It's 6.25pm on Tuesday, March 29 and already today Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee has attended three Legislative Council panel meetings and chaired the annual general meeting of her think tank, the Savantas Policy Institute.
She is climbing into her seven-seater car, parked next to the Legco Building in Central, for an appointment with some of the toughest critics a politician can encounter - members of the public, who she will meet in her district office, in a shopping mall in Aberdeen.
One of those who will seek her help is Chan Wai-chun, a resident who would like a building-maintenance issue resolved. He believes Ip will be able to help him because of her connections and knowledge about government structure.
'Mrs Ip is a tough person and always sticks to her own faith,' he says.
Chan is one of a number of people seeking assistance from Ip regarding the maintenance problem and she will also meet a man who operates a plastic factory in Shenzhen, who has travelled from his home in Tai Po to tell Ip Hong Kong should not become a welfare state, like the United States. A woman has travelled from her home in Kwai Fong to express her dissatisfaction with the Mandatory Provident Fund schemes, which have been criticised for poor returns and high management fees.
The lawmaker performs with an energy belying her 60 years during the 90-minute session (which she attends once a week). After listening to the residents and promising to follow up on their cases, she shakes hands with each of them and sees them out.
This image of the warm, approachable politician-on-the-hustings couldn't be further from the perception Hongkongers had of her in 2003, when she was arguably the most unpopular minister in the city. Some considered her public enemy No 1 because of her handling of the proposed national security legislation (Article 23) during her term as secretary for security, between 1998 and 2003. Her uncompromising, tough-talking style made her the target of criticism and jeers at public forums and few would have bet on Ip making a political comeback.
Public anger reached a climax during the July 1 march of 2003, which saw half a million Hongkongers take to the streets to protest against Article 23.
'As I lived in the Mid-Levels, I could hear the protest slogans chanted by the demonstrators during the march when they reached government headquarters on Lower Albert Road,' Ip says. 'I could hear people chanting, 'Down with Ip Lau Suk-yee.' The Article 23 fiasco, with all the personal attacks on me and my daughter, was a traumatic experience. I was truly stunned by the public anger. That was no doubt the darkest hour in my decades-long public service career.'
After founding the New People's Party in January - the month in which a poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme suggested she was the third most popular legislator out of the 60 listed - Ip has dropped hints on several occasions that she may run for the office of chief executive, although she's yet to formally declare her intention of doing so.
She has fired salvoes at Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen and Convenor of the Executive Council Leung Chun-ying, both of whom are expected to run for chief executive next year, criticising them for lacking the 'necessary leadership qualities, competence and stamina for the top job'.
On the way home from Aberdeen, Ip, ironically, given her history, accuses senior government officials of having lost touch with ordinary people.
'When you become a senior government official, you are easily boxed in your office. The nature of what civil servants do is basically policy and analytical work. They work under lots of constraints and will easily lock themselves up in their own ivory towers,' Ip says. 'Bureaucratic structure emphasises delegation and the more senior you become, the more likely it is you will be disconnected from ordinary people. Senior officials should make unscheduled and regular district visits to find out what is happening in the community.
'Election changes a person. Baptism by fire through the electoral route changes one's mindset significantly. When I was a policy secretary, I didn't know wearing dark sunglasses and a red jacket offended people. During my election campaign, my image consultant told me red is too bold and a pair of sunglasses provocative, and he said: 'You have to change your wardrobe and hairstyle.'' (In 2002, the self-styled minister attended forums on university campuses in sunglasses and a red jacket.)
'To win public support, I had to change my hairstyle,' she says.
So the woman who once linked the defence of her 'broomhead' hairstyle to that of the city has bowed to pressure from the voters who decide her fate. She speaks of other lessons she has learned by talking to voters.
'One of the most memorable occasions was when I attended a parent-teacher association [meeting] in a school in Tuen Mun. We talked about parenting. I talked about how I managed to make up for my neglect of my daughter and how I managed to repair my relationship with my daughter,' she says. 'One mother ... broke down in tears and told me how she had problems with her younger daughter, who had become very rebellious. My advice to that mother was you have to be patient and put yourself in the shoes of a teenager.'
Ip says she is pleased with her progress as she embarks on her new career: 'It is happening according to my plan. I don't want to sound complacent but it's happening.'
An example of the new image Ip is trying to foster is demonstrated by her response to Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah's major faux pas at being caught out recently on radio not knowing how much a dish of cooked rice with fried fish fillet and corn sauce costs. [The dish is one of the most popular among people dining at cha chaan teng.] Tsang said on air he did not know the price of the dish because he did not like eating corn or fried fish fillet, an answer he repeated at a Legco meeting the same day - the day after he delivered the budget speech.
Describing Tsang's reply as 'stupid', Ip seems to imply knowledge of the factors affecting ordinary people should be ingrained in the mind of a financial secretary, and she answers the question easily, because, she says, she's a regular customer at cha chaan teng. 'The price for a dish of cooked rice with fried fish fillet and corn sauce at cha chaan teng in Wan Chai ranges from HK$35 to HK$37, compared with about HK$30 one or two years ago. Inflation has indeed soared these past two years.'
Her newfound sympathy for the common person stands in stark contrast to the hard-line stance she displayed years ago, at a stormy forum at City University in October 2002, for instance, when Ip claimed most people supported Article 23 despite strong opposition from pro-democracy legislators and human rights groups. Her defence of the security laws drew jeers from the 200 to 300 students in the audience.
