Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 July, 2007, 12:00am

This week: 10 years in Hong Kong

Often when I walk down the street, I find myself daydreaming about life in general. The 10th anniversary of the handover coincided with 10 years of my being a resident and veterinarian in Hong Kong, and I often find myself feeling euphoric and lucky about life here. When I first arrived from Australia, I definitely felt very Australian, I talked the Aussie talk, ate 'shrimp off the barbie' and loved cricket and Australian rules football.

I felt very lucky then, having been brought up in Australia with the wide open spaces, fresh air and an education system and culture that encouraged individualism and creativity. At the time, I did not even speak Cantonese.

Hong Kong seemed very alien to me when I first got off the plane without a job waiting and a thousand dollars in my pocket. It was 1997 and I remember watching the handover ceremony on local TV while pondering where to go with my new life in the city. Even before arriving, while in Australia and studying veterinary science, I felt the reverberation of the effects of the handover well before it happened. Many of my friends and their parents emigrated from Hong Kong to gain a new nationality and start a new life in a new country. Many found life difficult in Australia; most immigrants felt very isolated.

The older folk generally adapted poorly, but the younger people thrived and, like myself, adapted fully to the Australian way of life and were happy with our lot. Wanderlust drew me to my roots in Hong Kong and I found myself a recent veterinary science graduate looking for a job in a very uncertain economic climate. My first job here was at a small practice on the Island and when I look back at that clinic and compare it to my workplace today, it seems so primitive.

There were only a handful of drugs in the pharmacy, only some basic antibiotics, painkillers and a sprinkle of other drugs. But 10 years later, there is a whole shelf just devoted to different antibiotics and the number of painkillers available to a veterinarian has tripled. Not to mention the complexity of drugs; I stock the same chemotherapy drugs as a oncologist (cancer specialist) does.

Ultrasound machines and electrocardiograms are commonplace but were rare then. This reflects the advances in veterinary medicine in the past 10 years and the steady increase in the level of education and demands of our clients. I remember clients 10 years ago were much more impatient and wanted quick fixes; they didn't want to hear why their animals were sick or how to prevent it, they wanted a rapid conclusion to the symptoms with minimal cost. Animals were simply not as valuable to the average citizen back then.

I feel somewhat relieved that Hongkongers have evolved much since then. They demand a lot more from my services and since they now want to listen, I can now educate. I feel proud to have been involved in a small way with this enlightenment.

I have found that love of living things can easily transcend material difficulties. I worked through the Asian financial crisis and animal welfare awareness continues to rise. I opened my clinic during the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic (in 2003) and owners, despite fears of Sars, brought animals to see me. Since then, the economy has been growing steadily and the number of animal welfare organisations has more than quadrupled.

Also, in the past 10 years, the number of veterinary clinics has doubled. It appears that interest in pets and animals is not correlated with wealth but with education.

When I first arrived, I realised that speaking the native tongue was going to be important socially and professionally. I imagined that speaking through an interpreter, I could miss important nuances when communicating with clients. Often how clients say something is as important as what they are saying.

Relying on an interpreter also would make explaining things difficult, as something would often be lost in translation. So I picked up the local tongue and quickly found myself one of the minority of vets that spoke Cantonese.

It was a novelty, and I appeared on radio and television when it was discovered that I had a knack for public speaking.

Now, the number of Cantonese-speaking vets is on the increase and we are no longer in the minority. This is because of the increasing number of local people graduating overseas and coming home and the decreasing number of expats after 1997.

When I graduated, I was the only veterinary student from Hong Kong at Melbourne University and now there are more than 30.

I hope for the industry that in the near future, with more manpower, we can achieve more public education and better health and welfare standards for the animals living among us in this urban jungle.

When I look back at that clinic [my first in Hong Kong] and compare it to my workplace today, it seems so primitive