Block Kong is a series of interviews with blockchain-related entrepreneurs and financiers in Hong Kong, brought to you by Charles D’Haussy.
There are three rules for my Block Kong Breakfast guests: the guest chooses the venue, the venue can be any place other than a hotel, and I pay.
If nothing else, I am becoming an authority on wonderful places to eat throughout Hong Kong. And I’m learning a bit about blockchain, which a nice side benefit.
With certain guests, I have a high expectation. Not of price or fanciness, but of sourcing local places that I would otherwise never visit. Leonhard Weese does not disappoint.
Apropos of a cryptocurrency enthusiast, Leo shares with me the address of a canteen via Telegram whose name translates as Nam Wah Teahouse. It is in Sham Shui Po.
I must confess that I know nothing of Sham Shui Po other than a few visits to its legendary computer center. Yet it is one of the few neighborhoods in urban Hong Kong that has retained much of its original character.
Sham Shui Po is home to many small-scale industrialists, the kind of shops that still produce buttons and leather goods. Nearby, where the city grid meets the hills, are the first public housing estates built by the government in the 1950s, in the wake of a terrible fire.
I pass by the hipster coffee shops that tell me this neighborhood is embracing the present without forgetting the past. It feels good to visit a place early enough to enjoy it without the crowds. The shops are just opening, slowly, and the local residents are taking their time.
Like a cliché, I am late. French fashion?
The restaurant is hidden behind a wall of temporary street stalls. Leo Weese is there, waiting for me. I ask him why he chose this place, this neighborhood.
“This café illustrates how markets evolve,” he says. “Tea is a Chinese thing. The British added milk. Hongkongers added a shot of coffee.”
And voilà, it arrives, the famous Yuenyeung drink: three parts coffee, seven parts lai chai (Hong Kong-style milk tea). Served in classic Black-&-White branded cups.
A few sips in, I feel local.
Weese is president of the Bitcoin Association of Hong Kong and a key figure in the city’s crypto community. He was born in Italy but grew up speaking German. He encountered bitcoin in 2011, when BTC was at US$1. He watched it grow to $30…and collapse.
In 2012, while studying statistics in Hong Kong, he learned how Bitcoin works and why its mysterious inventor(s) brought it into existence. Then he had what he describes a “mindblowing” experience of purchasing his first bitcoin on the Mt. Gox exchange and sending it freely across borders.
I signal to the staff I’m ready to order. Weese helps with a confident Cantonese. The restaurant’s servers are super friendly. Maybe it’s just my second cup of Yuenyeung, but I have the feeling that Sham Shui Po people are awesome.
Weese is a crypto security consultant, but our conversation turns to history. Again, perhaps it’s the buzz of the Yuenyeung, but I think it’s actually the buzz of Weese taking me through the fascinating story of bitcoin in Hong Kong. He was there. For all of it…
…except the very first bitcoin meetup, on July 25, 2012. Kristin Low, a bitcoin enthusiast, organized it at Red Bar on the podium of IFC Mall (it’s now a Shake Shack). In the shadow of the world’s mighty financial institutions, who had no clue what is brewing, the meetup attracted…two people. Afterward, Weese contacted Low, who was too busy to organize the next meetup and suggested Weese take over.
As Weese recalls these origins, it becomes like the casting of a Hollywood blockbuster with all of the stars. Over the years, these people will cross-fertilize the city’s crypto universe. Let us try to reverse-engineer this Merkle tree of a story.
- January 27, 2013: Weese organizes the second bitcoin meetup, also at Red. BTC/USD doubles to $15.50, attendees quadruple to eight.
- April 16, 2013: Third meetup sees 26 attendees to observe a bitcoin wallet demo. Beers sold at 0.008BTC, or $86 (HK$670) at today’s exchange rate.
- August 2013: Organized by a rep from Kansai Bitcoin, Japan. First appearance by Ken Lo, who two months earlier had founded Asia Nexgen Exchange, or ANX.
- October 2013: Organized by a bitcoin enthusiast from Beijing, this meetup attracts Jean Louis Van Der Velde from what is now Bitfinex, Aurelian Menant from Gatecoin and Ben Delo of BitMex – many of the actors in the emerging scene.
- November 9, 2013: This time a dinner, organized by Rui Ma, who at that time was partner at 500 Startups, the mega-fund for angel and seed-stage investments. It is the beginning of VC interest.
- November 18, 2013: Organized by Kyle Drake of CoinPunk, a DIY wallet solution.
