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Seizing Opportunities Beyond Hong Kong's Shores: President Ir Joseph Choi

Published on Thursday, 11 Aug 2016

Remember the days when nobody wore a safety helmet on a construction site and anybody could walk in because there was no access barrier? New HKIE President Ir Joseph Choi certainly does, because it was his encounters with construction sites as a child that triggered his interest in the industry.

"My father was in the construction business and he often took me with him when he went on site," Ir Choi recalled. "I was only ten or so then, but there was no restriction on children entering construction sites in the 1950s. I would listen to their conversations and watch what was going on."

The exposure was enough to steer Ir Choi towards a career in the construction industry. When he was old enough to apply to study in a university, he wanted originally to train as an architect. But being impatient to enter the working world he ultimately decided to study engineering instead as the course would take only three years compared to architecture's five. Ir Choi graduated with a BSc in civil engineering from the University of Aston in Birmingham, UK. 

Ir Choi learnt the importance of initiative early. He got a job with a contractor to work on the extension of the M6 motorway in the UK after graduation in the 1960s and discovered that he was expected to work independently from day one.

"I reported to the site agent and he took me to the senior site engineer, who gave me a pile of drawings, contracts, a theodolite, a level and the key to a Land Rover then pointed north and said: This is the ten miles you're responsible for, now go. After completing the surveying I had to supervise the construction as well. It was my first job but I was expected to know how to do the setting-out and handle the technical issues and sub-contractor management."

Memorable projects

During his long career three projects were particularly imprinted in his memory. The first was the construction of Hong Kong's first container terminal, a project that kickstarted the development of Kwai Chung into a key economic driver for the city. The second project involved the reconstruction of Po Shan Road/Kotewall Road following the catastrophic landslide that occurred in June 1972 following heavy rain. 

The third project that left a deep impression on Ir Choi is the construction of the Lok Ma Chau Spur Line. In response to environmental concerns, the alignment of the project was changed from viaducts to tunnels through the important wetland areas of Mai Po.

According to requirements laid down by the Environmental Protection Department for the environmental protection zone, Kowloon–Canton Railway Corporation (KCRC) must provide compensatory amenities first before removing anything ecologically sensitive. 

"Usually only a few dozen blackface spoonbills came to Hong Kong every year; most of them went to Taiwan. But after we introduced the extra fish stock, overnight the bird watchers in Taiwan reported that they had disappeared from the wetlands there; most of them had come to Hong Kong instead," Ir Choi said proudly. "The bird count in Mai Po has been increasing year after year. There were also species observed that had never come before. My message is: engineering can have a negative impact on the environment, but it doesn't mean we can't do something to protect an environment as well or even enhance it."

Taking the long view

All these experiences have given Ir Choi a unique perspective on the opportunities on offer from the national government's 'Belt and Road' initiative and the ability of Hong Kong professionals to capitalise on them. 'Belt and Road' will provide opportunities for all Hong Kong professionals, not just engineers," he emphasised. "We're talking about all kinds of projects, not just infrastructure. We have the qualified professionals and our international exposure over the past few decades will enable us to lend our expertise to these projects."

Given the long-term prospects afforded by this initiative, Ir Choi also urged young engineers and aspiring engineers to work hard and broaden their horizons. 

"The world's moving fast, to stay competitive our young engineers must keep abreast of developments not just in Hong Kong but around the world or risk falling behind," Ir Choi said. "I'm on the advisory committee of PolyU's Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering and I notice that most of the postgraduates are Mainland students. They understand the importance of keeping abreast with what's going on in the outside world and our young people must do the same."

The importance of this Mainland initiative has prompted Ir Choi to adopt as the theme of his presidency:

"Our Five O's: One Institution‧One Profession‧One Great Future‧One Belt‧One Road"

「五個我們的:一個學會一個專業‧ 一個未來‧ 一帶‧一路」

Ir Choi joined the HKIE Civil Division in 1998, becoming its Chairman and later Discipline Representative on the Council, eventually being elected as one of the Vice Presidents. Currently he is also vice chairman of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade. 

His commitments have taken him all over the world, from summits in Europe and Africa to projects in Southeast Asia. He has also visited Brazil at the invitation of the Chinese ambassador to that country, to explore opportunities for supporting the Brazilian and Peruvian governments in pushing forward with the 5,000 km transcontinental railway project connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

By Angela TAM

Source: The HKIE's monthly Journal- Hong Kong Engineer July 2016 issue

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