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An Offer I Couldn’t Refuse

‘Would you like to work for us in Hong Kong?’

Well? Would you? Will you? It was a question put to me many years ago. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. You see, I was working in Tokyo back then with my contract due to finish. I didn’t want to extend nor did I fancy returning to England, then came that question, lucky or what? Of course I said yes, who wouldn’t? Give me a year or two, I added, and I’ll come.The people asking, my lifeboat if you like, was actually a company I used to work for in UK and Africa. Two of their chaps were visiting my employer in Tokyo regarding a technical partnership, knew I was around and fortuitously paid me a visit. Poaching? Never mind. I was thrilled for two reasons. Firstly, I could stay in the Far East, a region I had quickly come to love. Secondly, I’d be re-joining a company who knew me well; it was one of those returning to a pair of well-loved, well-worn slippers scenarios. Also, more crucially, this neatly avoided the hassle of having to join a new firm and prove myself all over again, now that can be very tiresome; far easier to recycle me amongst previous acquaintances. And so I did, embarking on the adventure of a lifetime and, I hear you ask, what ever happened to my ‘give me a year or two’ caveat? You probably won’t be too surprised to learn that I ended up staying 12 years and it wasn’t all about having an enjoyable job, though I did. It was Hong Kong and its people that had gotten to me and this column is intended to fill you in on the hows and whys.

To be frank I was smitten within minutes of arrival having experienced that incredible, roof-skimming descent into Kai Tak Airport; talk about wacky, what a brilliantly insane but effective way of driving an enormous 747 directly into the heart of a major world city – still have trouble getting my head around that! The next day however proved even better when the engineer I was replacing took me on an introductory whirlwind tour of the city, you can imagine the sort of thing: a sedate ride on the cross-harbour ferry, up the Peak on its dizzying funicular, a circuit of the Happy Valley district viewed from upstairs on a tram and, to end the day, great food and beer at one of the city’s splendid pubs. He did a great job of selling Hong Kong, clearly not a very difficult task, but after the novelty had faded would it really live up to that hackneyed ‘East meets west’ moniker or even ‘The Pearl of the Orient’? I would soon find out, read on!

My job incidentally comprised a civil engineering secondment to a local power generation company. Based initially at the now defunct Tsing Yi Power Station in the New Territories I’d advise the bosses on how best to manage, repair or replace their ageing structures; and then set about organising whatever needed doing. My colleagues were a delightful bunch of Hong Kongers many of whom had received training within northern Britain’s heavy industry, they’d even visited parts of the UK that I hadn’t! It made communication so much simpler and, thankfully, we all generally thought the same way when it came to getting things done. East meets west? Tick!

Aside from workmates, I was also making a lot of friends in the hotel where the company had quite generously put me up, a rather opulent lifestyle you might think but what can you do? A job needed doing and complaining just isn’t in my nature. So I settled in nicely. Anyway, these hotel friends were employees of the establishment, many being students working the summer holiday. People often asked how could I live in a hotel, surely it’s very restrictive and how on earth do you get to live like a local let alone mix? A good point, nevertheless I thought it was okay and there existed one great positive which most quizzers had failed entirely to realise; and that, with some irony, is that it certainly had me mixing with the locals and probably much quicker too. You see, those working summer students favoured me with invitations to their homes, introduced me to quite a bit of Cantonese language and culture and even though now, 20-odd years later, most have achieved senior positions within business, the government or the police force, I am still inordinately proud to count them as friends. East meets west? Yes, another tick!

As both work and friends were coming along nicely it was time to get to know Hong Kong the place. Many folk think of Hong Kong at best, a shopping destination for the hopelessly deluded or at worst, a sprawling mass of unkempt humanity with a fair smattering of triad-dominated, no-go zones. Nothing could be further from the truth, though admittedly I can see why such conclusions are drawn.

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The truth is that here is such a diverse location, a single city comprising many facets. Actually it might be better to think of Hong Kong more as a county, roughly half the size of Nottinghamshire from where I hail, containing numerous towns, estates, villages and amenities. In fact it would not be in anyway misleading if I say that Hong Kong is more virgin countryside than multi-storied concrete, and I don’t say that fancifully. There’s some spectacular tracts of Country Park, home to a huge array of flora and fauna living cheek by jowl within a relatively small area. It might interest you to know that according to a recent BBC article ‘Hong Kong houses more types of bird, mammal, insect and plant than the whole of the British Isles’; not bad for a place which is over 220 times smaller! And I can bear testimony to this in part by reporting that of the three districts where I have lived or house-sat such things do vary considerably within a stretch of barely a few kilometres.

