How deep are Hong Kong’s Irish roots?
When I arrived here, I noticed all the Irish names on the street signs from their connections to Hong Kong’s colonial administration – governors, secretaries, judges and police officers. Henry Pottinger, the first governor, was Irish and I think nine of the colonial governors could lay claim to Irish citizenship. One of the founding fathers of HSBC was Thomas Jackson, who was born in Carrigallen in County Leitrim.
There is even a link in the Hong Kong flag as the bauhinia flower is named after an Irishman. The Latin name is Bauhinia blakeana, after Henry Blake – and his wife, Lady Edith Blake – who was the governor of Hong Kong in the late 1800s. The Botanical and Afforestation Department gave it that name as Blake and his wife were keen botanists and supporters of the Zoological and Botanical Gardens in Central.
How significant was the 2018 launch of the direct service to Dublin?
Previously, we didn’t have direct flights to this part of the world, so Cathay Pacific has the distinct honour of being the first to connect Ireland directly to Asia – with four-times weekly service on the A350. And in doing so, it reinforced a connection that was established in the early 1800s. (Back in those days, of course, it took a couple of months to get from Ireland to here; now it’s a matter of hours.)
As well as a strong place to do business in its own right, Hong Kong is also seen by many as a gateway into the Chinese mainland and Asia, and it offers a landing base for people to do business in the region. Ireland is perceived that way too. In the current climate around Brexit, in particular, Ireland is an increasingly strategic gateway into Europe. But that’s not the only parallel; we’re both very open and competitive economies known for our ease of doing business.
What are the flight’s benefits from a business perspective?
There are four areas we focus on: food, finance, pharma and IT. We have world-class food exports; Irish beef, I would argue, is the best in the world. There are some key products for which Cathay Pacific has particularly opened up the market – beef, lamb, but also seafood, especially oysters, lobster, razor clams and brown crab.
Interestingly, this seafood was never a major part of the Irish food culture – we were more agrarian. Fifteen to 20 years ago, fishermen were hauling this stuff in not knowing what it was, and throwing it back into the sea. But live seafood really has developed as a market as a consequence of the direct flight.
Our food is branded Origin Green, and this is a standard for high-quality food as well as sustainability. Our cattle are grass-fed. They’re outdoors at least 10 months of the year, so they’re on Irish pastures eating grass the way nature intended.
Ireland is the sixth-largest exporter of pharmaceuticals in the world and home to 75 pharmaceutical companies – including the top 10 in the world. Pharma is a huge part of our export suite, with major multinational investment. A lot of it is European and American, but I think the next evolution of that will be Asian investment overseas.
Our IT sector has become really strong over the past 40 years, which in turn has spurred a whole entrepreneurial scene. A new wave of fintech companies is evolving which is very important – as it is here in Hong Kong – so there’s another modern link between us.
What opportunities has the flight opened up for leisure travellers?
The connectivity is increasing understanding between the two regions, starting with increased tourism. China sees itself as an ancient culture with a rich history, and one that continues to evolve in its own unique way. Ireland has that as well.
Visitors from Hong Kong and the Greater Bay Area will find diverse experiences ranging from Ireland’s ancient east – Newgrange’s passage tomb is older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza – to the Wild Atlantic Way, one of the world’s longest defined coastal routes. Irish visitors to Hong Kong will discover a place with deep Irish connections.
Being able to hop on a flight at midnight in Hong Kong and get off the plane in Dublin at 7am changes the way we engage. There’s so much potential that’s untapped and unknown, and that just comes from people landing in a new city and getting inspired by what they see.
Our role at the consulate is to build connectivity at the government level, and that creates opportunities for business-to-business connections. And it’s a two-way process as well – we’re working to promote Ireland exports for this region. We’ll also promote Ireland as a destination to learn English, and as a destination for university students, who in turn, will see the value of the rich and layered history that Ireland offers.