The highs of Loh
Christine Loh has never feared risk
Christine Loh Kung-wai, widely tipped to figure in the next generation of Hong Kong’s senior leaders, describes herself as a risk taker – someone who is not frightened to take a leap of faith in her career and see where it leads. A degree in law at the outset – even though she never became a practising lawyer – helped provide the necessary groundwork for her life as both a legislator and now as a policy adviser as the Undersecretary for the Environment in Hong Kong. A decision to learn Putonghua in the early years of China opening up also provided her with a unique opportunity.
“What’s special about working in government is that we have a lot of briefings as our portfolios are very large,” says the 57-year-old. “Apart from internal meetings within the government, we also have meetings outside and spend a lot of time with legislators. Today, I’m not going to Legco. But I think the life of a political appointee in government is that we spend a fair amount of time with legislators.”
Just as well, then, that she was a legislator for nine years, and has seen the political world from both sides.
Loh’s legal and business background has also provided a solid foundation for her work in public service, as legislator, at the helm of her think tank, Civic Exchange, and in her current role as a political appointee. She was named Woman of the Year for 2006 by Hong Kong Business and has also been awarded an OBE.
The daughter of a Shanghai cotton trader and a Cantonese beautician, Loh grew up in Causeway Bay and Happy Valley. She laughs when she acknowledges that she’s lived on Hong Kong Island her whole life.
“My mother was a famous beautician, always extremely well dressed and beautifully made up. She was the manageress of Lane Crawford’s cosmetics and perfumery department. She was known as a very dishy lady. For years she told me, ‘Don’t ever go out not properly dressed.’ She was a particularly well-presented person. So were her sisters – my aunts. They were apparitions of beauty. Every time they wafted anywhere, they looked fantastic. It was a different generation. We’re just much more casual. My mum and her sisters were also all working ladies, so I took it for granted that women had jobs.”
Loh’s stepfather, now retired, was an interior designer from Denmark. “He’s great with his hands and gave me a passion for the arts. There were always tons of art books lying around.”
Unusually for Chinese parents, Loh’s were fairly relaxed about her academic prowess. She describes herself as a lazy child, lacking in direction at a time when some of her peers already had a distinct idea of what career path they would follow. “I wasn’t a particularly well-directed child. My parents were very tolerant. My two Chinese parents were very un-Chinese. They didn’t crack the whip. I think I was quite unusual among many of my friends to not have experienced exam pressure.”
But she had decided that she wanted to study law, and while she has never practised it, her knowledge of how to read bills and other legal documents has been of enormous use throughout her varying career paths. But, rather sensibly as a teenager, she wanted to check that she liked law before committing years of study to it, so after she left school she had a gap year working for Johnson Stokes & Master – one of Asia’s oldest and largest law firms, which was combined into Mayer Brown in 2008.
After university, she took her first big risk. It was 1980 and China was at the very early stages of opening up. Loh, rather fortuitously, had taken a course in Putonghua at a time few were studying it in Hong Kong, she says. She wasn’t fluent, but, based on her Putonghua, was offered a job in Beijing.
“I had an offer to go to Beijing to work for American commodities company Philipp Brothers,” she says. “I went there in 1980 when I was in my early 20s and when China was just opening up. They offered me the job because I had learned some Putonghua. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do commodities trading – but I wanted to be in China. It was an unusual path.”
She worked as a “girl Friday” in non-ferrous metals, such as aluminium, copper and tin. Seven years later, she was managing director. Loh would work as a commodities trader for 12 years and held top regional posts for both Philipp Brothers and Phibro Energy before joining Hong Kong company CIM.
Then came the next risk as Loh moved from a successful business career into politics. Fortunately, her career to that point had given her a financial cushion, as her legislator’s salary was somewhat lower.
Loh spent nine years as a legislator and could easily have won and stayed on. In fact, friends thought she was mad to step away from her political career to co-found the non-governmental organisation and think tank Civic Exchange with Lisa Hopkinson to look at issues of the environment and policy. “Friends thought I was crazy. They said I could easily win again. They said, ‘No one’s going to pay you to think!’ But still I went into the thinking business,” she says.
Since then, Civic Exchange has become a respected think tank on environmental issues such as waste and air pollution.
Loh is also the mother of an eight-year-old daughter via a surrogate mother, but prefers not to talk about her private life.
Due to her work in the Legislative Council and with Civic Exchange, Loh’s knowledge of environmental issues and policy is comprehensive, which is why Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying invited her to join the government with Wong Kam-sing, secretary for the environment.
“I think I know the subject. So as far as the subject is concerned, it is not strange,” she says. “You are making decisions that are policy-related. You are making decisions that have an impact on Hong Kong as a whole. Unless you are in government, you can’t have that extensive impact. So that is one of the reasons I was willing to join the government because I have spent a lot of time pointing the finger.
“Political appointees are there for shorter terms. I’m here at the chief executive’s pleasure. I’ll stay here in my post for the term. That’s the time frame I’m looking at. When I leave, I’ll think about something else interesting to do. When I leave, I’ll be in my early 60s, and the world is my oyster.”
Risk Taker "If there's one pattern of behaviour I see in myself it's that I'm a risk taker. I've taken big risks like learning Putonghua, going to Beijing and starting up Civic Exchange."
Pioneer "I was one of the few women in commodities trading in the '80s. I realised then that I didn't have to do what the men did. They moved around in a pack, but I didn't have to go drinking with them. I was in a business where you're judged on results."
Communicator "For political appointees, if you're not comfortable with people, you are at a disadvantage, as you have to go out and meet all sorts of people."