So, with all that in mind, we’re blessed with a diverse terrain comprising hills, mountains, wetlands, beaches and island all of which yield, yet another surprise for the casual visitor, a significant number of excellent hiking trails. Who would have thought it, hiking in Hong Kong? Not only that but one of our trails, the Dragon’s Back, is so highly rated by travel writers and adventure bloggers that it often appears in those popular ‘Top Ten Hikes in the World’ listings. Hong Kongers love it too, but then hiking is a favourite pastime here with many people taking happily to the hills; be it fitness, tree hugging, leisurely strolls or escaping the rigours of a more urban landscape, best foot forward. I did, and still do, for all those reasons and probably more, ‘my knapsack on my back’; but no singing, much to the relief of fellow walkers I’m sure, mountainside harmonies were never quite our forte!

I christened my boots here in 1992 by joining the Green Lantau Association, a prominent environmental organisation; some of the founding members of which I’m still hiking with today! With work colleagues however it was several undertakings of the charity trek Oxfam Trailwalker, an arduous 100 kilometre hike across the New Territories. Incidentally, although nowadays Trailwalker events exist in several countries, Hong Kong is where it all started, initiated by the formidable Gurkhas of the British army – who else? The main difference here is that many teams masochistically fly in from across the globe to compete; East meets west? Yes, yet another tick!

While were on an outdoors theme, another activity of which I became very fond was that of the dragon boat spectacle. You might not be here too long before someone invites to join a team; they’re all over the shop! Be it business, housing estate, club, institution, government department etc. there’s a place reserved for you. My initiation came through work which I thought was rather quaint. In the UK there’d be a work football or cricket team which you might like to join, in Hong Kong this translated culturally, and quite obviously once I’d gotten used to the idea, to a dragon boat crew – and why not too? You really can have a great time and it’s another of those events, particularly the international races, which draw some of the stronger overseas teams. Don’t fret about things like size, age, sex or fitness, although some teams take it quite seriously and practise for eternity, others do not; the main objective being to enjoy the water, the dragon and the festival atmosphere, and that’s all. For most, winning is less of an issue, if you see an opportunity please give it a try – you won’t regret it! The ability to swim would be an advantage however, just in case that heavenly dragon takes a dim view of the day’s efforts and rewards you with a little mischief.

If you’re not the outdoorsy type, and I wasn’t that much before coming here, then worry not; there’s plenty else to do. The city has a fine collection of museums, a thriving visual and performing arts scene and of course, legendary dining. Sightseeing is always a must and there’s nothing better than exploring the back streets along one of the many designated heritage trails. I’m a bit of an engineering and architecture buff so, armed with a simple map, getting stuck into those masonry nooks and crannies is something I really enjoy; from showy modern and elegant colonial to the historic vernacular, and there’s street art too. It’s a fascinating journey which highlights the growth of Hong Kong since the arrival of those other Brits in 1841.

Anyway, these are a few of the things which impressed me during my early years. Of course, you can go hiking in many places in the world as indeed you can paddle a dragon boat but what is so remarkable about Hong Kong is not only that you can do those things, but that you can do them with so much ease, thanks to a superb and affordable public transport system. The place is a very compact and self-contained region, for me an equivalent hike in Nottinghamshire would require hours of carefully planned travel whilst dragon boating, though decidedly easier to achieve, would be lacking those subtle ancient rituals and ceremonies which make it so Chinese. For me this is the essence of Hong Kong, others would probably choose different aspects to make the same point. The fact is there really is so much going on here it leaves me constantly amazed that even after 25 years I can still find something new to do! Pearl of the Orient? What do you think? Yes, tick!

Of course, this might be a slightly one-sided view and like many other cities Hong Kong suffers from overcrowding, traffic congestion, pollution, a housing shortage and a growing wealth gap to name but just a few of society’s modern-day ills. Pearl of the Orient? Not quite, could do better! But that’s for another article. Nevertheless, despite various problems Hong Kong is, with the obvious exception of Tokyo, the safest city I have ever experienced and there’s certainly a lot to be said for that.

Anyway, if somebody turns up at your office desk on a dank Monday afternoon to ask, ‘Would you like to work for us in Hong Kong?’ Well? What would you do?

Ben Zabulis

After graduating in 1982 Ben worked throughout the UK before an unlikely adventurous disposition led him to Nigeria, India, Japan and Hong Kong. Between each of those overseas assignments he had attempted repatriation with varying degrees of ‘success’; the last of which occurred in 2004 when he and his partner returned from Hong Kong for what they considered to be a permanent move, only to return to Hong Kong years later. The exotic misdemeanours inherent in that first expatriate period (1984-2004) together with various Asian sojourns and activities, contributed to a series of travel journal scribbles which eventually morphed in to the book Chartered Territory – An Engineer Abroad.

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