Maybe it’s because of Hong Kong’s rich international history, or the diminutive size of the territory, or all those public holidays, but Hongkongers are the world’s most frequent travellers. According to data from the World Bank and the World Tourism Organisation, they average 11.4 trips per year – four times more than their nearest airborne rivals, the Luxembourgers. The airport at Chek Lap Kok ranks eighth busiest in the world: it transports over 74 million passengers a year on some of the world’s most crowded routes. More than just a collection of runways and buildings, it forms an important part of the fabric of the city – as does the city’s flag carrier, Cathay Pacific.
Since its beginnings some 70 years ago, ‘Cathay’, as it’s affectionately known, has shaped Hong Kong’s identity and interests, bringing diverse communities together, reuniting families, cementing business opportunities and creating a sense of place across the globe. Every passenger has a story (when I returned to Hong Kong after a 16-year absence there wasn’t any other airline I was going to fly ‘home’ with). Here are six such tales, reflecting how Cathay Pacific has helped Hongkongers to move beyond.
Hospitality communications director
It may be more than a quarter of a century ago, but communications director Michelle Lau still has one particularly nostalgic memory of her childhood flights with Cathay Pacific – ‘The Barry White boarding music,’ she emphatically recalls. Love’s Theme, a soaring orchestral piece written by the Walrus of Love, is a memory that still chimes with thousands of Hongkongers. For Lau, it was the soundtrack that accompanied solo journeys to and from boarding school in the UK in the early 1990s, after Cathay Pacific launched the first non-stop flights from Hong Kong to London.
‘I was 14 years old the first time I made the trip,’ recalls Lau. ‘The flights were still from Kai Tak then and I remember that they were jam-packed every time, but the crew were always so nice and would pay extra attention to the kids, always checking on us and bringing us treats.’ Even now, ‘stepping onboard a Cathay Pacific flight still gives me the sense that I’m already home’.
Entrepreneur, author and fashion maven
The term ‘international jetsetter’ could have been coined for Bonnae Gokson, who spent her youth travelling between her home in Hong Kong and schools in Europe and the US. Next came a stint as the Asia-Pacific communications director for Chanel and with it a series of short-haul sprints around China and long-haul hikes to Paris, London, New York and Milan. Later, she established Sevva, one of Hong Kong’s most glamorous bars and restaurants; Ms B’s Cakery; and C’est La B, a chain of high-end cake shops.
Unsurprisingly, her work and personal travels have earned her Marco Polo Club gold status. Gokson’s most notable flight is a recent one: ‘It was when I flew first class to New York for the launch of my second book, Weddings, Butterflies and the Sweetest Dreams,’ a glossy coffee table tome featuring wildly elaborate cakes and eye-catching wedding imagery from around the world. ‘I knew it was going to be a milestone flight for me so wanted to make it a special one. I remember tucking in under the duvet of my bed, drinking Krug champagne and eating silver spoons of caviar. The launch party was being held at my dear friend Vera Wang’s wedding boutique on Madison Avenue, so a good sleep was essential.’
Former professional football player
‘We booked our tickets through a Chinese travel agent who worked above the Lucky Star Chinese restaurant on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow,’ says former professional football player Billy Semple, who moved to Hong Kong in 1974 to join Hong Kong Rangers Football Club. Back then, Cathay Pacific didn’t have direct flights from London (they wouldn’t arrive until 1991), so passengers had to connect via Bahrain or Dubai. The total journey time from Scotland was nearly 24 hours.
‘I remember when we landed, walking down the aircraft stairs and across the tarmac to the terminal building to be introduced and photographed by the local press,’ says Semple. It was a snapshot that would capture the beginning of a golden age of domestic football in Hong Kong, as new investment and fresh foreign blood drew capacity crowds of up to 28,000 to Hong Kong Stadium on a weekly basis. There were even star turns from the likes of England 1966 World Cup captain and Semple’s former San Antonio Thunder teammate Bobby Moore, and Manchester United hero George Best. Moving to the other side of the world with his young family was a gamble for Semple, but it was one that paid off. ‘I stepped off that flight at Kai Tak and never looked back. Best decision I ever made.’
Manager of business risk and continuity
‘I got a bank loan on Thursday, booked a ticket on Friday, flew on Saturday and arrived in Hong Kong on Sunday 5 July 1998, a few hours before Kai Tak Airport closed forever,’ says Tom Chadwick. From a humble military airstrip to a waterfront aerodrome welcoming Boeing 314 sea boats and silvery de Havillands to the third busiest hub in the world handling 30 million passengers and 1.5 million tonnes of cargo a year, Cathay Pacific’s original home base captured the world’s imagination for the best part of a century.
Chadwick was just 18 years old and had never been to Hong Kong when he learned of Kai Tak’s impending closure. ‘When I read that the airport was going to be closing the following week, I knew I had to go.’ It was his first trip to Hong Kong, but it was not to be his last, with annual visits over the next decade before meeting his wife and moving permanently to the city. ‘I fell in love with Hong Kong that day and I’ll always associate that love with my first flight on Cathay Pacific. I’ve landed in Hong Kong many times since, but the newer Chek Lap Kok airport has never been quite as exciting.’
‘Cathay Pacific’s non-stop flights to New York have made a big difference to me both professionally and personally,’ says Dilip Badlani, who was working in the Big Apple when the non-stop flight from HKG to JFK was established as a regular service in 2004. Badlani’s journeys are just one statistic in the flourishing of US-Hong Kong trade, and he’s among the millions of passengers who have benefited from the route in the years since.
‘As someone who grew up in Hong Kong, I was thrilled to be able to fly with my home carrier. The service on Cathay Pacific is world-class, the food is great, the entertainment is top-notch and the lounges are excellent, too. From a work perspective, it allowed me to manage my schedule more efficiently. I’d often take the 1am Sunday flight to arrive in Hong Kong for Monday morning meetings and fly back Friday in time for the weekend. Cathay’s flight to Hong Kong was also my preference for connections when travelling on to South East Asia for work. Personally, it was great to know I could hop on a flight any time to be with my folks even at short notice – and the non-stop service made it less daunting to bring my young daughters along. I moved back to Hong Kong a year ago but continue to visit New York; I’ve probably flown that route 50 times now.’
Secondary school teacher
Teasingly called ‘expat brats’, more affectionately known as ‘HK kids’, foreign professionals’ children who were schooled in the city – however briefly – seem to be magnetically drawn back to its neon-lit shores in adulthood. ‘My family moved to Hong Kong when I was eight years old,’ says Jasmine Smith. ‘I remember them telling us all about it beforehand and we were very excited to go. It was my first time on a plane, so that was exciting, too, and I vividly remember we flew out there on Cathay Pacific.’
Like a large number of foreign professionals who live and have lived in Hong Kong, her family’s time was limited to a set contract: five very happy years in Smith’s case. ‘While I was initially happy back in the UK, I never really had a full sense of belonging. So after university I decided to move back. Climbing aboard my Cathay Pacific flight almost 10 years later brought back those same childlike feelings of excitement,’ she recalls. ‘When I landed at Hong Kong International Airport I expected to feel a huge sense of “oh my god, I’m back” – but, honestly, it just felt so normal, like I’d never been away. It felt like home.’