Looking back at Marco Polo Project

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. It started as a digital platform for collaborative translation of new Chinese writing, then pivoted towards workshop design, to support people who negotiate hybrid identities across languages and cultures. I handed Marco Polo Project over to a new CEO in 2019, hoping to see the organisation thrive. COVID put a spanner in the wheels.

We speak a lot about learning from failure. Yet in all the forums I have been to, failures are only shared if they can be reframed instantly as ‘actually a success’. I would like to take a different path in those reflections, and explore what we tried to achieve, where we succeeded, and where we didn’t. Where we made errors of judgement, let ourselves be carried away, or underestimated obstacles.

When I started writing this series, Marco Polo Project was on the verge of closing down. An unexpected grant from the City of Melbourne gave us a new lease on life. We were not able to deliver but redirected the funds to our long-term partner transcollaborate.

For now, the organisation is on ice, but not dead yet. I hope, by taking time to reflect on where we struggled and failed, to create conditions where we might eventually return to active life. Or at least, gain a little more clarity on what we’ve been trying to do all this time.

Looking back on my 35 year-old self – #1

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion. 

14 december

Three years ago, I left Hong Kong for Melbourne, at the end of a three-week scholarship in Tianjin that was going to profoundly change my life. In Tianjin, during a night of insomnia, I dreamt of building a website inviting learners to collaborate on the translation of new writing from China. Many details were clear in my mind’s eye – not the design, but the navigation, the shape of the community, who would come, what they would be able to do. I took a notebook in the dark, so that I wouldn’t wake up my roommate, and wrote the details in it.

Three years ago, Marco Polo Project was just a name and an idea. Now it’s my profession.

Why is this the first thing that came to mind when I decided to write this piece? I wasn’t starting with my professional career in mind. It’s 17 days to the end of the year, and I wanted to launch a project: every day, write a short reflexive piece about myself – where I’m going, where I’ve been. I’m hoping to gain some insight and energy from these reflections. I just read through the front pages of my five-year diary. I was full of confidence last year – I had become a social entrepreneur, I was being recognized as an expert on China, I made contacts, I raised three thousand dollars on pozible. I’m objectively further ahead this year – I got thirty eight thousand dollars in grants, I’m organizing an international literature festival and taking a delegation of social entrepreneurs to China – hey, I’m doing well. But, strangely, my confidence is much lower than it was last year.

Last year, I was accepted in established worlds. Last year, in 2012 – that’s almost two years ago now – my contact with the Department of Primary Industries was finishing, and I was over the moon at the prospect of, maybe, working as a communications person for Philip Kingston. I’ve got many contacts with him now – and with other, equally important people – Rick Chen, Liu Yan. If everything else failed, I could probably work for them, and it would be much better. So why am I feeling this way, as if I had wasted my time – why the doubt? Professionally, I am in a better position to get a great job now than I was two years ago.

Or am I? I got older. I’m not in my twenties anymore, and I’m heading towards forty. These two years were a burst of youth – trying things and taking risks – but hey – I can’t start over forever. I’m turning thirty-six – I’m twice eighteen in less than a month. Twice eighteen. That sense of doubt may be the cycle starting again. Twice eighteen, four times nine. Where was I at twenty-seven? I broke up with my five-year partner. At eighteen – I left the town where I grew up. What major change will happen in my thirty sixth year? What stable aspect of my life will shift? These two major changes I could foresee – but I don’t really know which one will come next.

I didn’t use to fear aging. I don’t think I do yet. But I have financial anxieties. What about my retirement? What if I can’t ever have a proper income? What if I am suddenly sick? I’m also worried for my health. My strange toenail fungus. My bizarre dizzy spells of the last week. But then I’ve always had health anxieties, and none of them were ever founded.

I think what I want is to find a road ahead. When I arrived in Australia, almost five years ago, everything was a ‘to do’ – make friends, discover my environment, become proficient in English, find a way to get income. I did all that – so what comes next? The moment I became a citizen, I fled the country for China. But I’m back in a month. What then? What’s my second Australian five-year plan?


