It is a great privilege to be asked to reflect on Michael’s life. I guess I always knew that this day would come, but somehow, as Michael glided through 100, 101, 102, 103, 104 and 105, I never quite expected it.
His health and clarity of mind seemed undiminished with time. Indeed, whenever I called him or went to see him, I found it amusing when I would ask “How are you Michael” and he would respond “I am fine Stephen, though I am not as mobile as I used to be – old age is really catching up with me”.
At 105, with body and mind firmly in-tact, we must be satisfied and happy that each of us here have been part of his life lived long, his life lived well and his life lived with so much decency and integrity.
In reflecting on Michael’s life, you are pulled back through a century ofdramatic change and many calamitous events and moments.
I recall Michael telling me that when his grandmother was old, he spoke to her through an ear trumpet. His mother was alive for the duration of Queen Victoria’s reign. Michael was carried to school in a sedan chair. It took Michael five weeks to sail from Hong Kong to England to go to school in 1920.
Michael lived through the end of the Qing Dynasty and subsequently the Communist revolution in China and perhaps into the dynasty of President Xi.
Japan ended the Meiji period. Was our Allie, enemy and then our friend again.
Lenin ignited Russia with the Bolshevik revolution, killing of the Tsar and his family and setting the country on a course that would create Stalin, the Cold War and the Berlin Wall.
When Michael was born, the United States comprised of 47 states, assuming Alaska, Arizona, and New Mexico into the Union in 1912.
Europe, would be decimated by two World Wars before creating an economic and political union which was unimaginable at the start of the last century.
Michael lived through and endured the various cross currents of history. He witnessed absolute revolutions in technology, transportation, and medicine although he was never long on technology and thankfully didn’t need a lot of medicine. To talk to Michael, was to look back through a clear lens at over century of history.
Whilst Michael’s longevity and history are necessary to remembering him, they are by no means sufficient.
Interestingly, Michael would tell you that the hardest time in his life was when he went to boarding school, not the war. Shy, introverted and a self-proclaimed loner, Michael sorely missed the comfort of his family so far away in Hong Kong. He had this moment, when siting on the loo, he prayed, although he was by no means religious, that God would come down and assuage his loneliness. He re-doubled his efforts to make friends. Despite hating hockey, he made an effort to grapple with the sport and engage with his team mates. As Michael would tell you, despite being a hopeless athlete on the third team, he was ultimately given his colors for being a good team player and showing up consistently.
Michael would leave school and become and architect. He was by all accounts a very successful and hard-working-man. You can still see two of his creations around Hyde Park, Porchester Gate and Barry House along Bayswater Road. He was offered a lucrative partnership in 1938, at the age of only 26. Concerned with the unprofessional conduct of the other partner, Michael eschewed this opportunity and was drawn to an advertisement for work in Hong Kong with the Public Works Department. With the Japanese already in Manchuria extending their reach into China, there were few applicants for the role, so Michael finally found himself returning home after 18 years away. Given the substantive advances in fuel efficiency and engine speed he enjoyed a much shorter boat-ride of only four weeks.
I have often wondered what would have happened had he not read or seen the same advertisement and lived through the war in the European theater. Would he have survived Dunkirk, The Blitz, D-Day? Would any of us be here?
Of course, the Japanese would invade Hong Kong. On the eve of the invasion, Michael was at a party when all sailors were recalled to their ships. As part of the Hong Kong Reserves, Michael would return to his gun battery in Ap Lei Chau, overlooking the Lamma channel. At the time, the main thrust of the Japanese invasion was expected to come from the South, which would have put Michael firmly in the cross-hairs of the invading Japanese forces. As the bombs dropped, he lay in wait with a group of local Chinese, fully expecting to obey Churchill’s demand that Hong Kong “fight to the last man”.
When the British did surrender on December 25th 1941, Michael was marched with the other soldiers to Sham Shui Po, where he would spend the duration of the war. He came in with the clothes on this back and three books – Every Man by GK Chesterton, Churchill’s speeches and A Dream in the Luxembourg by Richard Alderidge.
He has recounted so many stories from his time in the camp. Needless-to-say life was not pleasant. Many, as he put it, “took to their beds, gave up the ghost and died”. Michael would tell you that he was at the right age to get through it and did not stand out to the volatile Japanese guards. Michael made sure he kept himself busy and his brain mentally active – studying Chinese by translating the local paper and reading. I remember many of his stories but perhaps one really stands out – he told me this one story of how a man was dying. A sympathetic guard had given Michael a small bottle of sake, which Michael shared with his friend, then shared with the guard before taking a sip himself.