- November 24, 2013: The meetup upgrades to a “Satoshi Square”, part of a global grassroots movement among bitcoiners interested in buying and selling crypto. Up to 34 attendees.
- December 1, 2013: Bitcoin is attracting attention from government figures. Hong Kong’s then financial secretary, John Tsang, makes his first mention in a blog post. He explains how Bitcoin works and warns people of its volatile nature and lack of a government or issuing body.
- February 14, 2014: Disaster! Mt Gox, the crypto exchange in Japan, is hacked and shut down. Now the bitcoin meetups change in tone, from hobbyists to lobbyists.
- March 1, 2014: Weese, Jehan Chu and Anson Zeall organize Rise: Bitcoin Fest. Perhaps it was the Beijing-style street food or the artisanal coffee, but up to 80 people attend. Chu discusses bitcoin payments for real life, Weese discusses safety, and Zeall, then with Coinpip, talks about merchant acceptance. Coindesk covers the event. Meetup members discuss a charter, in order to incorporate a Bitcoin Association.
- June 24, 2014: The Inside Bitcoin Conference attracts regional and global bigwigs in the crypto space: Bobby Lee of BTC China; Vitalik Buterin, the co-inventor of Ethereum; Leon Li, the CEO of Huobi exchange; Xu Mingxing, the CEO of OKCoin; and Brendan Blumer of ii5 Ventures, which will become Block.one and the creator of EOS.
- December 4, 2014: Hong Kong’s Legislative Council discusses Bitcoin. John Tsang defines it as “a commodity generated in the cyber world” that is “neither electronic money nor a stored-value payment facility”.
- 2015: Pindar Wong, a Hong Kong internet pioneer, organizes an event, Scaling Bitcoin, where the Bitcoin Lightning Network is first introduced to Hongkongers, while Buterin becomes a regular at meetups. Weese is becoming skeptical, though. Too many people are using meetups to hustle for money. With no VCs yet involved, the meetup community has become the go-to for pre-sales of projects, many of which are of dubious value.
- February 21, 2016: Bitcoin miners and core developers from around the world organize a private forum at Cyberport, courtesy of the Bitcoin Association. Names such as developer Johnson Lau, Samson Mow of Blockstream and Star Xu of OKCoin, and many more. These diverse players forge a compact that has since become known as the Hong Kong Agreement. Basically, it’s technical, but it created a deal to add capacity to the protocol’s consensus mechanism by forking the Bitcoin protocol. A lot of those agreements won’t pan out. But it’s a cool meeting.
- 2016: BTC=$800! Yay! Then the DAO is created, an attempt to use Ethereum smart contracts to raise funding, and hacked. But investors now flock to initial coin offerings, creating the makings of a…
- 2017: Crazy bull market! Which by now Weese has decided is a major nuisance. The Association formally submits articles of incorporation to become a non-profit entity, symbolically registered on October 31, the day Satoshi Nakamoto published the bitcoin whitepaper in 2008.
By now the number of blockchain entrepreneurs joining Bitcoin Association meetups mushrooms to include Daniel Larimer, EOS; Tim Swanson (then R3); Ken Lo, Hugh Madden and Dave Chapman from ANX/OSL (now BC Group); Dan Oprey of Digital Asset (then at Hyperledger); Marco Streng, Genesis Mining; Charles Hoskinson, Cardano; Roger Ver, Guo Hongcai and Simon Dixon, investors; John Lilic and Juan Llanos of ConsenSys (before I joined!); Zhao Chengpeng, aka Binance’s “CZ”; Larry Salibra, Blockstack; Alex Liu, MaiCoin Taiwan; Arthur Hayes, BitMex; Ron Hose, Coins.ph; Antony Lewis of itBit (now R3), Adam Back, Blockstream; and Jared Tate, Digibyte.
October, 2019: Weese will hand over the presidency of the Bitcoin Association. In an industry known for scams and hype, Weese stands out for, as he puts it, “The reputation you earn is for not screwing people after five years in crypto.”
In that time, Hong Kong has seen 250 meetups of all kinds. The bitcoin community here has grown organically, bringing together talented and visionary entrepreneurs from across the blockchain space.
I am dizzy with Yuenyeung but most of all with the incredible history that Weese has described. Cryptocurrencies have come so far. Alas, I pay for our breakfast with cash.
Nam Wah Teahouse
- G/F, 87 Kweilin Street, Sham Shui Po
- Breakfast set, x2
- Extra Yuenyeung, x1
- Total: HK$105 ($13.46)
- Paid in cash