A Brief and Subjective History of the Hong Kong Branch of The Nautical Institute
(as told by Alan Loynd)
It is impossible to do justice to almost half a century of the various people and events which have brought the Hong Kong Branch to this point, so what follows is a very subjective account of the things which I thought were interesting.
We should first admit that the Branch is not quite 50 years old, because we took our first steps in 1984, several years after the Nautical Institute was founded in the UK.
In Hong Kong, an exploratory meeting was held at the Merchant Service Club on 28th November 1984 and forming a branch must have seemed like a good idea because less than one week later our first committee meeting was held in the boardroom of Indo-China Steam Navigation Co. They called it a committee meeting, which it was not because we did not yet have a committee, but one was promptly elected. The first Hon. Chairman was GA Marchant, a Director of Indo-China Steam Navigation (also known as Jardines in shipping circles, of course), and the first Hon. Secretary was Norman Lopez, Senior Lecturer at the Hong Kong Polytechnic. Hon. Treasurer was NJ Lane, Operations Manager at Indochina, and the final office-bearer was Rick Kent of Marine Department, who oversaw public relations.
I cannot help noticing that there were no Swire people on the committee, which perhaps says a great deal about the legendary rivalry between Swires and Jardines. Older members may recall that in those days you either worked for Swires or Jardines or you belonged to one of the ‘outside companies’, and as far as I can tell neither Swire nor the outside companies were represented.
The first committee rather nobly announced that they would hold office only until the first AGM in May 1985, at which time members would elect a committee of their choice. Naturally, they were all re-elected because then, as now, it seems members were quite happy for other people to do the hard work.
These days the branch spends far too much time dealing with our registration under the Societies Ordinance, which is a particularly arcane piece of local legislation. Our predecessors were no different, and one of the first acts of the new Branch committee was to register themselves under the Societies Ordinance on 6th December 1984. Shortly afterwards they announced themselves to headquarters and received a letter from the President welcoming them to the NI fold. The President pointed out that there were 160 NI members in the area, making Hong Kong the largest branch outside the United Kingdom.
The first public meeting was held on 22nd January 1985, to introduce the NI to local shipping people.
One controversial item which generated much discussion was the level of membership fees and the qualifications which were accepted for membership. The Hon. Chairman undertook to discuss these with headquarters during a forthcoming visit to London. I doubt if he enjoyed much success, because the topic kept popping back up until well after the turn of the century. I remember people like Eric Edmondson arguing that shipping was changing, and we had to set fees and qualifications at a realistic level to attract members from the newer shipping nations. Today, I am happy to say we have embraced professional mariners from around the world, but there was a time when the Nautical Institute was seen as Eurocentric and dismissive of seafarers from the developing countries. Perhaps we can take pride in the fact that the Hong Kong Branch was vocal on the topic from its earliest days.
Moving on, by May 1985 the meetings adopted the format we recognise today. The first topic to be discussed was the proposed Hong Kong Shipping Register, and the meeting was attended by the Chairman of the HK Shipowners Association. It seems to have been a lively session which threatened to go on all night, but eventually the attendees succumbed to hunger and thirst and decamped to a local watering hole. Some things never change!
The Hong Kong register is now the world’s fourth largest by tonnage, and I doubt anyone in this room would think it should not have been established, but opinions at the time were divided and both sides argued with great passion.
The June 1985 meeting saw a presentation by Samar Singh of HK Polytechnic, where he talked about future maritime training. He was sure that integrated, highly complex bridge systems were about to descend upon us and argued there was a need to standarise all controls, knobs, bells and whistles. It seems a shame that, almost fifty years later, David Patraiko has spent so much of his time on the same topic. At the time, Captain Bromfield responded to the talk with great authority, by affirming that ‘despite the speaker regarding micro-computers on board as inevitable, mariners will give them short shrift’. If I recall correctly, this glorious quote is from the head of the Department of Maritime Studies at HK Polytechnic. I must admit that, at the time, I would probably have agreed with him.
I have spoken at some length about the first six months of the Branch in Hong Kong, but before we move on it is worth remembering that the world fleet at the time totalled about 700 million tonnes DWT, whereas today it is close to 2 billion tonnes. In addition, it will not have escaped your notice that the first committee were almost all British and there were no women involved. That seems shocking today but is probably an accurate reflection of Hong Kong shipping in the 1980s. It was not until 1980 that I even sailed with female officers, and that was on Swire’s passenger ship. Never accept the fallacy that there was prejudice against women at sea – the real reason they were not recruited was that ships in this part of the world were rather basic, and all junior officers shared a bathroom. Female officers first appeared on our passenger ship because there was one spare bathroom which could be reserved solely for female officers. The cargo ships did not enjoy such luxuries. So, it was not prejudice, it was plumbing!