What projects have I not yet brought to life, that I carried with me, and started:

  • a documentary film about ghosts
  • a photographic journey through suburban church architecture
  • a series of reflexive interviews with sellers of religious object
  • the Lesbian sequel of Honey Pot

What old projects are still in me that I might revive?

  • collective nouns in English and Chinese
  • the copy-shop – memories of Paris in the naughties
  • Saint Just
  • Voyage aux Antipodes et considerations sur la revolution francaise – a French-Australian moralist

What is coming over the horizon, that I didn’t anticipate five years ago

  • African connections
  • Social enterprise and international third sector partnerships
  • China seen by the Chinese – Chinese diversity
  • Chinese mental health and well-being.

The most important, maybe, to acknowledge, is that not everybody carries a list of twelve projects in their head, that they would really like to bring to life. If I’m feeling tired – that may be normal. But I should think of these – I do want to bring as many of them as I can to life – and for that, I need energy, joy – health will help – balance and focus. So no more anxious hesitation! I don’t know what I’ll bring to life in 2014, but something will happen. And if Marco Polo collapses, if other projects collapse – I have more to do.

I’ll be alright – mate.

On success

It’s early July, 1998, and I’m standing with my classmates in the hall of Ecole Normale Superieure at 35 Boulevard Jourdan, in the 14th district of Paris. The glass walls look out onto a dreary garden, the weather is mild, and my heart is racing inside my rib cage. A tall woman arrives with white sheets of paper. She opens a glass pane, sticks up the paper, closes the glass, and walks away. We press forward, eager to look, stars twinkling in our eyes. I see my name, halfway down the left column of the left-hand page, the word ‘admitted’ at the top. I gasp. After two years of intense, competitive preparatory class, I will be joining the most prestigious college in my country. Four years of monthly payments ahead of me, and lifelong academic tenure after that. I can leave a dysfunctional family behind, and lead a life devoted to knowledge. Freedom, prestige, happiness. My stomach sinks in. I passed.

Fast forward five months, and I’m sitting on a park bench in Jardin du Luxembourg, flows of tears pouring from my eyes, lwailing – so much so that a couple stops and asks me if they can do something for me, gently patting my back. I thank them, and cry a bit more, less painfully now. I just received an ice-cold letter from my mother, I’ve been feeling friendless, idle, purposeless, for weeks. I’m in a deceitful relationship with a woman, knowledge brings me no solace, and life is pure darkness. There is no more exam to pass and tell me that I’m worth something.

That moment on the bench was a memorable low ebb. Things later did bounce back up. I found other battles to win. A year later, age 21, I was at trinity college, Dublin, teaching students older than me. At 24, I was on the (very junior) staff list of 700 year old Sorbonne. I wrote books and received rejections gracefully till I finally published something. I came out, found a cute boyfriend with matching pedigree – and lived with him in a cute apartment by the Pere Lachaise, ready to conquer Paris. I made friends, and discovered more of life. A few years and adventures later, I followed an Australian love to Melbourne, made new friends, bought a cute apartment, taught myself Chinese, shot a film, spoke in various forums, set up a china-focused NGO, and got a new scholarship for a second PhD.

Another bench story now. It’s 2015, and before starting the THNK program in Amsterdam, I sat on a bench in Westerpark, reflecting about my life. I felt a deep sense of contentment. I remember thinking ‘I have done exactly what I wanted, and I could die happy today.’ I listed my proud achievements in my head: published a book, made a film, learnt seven languages, travelled around the world, integrated in a new country. I even founded a charity. Most importantly, I made friends along the way, and when I fell in love, I had the guts and insight to recognise what happened, drop a situation in Paris, and re-think my life anew.

After the end of the second module, though, mid-2015, doubt came creeping in. It started with a game of Charlie’s Angels: we were all in a room together, and each invited to make one ask of the group,to help get forward with our key project. Anything was possible, but I realised I didn’t clearly know what I wanted, right then, or more broadly. And how could I ever succeed, if I don’t know what I want.