Among the many discomforts of daily life in his camp was the lack of private facilities. The open air and public facilities left no privacy whatsoever. Using these very public facilities left Michael thinking about the condition of his common-man in Hong Kong and their own lack of privacy and dignity.
There was, for a moment a connection between Michael’s condition in this camp and the condition he saw so frequently in Hong Kong’s inadequate public housing. This sympathy for the condition of his common-man, despite his own duress, would be a catalyst for what would become the ‘Wright principle’ – the principle that all public accommodation in Hong Kong must have in-unit, private facilities.
As the war concluded, he was asked to stay on in Hong Kong to help rebuild the city’s infrastructure, so badly destroyed by the war. Whilst most expatriates returned home, Michael stayed and started to nurture Hong Kong back to life. The city that is so vibrant today had to be rebuilt and reconstituted after the war. Michael would go from a shared dormitory of the camp to a shared office where the HSBC building is today, and where my father would work many years later.
He told me this great story how his servant would follow him to work. Michael assured him that he needed no help and was quite fine, to which the servant responded “I don’t come to help you, I come to see the Japanese guards salute you”.
Michael would go on to become a legend in Hong Kong for housing more than million families, all with private bathrooms and facilities. Building public homes to replace the squalid conditions for so many and to house the stream of refugees fleeing the Communist Revolution in China, who doubled Hong Kong’s population in the 1950s.
Michael would say that this was his happiest time of his life. Working hard, having an impact, doing a good job, whilst being surrounded by his wife, daughter and his many friends in Hong Kong. That loneliness from school, the isolation from his camp, firmly replaced by the companionship and love that Michael so richly deserved, as well of course as the comfort and dignity of private facilities!
When he left Hong Kong in 1968 the SCMP’s headline ran “The man who built 1 million homes leaves Hong Kong.” More recently at his passing, the SCMP’s headline read “The last interview with the man who built Hong Kong”. Consider the Hong Kong we know today, ruled by tycoons and dominated by sky scrapers, yet the veins of its re-incarnation post the war were in no small way shaped by Michael.
Of course, his career did not end in Hong Kong. Michael would go on working well into his 90s, keeping his brain active with the Knightsbridge Association. He greatly enjoyed challenging people like Norman Foster and would rile against their designs and constructions which he felt did not comport with the architectural tone of the surrounding neighborhood.
When Michael was 98 I had a journalist interview Michael and talk about his life. At the end of the interview Michael was asked what had he taken away from all of these experiences. A life of change, revolution, imprisonment, destruction and reconstitution. Michael said this.
I have learned tolerance. I have learned patience. That every man, no matter where he sits in society, at the very top or at the very bottom of the ladder, deserves manners and to be treated with decency and respect. Every man deserves manners.
Beyond the surrounding history and his character, each of us will cherish those moments, those individual moments and memories we each shared with him. I was fortunate to share so many.
Being perplexed as he poured orange juice on his cereal. Rushing to the window to see the Horse Guards ride passed Montrose Court first thing in the morning. The hours of Monopoly and the epic battles that emanated from the board games Axis and Allies and Shogun.
Feeding the ducks in the Serpentine. Collecting conkers in Hyde Park as the cold of winter started to draw in. Kicking my rugby ball in the park, into the Round Pond and up into trees. Running around his apartment launching paper pellets and rubber bands at each other. Collecting me from school, picking me up at the airport, the long drives to and from Papplewick. My final meal at the Good Earth after every exeat in London. I went with my parents last month - neither the restaurant nor the menu have changed.
Running between meetings across London, to get to lunch at the Polish Club, where thankfully the restaurant and the menu have changed! Looking at various apartments where, in his 90s, Michael would clamber up-stairs and ladders to comment on the architectural integrity of loos, rooms and roof tops. I will always remember our trip to Paris, the visit to the Louvre and a beer at a café on a side street, as Michael rested his legs.
You could really talk to Michael about anything and despite his age, he would have a firm view, but also always a reasonable and open mind.
For me, Michael was as much a friend and a brother as he was a grandfather. He was so accessible, so knowledgeable, so witty and funny, and always, always so kind.
I will miss him terribly, but I am so happy and blessed to know a man who is such a powerful role model even though I also know that I will fall far short of his wonderful example.
Stephen Bamford is the grandson of Mr Michael Wright