To me, Michael Wright was an outstanding example of an endangered species: the English gentleman. His memory is to be treasured and his loss deeply regretted.
My connections with him were not frequent but they seemed loaded with significance. Indeed, he interviewed me for entry into the Administrative Grade of the Hong Kong Government, a truly life changing event as far as I was concerned. It was 1972 and the interview took place in London, in a grand room in the Foreign Office. Michael Wright, at that time in a post-retirement job as the Hong Kong Commissioner in London, was one of the panel and I, in my last year at Oxford and looking for my first proper job, was naturally nervous. Other such experiences that I had had were blighted by the shameless misogyny of those days. Here there was no such thing but rather unfailing courtesy and a gentle encouragement for a candidate who might reasonably have been regarded as out of her depth and with an unlikely ambition to travel across the world to take on responsibility for the welfare of a community of an entirely different culture from the one in which she had grown up.
This was, however, the era of Flower Power, with fires lit by the explosive 1960s and we believed that “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.” That was the poet William Wordsworth talking about the French Revolution almost two hundred years before but we felt that in the same way we would overturn the Establishment of our day. This confidence, what some might have termed arrogance, led us to pay insufficient regard to the distinction of our seniors. Michael Wright was patiently and gravely listening to my immature reflections on the differences and similarities between Hong Kong and Singapore and I was quite unaware of what he had achieved during his career nor of what he had endured during Second World War internment. A lesser man might have intervened, put me right and impressed me with his position. This was not his way, though, and, even more wonderfully, he and his fellow panellists gave me a chance and set me on a path of adventure and fulfilment by offering me the position that I had applied for with the Hong Kong Government, who were the only employer I ever had and with whom I stayed from 1972 until 2006.
I had not fully appreciated the man who interviewed me and it took time in Hong Kong to understand what a miraculous place it was and what had been involved in creating it. I could sense the throbbing ambition and optimism that meant that the city’s young population were convinced that they could overcome the odds to do almost anything they wanted to. It was more difficult to gaze back into recent history at the devastation left by war, the challenges then compounded by a massive inflow of refugees. Even more so now than in 1972 is it hard to comprehend the effort required to restore our infrastructure and then to add to it. Michael Wright was at the centre of all this as an architect in the civil service, then supervising as Chief Architect and finally reaching the acme of Director of Public Works. It is also hard to comprehend how enormously positive was the provision of public housing despite the simplicity of the accommodation which, indeed, verged on the primitive. Nonetheless, to move into such housing represented welcome progress to families who had struggled to survive in the shanty squatter settlements that pervaded Hong Kong. The housing estates were logically designed, too, with schools and other welfare facilities provided on the spot and instant communities thus created. There is no doubt that the public housing estates were a major reason for the verve and cheerfulness of the society in which I found myself and equally there is no denying the credit that Michael Wright deserves for that, given the particular attention that he paid to these issues.
His intensely busy working life was succeeded by a long period of retirement in London, although the links with Hong Kong kept up and towards the end came a coda that was full of meaning. During 2011 a campaign was underway in Hong Kong to prevent the West Wing of the Central Government Offices from being demolished and replaced by a 32 storey commercial tower smack in the middle of one of our most valuable heritage areas. The campaign was spearheaded by the Government Hill Concern Group and they asked me if I knew how to contact Michael Wright whom they believed to have designed the West Wing. I was able to track him down and he explained that he had not been responsible for the actual design but was involved in the entire Central Government Offices project. His views were recorded in a video that became a major component in the ultimately successful effort to reverse the previous decision to demolish. Speaking in his characteristically polite and restrained manner his passion for the townscape of Hong Kong and the way in which it should serve its citizens shone through and touched everyone who heard it. There was a charming side effect. The members of the Concern Group had, by definition, a deep interest in Hong Kong history and when they were in London they took the opportunity to visit Michael and thus, in the twilight of his years but still with a pin sharp brain, he could enjoy discussing his beloved birthplace with people who cared about it as much as he did.
Finally came Chloe Lai’s marvellous film, setting Michael Wright’s reminiscences in context and evoking a reaction of unrestrained admiration. What the audiences were applauding was not a revolutionary but someone who by simply acting with sincerity and integrity conferred immense and long lasting benefits on the public that he served.
Rachel Cartland worked as an Administrative Officer in the Hong Kong Government (1972 – 2006). She currently undertakes consultancy, journalism and voluntary work associated with social issues.