popular feature. We have a Zumba class with our teacher Trixie — she’s amazing, last time she was 7 months pregnant and she was on the stage grooving with everybody.
We had something called PoundFit, and Bollywood, these are things that people wouldn’t normally go and try. But because they tried it at Iris, they went back to try it at the studios. This was from feedback from teachers like Trixie herself.

What about this upcoming edition? What’s new?

On the more mental and spiritual side, we’ve tried to do more talks, which is new under the Iris Insights section: We have workshops where people can engage with industry leaders. We have the Spa Director of Mandarin Oriental to come and speak with us about digital detox; We have a recovering addict who came back and is a brand new person. We have EcoDrive — a local organisation who will share about why we don’t need plastic in our life. We also work with Female Entrepreneurs Worldwide, to talk about the female taskforce and personnel.
We now want to enlarge our wellness focus to not just physical, but also social and mental. This upcoming IRIS, we’re working with Green is the New Black — the organisers behind The Conscious Festival — to talk about how we can make little green steps in our lives. We’re also working with Talking Mental about different mental issues you might not even realise you have. It could be sleep, it could be sex, it could be corporate, it could be your lifestyle.

One of the features that we have that people don’t really talk about is the marketplace — it’s sometimes overlooked, but it’s powerful in a way that it’s a B2B and B2C platform for about 100 brands to showcase their latest products. Food, snacks, science; it’s all local. The best thing about that is that it’s free to the public.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned since starting the festival in 2015?

Myself. It gave me clarity into what living healthy means. One of the biggest lifestyle changes is that I used to be a smoker. I was working in nightlife and clubs all the time after all, so I was also a big drinker. Now I’ve consciously cut down a lot, I’ve quit smoking, and I do a thing I call “Vegan Tuesday.” Every Tuesday, I try my best to not eat meat.

IRIS: Your Escape - Charlz Ng

Can you share a bit more about your own wellness journey?

The whole journey, without sounding cliché, really educated me on a lot of things I wouldn’t have otherwise known. I didn’t even know what carbon footprint was before I started IRIS. As Hong Kong’s largest wellness festival organisers, I need to understand it myself and do it myself so that I can pick [events] in the right way. In terms of family and relationships, I also think it’s very important that you don’t just work every day and forget about them. So I set up a fixed timetable, no matter what happens, nothing can stop us, as a family, from having dinner together. Thursdays are my date nights. And Tuesdays are my Vegan Tuesdays. In terms of physical wellness, having House of Fitness also helped me come in to the gym more often — I have a place to be now that’s like my second home.

What is one thing healthy you do for yourself every day, that more people should be doing?

I wouldn’t even call it a “habit,” because it’s so integrated into my life now. It’s something I think people do already but don’t realise it, which is to go grab a coffee outside of the office. To just go for a walk; not to be stuck into whatever you’re doing for three hours straight and to just go clear their heads. And eat healthily. For my lunch options I try to not eat anything deep fried and try to avoid anything unhealthy, but, working in Central, there are tons of options around here, so already people are unconsciously doing that.

What is an app or service you couldn’t live without?

An app I really enjoy using would be Snapseed, I use it to edit photos. I actually use a combination of them on my phone, Snapseed and RNI Film. I’m slowly getting into photography as a hobby, but recently I’ve been learning photo editing skills.

IRIS: Your Escape - Charlz Ng

Everyone claims they’re too busy: how do you suggest for people to start new healthy hobbies effectively?

Use your weekend. With the people around me, I’ve noticed that people tend to have lazy weekends, they don’t do much. Some people hike; that’s great. I don’t hike a lot. Now, I try to go out and take photos. Try and spend time with the person who does what you like — that can really help you strengthen the hobby and give you motivation. That can be your partner, or your friends who like taking photos, for instance. Don’t go alone — always grab someone with you. I’m not promoting, but I have to mention that Apple Watch (Series 4) recently launched a Sweat Buddy app. So what I did was I challenged a couple of people, and a few times I was at the office — 7:48pm, looking to go home — and I look at my watch, it tells me that the other people closed their rings already. I thought, “F*ck that, I’m going to run to the gym and close mine!” The competition really does give you more motivation to do it.

Overseeing such a broad spread of fitness gurus, spiritual teachers and healthy eating advocates, what would you say are the main trends/what’s new in health?

The IRIS Insider, as a stage, is exactly where we want to talk about trends. Being conscious or sustainable is going to continue to blow up. If you think about it, two years ago, nobody even cared or knew about it, or used those [environmentally friendly] straws. Those only just came in and the movement is going to grow bigger. Physical wellness has come and won people’s hearts. Now it’s moved onto the brain: knowing what is good and facing problems. A lot of people have sleep problems, depression, stress, and I think this is the year that we’re going to talk more openly about these things and to seek help.

And then, food and diet. Food science and food substitutes such as Impossible burger or Beyond meat. I found out I was lactose intolerant through my DNA test, which explained why I felt discomfort when I ate dairy products. Cutting it down helps, but Oatly, or oat milk, is something that will blow up even bigger this year. Even the biggest brands such as Vitasoy, they also have their own version. There are obviously lactose-free protein shakes, vegan protein bars, and these are the types of things that are revolutionising the current fitness and wellness industry in providing more options.

A lot more athletes now are also vegan and they talk about how they can obtain more protein — that will also be a bigger topic at IRIS this year.

What would you say to someone who doesn’t typically think exercise or healthy eating can be enjoyable?

t’s funny, we are working with LKF Group, to try and emphasise the whole idea of “Retox/Detox.” It’s important to first of all find a reason for you to go. Humans, especially humans living in Hong Kong, don’t see a problem unless they have the problem. Prevention really isn’t the trend here. As an example, unless we say the fish (that eats the plastic that you use every day) will cause cancer; not until the facts are thrown in our face, will you stop eating fish.

If you are even in the slightest bit conscious of your health — do a health check, see where you are. If you learn that you’re unhealthy, you’ll do everything you can to change that to your optimal level.

Evelyn Lok
Managing Editor
When not trying out the latest beauty and wellness trends, Evelyn is likely enjoying a perfectly balanced negroni or exploring some of Hong Kong's best new places to eat and drink. At Lifestyle Asia she covers everything from the biggest events in town to interviews with Hong Kong specialists, with topics spanning art, food and drink, health, tech, and travel.