I used to say, half-jokingly: ‘I’m an ambitious guy, I’m aiming for a Nobel Prize in literature’. At other times, I’ve said I wanted to become a modern-day monk, selflessly devote myself to welfare, liberation and enlightenment. Yet when I look at these ambitions, I feel rather dejected, far from track. My only published book is a minor gay romantic comedy, my film an independent short, with minor YouTube success, my charity but an averagely executed, unsustainable digital nonprofit in perpetual beta mode – at most, it’s having some marginal impact on a few privileged children and adults. As for my current writing – well, I haven’t touched my latest novel project in over a week, and I haven’t published anything since 2008, or written anything publishable. I like saying that the whole system of literature and ideas has been turned upside down by the Internet, and that I’m desperately trying to catch up and engage with the new shape of that world – I do write stuff online, but does that even count? Or is it only lazy lies? Others seem to be doing so much better than me.

Guilt creeps in – with so much potential, how did I achieve so little? Did I make a terrible mistake to start again and leave for Australia? Was following love just a foolish, selfish thing to do? On better days, I think I’m building broad and deep foundations, and the edifice I have in my head is only just coming out of ground – but is that all pure delusion? I don’t have a clear master plan…

So, whether I’ve succeeded at anything is unclear – whether I’m heading for success, even less – but what about failure? I failed at many things. I lost friends, whether I offended them during a troubled younger age, or simply didn’t make an effort to keep our relationship alive. I did not manage to build close and healthy bonds with some of my family. I failed at defending a first PhD. I failed at getting other novels published. I failed at making my vision into something that would sustain me. Maybe, many times, I’ve only just missed the mark – and if I’d stuck with it just a bit longer, tried just a bit harder, who knows, I might be in a better situation now, others might be too.

At times, and disturbingly for a self-professed believer in austerity, I feel embarrassed financially. At 37, always a brilliant achiever by most accounts, I still have regular money worries. Two years ago, I only survived by renting out a room in my apartment – coffee out had become a luxury. Last year, I had to partly rely on my partner. And this year, I can only attend THNK because my father agreed to cover the fees. My half-brother is 22, he’s on his first internship with a trading bank in London, and makes more money a month than I’ve ever made in my life. Should I be proud I never sold off – happy that I managed to get-by all these years, not alienating myself to the market – or have I wasted good cards idiotically, living the parasitic life of a sterile dilettante, drip-fed from powders of family cash, distracted from a higher goal by dumb money troubles? But isn’t success about buying a Porsche, or a secondary residence on the seafront? At least I got some of that teaching.

Twelve years ago, I read a book by Gombrowicz called Ferdydurke. The narrator is a writer in his thirties, mocked and guilty for having achieved no clear position, identified no very clear vocation, past the age of thirty. At the time, my Sorbonne self had an ambiguous reaction. I remember thinking, ‘how could you be that way – I’m twenty-five, I’m settled in the world, and I know where I’m heading.’ At the same time, I felt envious of the freedom that such uncertainty would give – the stories and adventures made possible by such an unclear position. Now at thirty seven, I find myself much closer to that narrator, with no clear profession or ongoing source of income, unsure what success even is, mildly guilty that I might not have fulfilled whatever ‘my potential’ is or was. Wondering.

I suppose things are not all dark. I have, at least, retained a capacity to love and understand new things – I am still able to be moved by people I meet, form new friendships, let new people shape my inner self. If anything, I’ve become more capable of love, more capable of seeing beauty and worth around me than I was in 1998. Maybe this should count as success, nurturing one’s own capacity to change, even as achievements and failures add up. Maybe success is just an horizon that keeps on shifting – no more than a temporary prompt to get over the line – a mirage. Maybe success is writing this, and having a friend to share it with? Or maybe success only comes when we gracefully stop worrying about it?