Gluten-free grieving: A last lunch at Hong Kong’s ‘Life’ with founder Bobsy Gaia

You’ve probably heard the sad news by now that SoHo’s legendary organic eatery Life took its last breath on Saturday.

High rent (shocker!) was the undertaker, with the city’s health food nuts already having said their tearful goodbyes to Life’s sister branches in Wan Chai and Discovery Bay.

Coconuts headed down to Shelley Street for one last lunch with original founder Bobsy Gaia a Friday.

Sporting a symbolic white carnation, which he said was to mark the passing of time, Gaia recalled his fond memories of running the revolutionary establishment, all the while savouring the staple Life Salad for “old time’s sake”.

Pre-Life, Gaia founded former “hipster hangout” Bookworm Café on Lamma Island in 1997, but says he always hated the name. “Names are important to me,” he told us.

That’s why the name of his second establishment “Life”– a tribute to his buddy’s business in New York – mattered so much.

But location was also key. Coming up against fierce competition, Gaia was lucky to nab the prime spot right by the escalators on Shelley Street. He even claims that Vivienne Westwood herself approached him on the street one day, recognising him as the ginger dreaded dealer who beat her to it. Quite a claim to fame!

Then came the need to get the word out. In the weeks leading up to Life’s official opening, Gaia hung a three-storey banner from the roof of the building reading:

“Finally! An organic health café in Hong Kong.”

He claims SoHo’s workers, who queued out of the door when the cafe first opened, breathed a sigh of relief.

Life subsequently introduced a number of novel concepts to the Hong Kong dining scene, including gluten-free food, quinoa (people couldn’t pronounce it back then) and raw desserts.

At one point (clearly pre-Tinder), Life was also where guys came to pick up girls, Gaia boasted, as his clientele was remarkably female-heavy. “I had so many more guy friends suddenly,” he joked.

The restaurant was even a hot spot for stargazing. Gaia remembers spotting Sting across the room one day, hiding under a hat so as to keep a low profile. Andre 3000 apparently also frequently stopped by for the odd tofu wrap when in town.

Spontaneous events were what really kept Life alive though. Gaia remembers pushing two tables together on the third floor to create a stage for a famous Indian Guru, who made an impromptu speech to guests queuing down the stairs and onto the street.

On random Sundays, Gaia would also turn the third floor into a bustling farmers market.

As Hongkongers continue to obsess about #CleanEating, Life’s legacy will no doubt live on. Thanks to the city’s unhealthy rental inflation, however, an institution has died a bitter death. 

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