In subsequent years the Branch established itself as a solid professional body in the minds of Hong Kong’s shipping fraternity. We attracted speakers of the stature of the late Dr. Stanley Ho, and our chairmen included such local worthies as Sir William Codrington, Bart. Membership did not increase as we had hoped, and eventually fell to around 100 members, but I think this reflects changes in the industry rather than any failure on our part.
We continued our efforts to make the Nautical Institute more international in outlook, and you only must consider the list of branches inside the back cover of Seaways to see how successful the Nautical Institute has become as a global body. However, we struggled to attract more local members in the face of competition from bodies such as the Institute of Sea Transport, which was seen as being more appropriate for Hong Kong people. That has not changed, and it is sad that out of around 100 harbour pilots in Hong Kong only a handful are NI members.
Strangely, they were all members when the Pilots Association paid the dues for them! We also struggled to attract more women as members, although Petty Leung is probably the most respected member of the Branch committee, and we all celebrated when Carmen Chan became Hong Kong’s first female master mariner. Organisations such as WISTA and the Young Shipping Professionals might appear more modern and attractive to female shipping people, and we work very well with those organisations, but we do not seem to be capable of attracting more women to the Branch.
We had a difficult period in the years leading up to the handover. This was not political but centred around a particularly disruptive committee member. Fortunately, Eric Edmondson was elected Hon. Chairman at the time, and managed to steady the ship. It was under Eric’s careful leadership that we held the first of our full-day seminars for members of the industry in Hong Kong. It was a great success, and we raised enough money to fund Branch activities for the next two years, including free food and drink at our functions. It is a model which we still use, and our biennial seminars are our best-attended and most high-profile events.
The obvious place for us to hold our meetings was the Mariners Club in Tsim Sha Tsui, which would have been visible across the harbour from this room if it had not been knocked down recently. Sadly, most shipping companies had their offices on Hong Kong side, so persuading people to cross the harbour proved impossible. Consequently, we met for many years at the Police Officers Club, just down the road from here, until that, too, was demolished. We also conducted several of our biennial seminars aboard cruise ships at Ocean Terminal, and our friends at Star Cruises gave us very reasonable rates if delegates wished to stay aboard for the next cruise. COVID and the collapse of Genting Hong Kong put paid to that, but in the nick of time the Yacht Club opened new function rooms (where we are gathered today), and Café 8 opened on the roof of the Maritime Museum, so we still have access to spectacular venues. With the Police Officers Club and Mariners Club due to reopen, there is no reason why we should not be able to continue for another half century.
Visitors will have noticed there is no lack of diversity in the branch today, with committee members coming from at least half a dozen different countries, but Petty remains the only woman on the committee. This is something we would love to change, so if there are any volunteers, please make yourselves known to us.
Our very first committee had an office bearer responsible for public relations, but we have not had one since. Perhaps it is time for all branches to start publicizing themselves better.
In Hong Kong, much of the Nautical Institute’s reputation has been established by members volunteering to do other work to assist the industry. Members have been involved with the Pilotage Advisory Committee, Port Operations Board and the Hong Kong Shipowners Association. In addition, they regularly serve as Assessors on Marine Courts, and Marso Law runs a charity called MPPF. Assisted by Petty, Roger Tupper and several other members, Marso gives career talks in schools and raises money to assist trainees from poor families. One of his schemes, to make up the difference between what shipping companies were prepared to pay cadets and what Hong Kong graduates were paid ashore, was so successful it was taken over by the government and is still in place today. In addition, he attempts to match recent graduates with suitable employers, and even runs a course each year to prepare local maritime students for job interviews. In these ways, I believe the Hong Kong Branch has established a good reputation as a responsible and caring professional body.
But just when we seemed to be sailing smoothly, COVID struck, and Hong Kong went into one of the most strict lockdown periods anywhere. Through it all, the committee managed to hold together and continue to function and hold events online, if not in person. This seminar, we hope, marks the return to the new normal and we are already planning next year’s programme of face-to-face talks and events. It only remains for me to echo Aalok and say thank you for being here today and helping us celebrate both an anniversary and a return to business.
And what of the next 50 years? I have no idea, but perhaps our speakers today can give us some clues.
Finally, I looked around to see if anyone else in Hong Kong was celebrating their 50th Anniversary this year, and it transpires that 1972 was a good year for start-ups in the maritime sector. Both Modern Terminals Ltd and Hongkong United Dockyards were founded in the same year as the NI, but for various reasons could not attend our cocktail party this evening. That only left one organisation. Yes, the Miss Hong Kong beauty pageant is also 50 years old. I immediately suggested a joint cocktail party this evening to celebrate, but the organising committee threw me out. Half a century ago, I am sure they would have adopted my proposal unanimously, so we are making progress!