Withered tree reborn: Mourning Mr Hak Chan’s passing

August 08, 2022 08:39
With its wealth of Geographic Information System (GIS) expertise, Lands Department develops and provides handy web-map service portals to users across Government Bureaux/Departments as well as the general public. Image: Lands Department

The former Deputy Director of Lands Department, Mr. Hak Chan, passed away on 18 July. During his career, he had committed to promoting digitisation of geospatial data in Hong Kong, which laid a solid foundation for us to move towards a smart city. He is my mentor and friend. I learnt of his passing with deep regret.

The Lands Department is a pioneer in the application of the geographic information system (GIS) in Hong Kong. In 1983, Mr. Chan, as a professional land surveyor, pushed the Department to take the lead in developing the first Land Information System by using GIS, digitising paper maps and land records. In 1996, the Department started to develop electronic maps. It set a precedent for the digital transformation of geo-information in the public and private sector, allowing Hong Kong to lead its Asian counterparts in building smart cities.

Mr. Chan was educated in the United Kingdom and had served the Hong Kong government for over 30 years. He was promoted to Deputy Director of Lands Department in 1996, and remained in the post till his retirement in 2003. He was a professional elite of the previous generation, taciturn and reserved. In the past few decades, he had nurtured many surveyors who were interested in GIS, surveying and mapping. He also served as the President of Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors and Hong Kong GIS Association, promoting professional development of the industry. Without him, we would not have Common Spatial Data Infrastructure (CSDI) and Geospatial Lab which are important infrastructure that shapes the future urban planning and new economy.

He remained active in the industry after his retirement. I invited him to be the Council Member of Smart City Consortium (SCC) a few years ago and he accepted without hesitation. Over the past few years, he had almost attended every council meeting in person or online. I still remember our chatting at the SCC Annual General Meeting in May this year. Now we are separated forever, life is really impermanent!

My friendship with Mr Chan started in the 1990s. My first job after graduating from university was to produce the first vegetation map in Hong Kong. At that time, Mr Chan, who was the Chief Land Surveyor of Lands Department, gave me a lot of valuable advice and support, which allowed me to apply my GIS knowledge. Because of this map, I got the Esri scholarship from the United States, and then I was offered by Jack Dangermond, Esri President, to start my business in Hong Kong in 1997.

In the early days of my business, I often went to Murray Building in Central, where the Lands Department was located, to ask him and his colleagues for advice. After years of visits, Murray Building virtually became my studio.

There were more than ten trees around the parking lot of Murray Building in the past. After redevelopment, only one tree, a Pink & White Shower on the Register of Old and Valuable Trees remains. The tree is over 70 years old and took root earlier than the building. The 17-meter-high tree was once infected with fungus, and half of its trunk fell down due to rotting. At that time, it was classified as a diseased tree which was about to wither. Fortunately, when the project of revitalising the historic building was completed, the tree was rejuvenated after recuperating. There were white flowers flourishing in early summer. I feel that Mr. Chan is like this reborn old tree, he had contributed a lot to Hong Kong's surveying industry and the city’s digital transformation. He is still with us in spirit!

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong