22 January 2019
Timothy Everest regards Hong Kong as his home, having lived here for the past 30 years. Photo: HKEJ
Timothy Everest regards Hong Kong as his home, having lived here for the past 30 years. Photo: HKEJ

How a Scottish fur trader learned to speak Cantonese

Do you still remember your first pay cheque? Timothy Everest will never forget his.

For him, it always triggers a train of memories leading back to the day when he first arrived in London as a bright-eyed, 17-year-old lad from Scotland.

His father had bought him a train ticket, prodding him to leave home and explore the world by himself.

As fate would have it, Everest came across a job ad in the newspaper — a fur trading company was looking for applicants for a job with only the most basic requirements. It was perfect for him, he thought.

He called the company and was rejected right away. The company had already interviewed 100 people and it wouldn’t entertain any more applicants.

But Everest wouldn’t take no for an answer. He told the guy on the other end of the line: “100 is good, but 101 is a lucky number!”

Impressed by his quick wit, the company boss, Cyril Murkin, decided to accept Everest for an interview. During their three-hour meeting, Everest was briefed about the company and the business.

More importantly, he landed the job. The boss was impressed by his enthusiasm, innate intelligence and, of course, sense of humor.

Murkin also paid him a month’s salary in advance so he could settle himself in London. “I will never forget the very first cheque,” he says.

Over the years Everest worked hard, and despite the many other career opportunities in the bustling city, he never thought of changing jobs. His perseverance paid off; he is now the managing director of Cyril Murkin (Hong Kong) Limited.

“It is very fortunate of me to have met such a good boss,” Everest notes. “I am truly thankful for everything Murkin has taught me and the experience he shared with me. In fact, he likes me more than his two sons-in-law and treats me like his own son.”

In 1980, Everest was assigned to Hong Kong. He thinks the period between 1980 and 1996 was the best of times for the city.

“Hong Kong people had a very strong ‘can do’ spirit back then,” he says. They hoped for the best and they did their best. “In Scotland, people would find 100 reasons why a problem couldn’t be solved.”

Everest says Hong Kong people are always honest and reliable in doing business. On the other hand, the mainland often puzzles him with its fluctuating prices and tendency to change decisions.

In order to blend into the city, Everest has picked up Cantonese, but he can still remember those helpless, and often bizarre, moments many years ago when he simply couldn’t communicate with the locals.

“Usually I was the only foreigner at the table. People began talking to me in English, but in less than 10 minutes they would switch back to Cantonese.”

He says he has a knack for languages, which he thinks he inherited from his mother. And besides being a fast learner, he is a keen observer.

Learning Cantonese can take place anytime and anywhere. In the streets he always listens, observes and imitates how people talk and articulate.

He always keeps a notebook where he jots down new words and phrases. He even challenges himself by visiting places with where only Cantonese is spoken.

He loves talking to middle-aged locals in the wet market in particular because they are so friendly and willing to chat with him.

Everest also enjoys walking around the city and observing the daily life of the people. Just looking at how a market vendor chops up a fish is fun. It’s something new to me.”

Besides, he says, he now speaks Cantonese so well that no one can beat him at bargaining in the wet market.

He’s just kidding, of course. He thinks too much haggling hurts the business of the humble, diligent shopkeepers.

Everest has got himself a Chinese name, too, courtesy of a local fortune teller, who was inspired by the line “I like him” expressed by Everest’s friend during their meeting.

Having lived in Hong Kong for the past 30 years, Everest regards the city as his home. He enjoys listening to Cantonese songs, especially Roman Tam’s. He loves Cantonese dishes and slow-cooked soup.

When he goes on a business trip to the United States, he would have meals in Chinatown because he finds steaks and burgers too heavy.

Witnessing Hong Kong’s reunification with China, the social tensions, political debates and protests, Everest believes every place has its pleasant and not so pleasant aspects.

“I love this city, and I hope she will continue to grow strongly and healthily,” he says. The last thing he would like to see is Hong Kong people discriminating against foreigners or mainlanders irrationally.

Everest believes that in matters that need to be cleared up, rational discussion is a must.

He reckons that discrimination results from misunderstanding and prejudice. For instance, many people think that the fur industry is unethical. But he explains: “For certain places such as Russia, people do need clothes made of fur to protect them against the freezing weather.”

According to Everest, Hong Kong is currently the world’s fur trade hub, with 95 percent of fur materials shipped her from modern fur farms in Northern Europe and America. The farms are all subject to strict standards.

“I am a dog owner and I can understand the concerns of animal rights advocates,” he says. “I would invite them to see how fur and animal skins are properly handled and processed.”

This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 29.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version中文版]

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Everest (right) has seen the highs and lows of the fur business. Photo: HKEJ

Everest, shown here with local friends, says Hong Kong people are honest, reliable and hard-working. Photo: HKEJ

Everest enjoys traveling and seeing new things. Photo: HKEJ

Everest puts on the traditional highland dress of Scotland when attending important events. When playing squash, he prefers the funny look. Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong Economic Journal writer

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