Rachel Cartland: How this expat veteran came to love HK

November 23, 2017 15:55
Although British-born, Cartland has felt a growing sense of belonging to Hong Kong over the years. Photo:  Rachel Cartland

Since her arrival in Hong Kong in 1972, Rachel Cartland has held a number of senior government positions as one of the only two female expatriates, ranging from being deputy secretary for Culture to assistant director for Social Welfare. She explains her career as an administrative officer and gives her views on the overall situation of females in the workforce.

After graduating from Oxford aged 22, Cartland saw a recruitment advertisement from the Hong Kong government which - at the time - was looking for expatriates to join as public servants. Determined to promptly enter the workforce, Cartland decided to apply for the job and was quickly accepted. This is when her new adventure began.

Her decision to come to Hong Kong wasn’t based on the expectation to explore a glamorous or exotic place as one would think of a 22-year-old. It was rather because of the perception that people had of women at the time; Cartland felt a need to prove herself.

“At the time, it was difficult for women to get an interesting job. People tended to think that women couldn’t do things. I thought I got a lot to prove so those things probably loomed larger in my mind than thinking about Hong Kong being an exotic and extraordinary place” she said.

“At the interview, the main message was that you mustn't take a supercilious attitude to local culture.”

When Cartland touched down on Sept. 18 1972, she was driven to Kennedy Road in Central, where a new home awaited her.

“After my arrival, I was brought to an enormous block of flat (to British standards) at number 42 Kennedy Road; this is where expatriate civil servants were housed. It was later demolished and replaced by the Commissioner’s Office of the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs” Cartland said.

Six month after going through training sessions, she was posted as an administrative officer in the New Territories. There, she began drafting projects on the building of new towns.

In 1976, she married Michael David Cartland, who was a District Officer in Yuen Long. He eventually became Secretary for Financial Services in the 1990s. Prior to working in Hong Kong, her husband was in the British Solomon Islands.

While posted in the New Territories, the couple was living in Dunrose, an old colonial mansion serving as the District Officer’s residence. It has now been demolished and replaced by housing developments.

While Chinese society was known for being patriarchal, the retired civil servant does not recall being discriminated against due to her gender. According to her, cultural and linguistic differences play an important part in the problem.

“You can wound people in your own language, with your own cultural vocabulary. If there is a big cultural gap, it’s more difficult.”

Though Cartland acknowledges that locals at the time were generally conservative, she recalls the stereotyping of westerners as part of the landscape.

“Once I remember that the department’s driver was driving me around and asked me: ‘Do you go to Lan Kwai Fong?’ I said: ‘Yes, sometimes to have dinner’. Then he said: ‘Do you have one night stands? ’. It was culturally kind of weird to be asked such questions,” she said.

“I think it illustrates the difficulties when people from two different cultures try to communicate.”

Asked about whether gender would affect Carrie Lam -- Hong Kong’s first female leader -- Cartland does not think so.

“I don’t think that she is going to face challenges because of that. You need to look at it in a global context. If you look at Europe nowadays, female leaders are looked at largely as people whereas if you look at Margaret Thatcher, some of the attacks on her were fairly unfair and sex-based. In advanced countries, women can now be looked at not for their gender but for their abilities.”

Cartland is also member of the Women's Foundation, a local organisation with the aim to promote equal participation of women in the community.

Before the 1970s, corruption was the norm, in particular within the police, until Governor Murray MacLehose launched the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1974. The retired civil servant recalls corruption as then part and parcel of Hong Kong.

“They [the police] were doing a complete non-job against corruption because they were riddled with corruption,” she said.

For her, Hong Kong being nowadays one of the world’s least corrupt places is “magical”.

“Hong Kong against corruption is one of these magical things that happened, there was this kind of social determination that we are not going to tolerate this anymore. There is no doubt that for ordinary people, it was like in Latin America, you had to pay for everything” she recalls.

Throughout her career, Cartland was involved in a number of projects such as the setting up of the Arts Development Council.

In 2003, the then Assistant Director of the Social Welfare Department was strongly involved in dealing with the SARS epidemic. She was in charge of managing the quarantine system which required her to liaise with all government departments.

“Everyone in the government was playing its own part. The inter-departmental cooperation was very very very good. Ten out of 10. It really showed what Hong Kong could do at its best in a sense on how important it is to be a small city.”

Although British-born, Cartland has felt a growing sense of belonging to Hong Kong over the years.

“I’ve come to realise that I identify myself more with Hong Kong than anywhere else in the world.”

After 34 years serving the community, she retired from the government and opened a consultancy company with her husband, advising organisations on public policy-related matters.

In 2014, she published Paper Tigress, bringing into light the depth of her career as a senior civil servant in Hong Kong. The title was chosen by her husband.

Asked about how she would describe Hong Kong in a single word, here is what she had to say:

“People always choose ‘vibrant’ but I just find Hong Kong very lovable.”

Paper Tigress is available in local bookshops.

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