She also defended the government against claims Hong Kong was not ready for the legislation because, in the absence of an elected government, there did not exist the necessary checks and balances. 'Don't believe democracy will be a panacea. Adolf Hitler was returned by universal suffrage and he killed seven million Jews,' she said.
During a forum at Chinese University in the same month, she angrily rebuffed a student protester who tried to present her with a paper knife, representing cuts to freedoms, saying: 'I will not accept your knife. Your comments are exaggerated and untrue. Since when have we curbed human rights?'
The iron lady, as she was becoming known as, had riled the public early in the debate by saying taxi drivers and McDonald's workers would not understand nor care about the provisions in the national security law. The bill was shelved days after the July 1 protest march.
Ip resigned from office on June 25, 2003, citing personal reasons, but her departure was not announced until two weeks after the march.
BORN IN HONG KONG in 1950 to a trader father and actress mother, Ip dreamed of being a scholar. In pursuit of this goal, she studied, and graduated with first-class honours in, literature at the University of Hong Kong and earned a Master of Letters degree from the University of Glasgow, where Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney was a specific area of interest.
Seeking steady employment to support her widowed mother, she joined the government in 1975 as an administrative officer. In August 1996, she was appointed Hong Kong's first female director of immigration and, in July 1998, she became the first female secretary for security, leading one-third of the civil service and 10,000 volunteers.
Ip was also in the hot seat during the right-of-abode saga in 1999, when she had the unenviable task of determining which border-straddling families could be reunited on humanitarian grounds and who would be refused permission to stay in the city. Then, she was not hugely popular with the public but was often credited with having the courage to speak her mind.
Ip angered students and academics in June 2000, when seven student leaders were arrested for failing to inform the police seven days in advance of an assembly, to support right-of-abode seekers. Academics accused the government of persecuting the students. More than 500 academics and researchers joined a campaign in support of the students in October of that year.
Ip publicly attacked the activists and said they were a 'headache' for authorities. She also challenged the students to a debate about the Public Order Ordinance. A month after the debate, which was heated, the government decided against charging the students, but maintained they could be prosecuted if they repeated the offence.
After stepping down from government, Ip took a sabbatical at Stanford University, in the US, and earned an MA in East Asian studies in 2006. In her master's thesis, she highlighted the 'debilitating disconnect between the executive and legislative branches in Hong Kong'. Before returning from Stanford she vowed to become 'part of civil society' and join the democratic movement, and even considered forming her own political party. Ip has followed that script and made a remarkable comeback. She launched the Savantas Policy Institute in July 2006 and stood in a democratic election the following year, challenging former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang in a Legco by-election on Hong Kong Island.
Although Ip was defeated by Chan, the once unpopular security minister won more than 137,000 votes, or 43 per cent of those cast, breaking the rule of thumb that dictates pan-democrats receive 60 per cent of the popular vote and the pro-government camp 40 per cent in Legco elections.
'I was the only person who managed to break the 60-40 rule and I did it just one year after my return,' she says.
Ip succeeded in winning a Legco seat in the 2008 election, after getting 61,073 votes in the Hong Kong Island constituency. She defeated Tsang Kin-shing of the League of Social Democrats, independent candidate Lo Wing-lok and the Liberal Party's Lam Chui-lin to claim one of the six Legco seats reserved for the constituency.
'When I resigned in 2003, I thought I'd said goodbye to public life and public controversies,' she says.
The New People's Party has seen membership surge, from 266, when it was launched in January, to 350.
'We have another 20 to 30 pending interviews and we receive enquiries for joining our party almost every day. But it's not just the numbers. We are able to attract professionals, well-educated, high-quality people from business and academia,' Ip says.
Positioning itself as a centre-right group, the board of the party is filled with former senior government officials and business leaders. It aims to woo the middle class, professionals and civil servants.
Ip has joined nine of the 18 Legco panels established to monitor the performance of the government - more than any other Hong Kong lawmaker - including those concerned with public service, transport and development. She was among the first to press the government to give the HK$6,000 cash handout to each of the six million permanent residents in Hong Kong in the wake of the public backlash against the latest budget.
Despite being labelled pro-government, she has raised eyebrows by taking the administration to task on many occasions. She launched a campaign against a bill that would have allowed developers to seek a compulsory sale of a building after acquiring just 80 per cent of the property interests in it, down from 90 per cent. In a full-page advertisement in a Chinese-language newspaper on March 11 last year, Ip urged Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor 'not to rob' the property of poor people to benefit developers. The bill was eventually passed and came into effect a month later.
Tellingly, Ip's monthly salary of HK$69,000 as a lawmaker does not compare with the HK$290,000 a month she earned as secretary for security.
'My monthly salary is even lower than that of Ronald Chan Ngok-pang,' Ip says. (Chan was head of policy development for the Savantas Policy Institute before he was recruited as special assistant to the Chief Executive's Office in May last year. His current monthly salary is HK$76,155.)
Ip has been digging deep into her own pocket to fund the operation of the institute and the New People's Party, which provides support for her Legco-related activities.
'I forked out more than HK$4 million last year and have spent nearly HK$2 million so far this year. You can't judge political careers from the perspective of profit and loss. You have to look for the long term.
'There is no such thing as a free lunch in political careers,' she says, citing the experience of US President Barack Obama, who worked as a community organiser in a low-income neighbourhood of Chicago after graduating from Columbia University.
Not everyone is convinced by such lofty comparisons, however. Dr Ma Ngok, a political scientist at Chinese University, says liberal-minded people who dealt with Ip during the controversy over Article 23 couldn't trust her.
'Ip stuck to the line adopted by Beijing when she promoted the legislation in 2002-03. But she spared no effort in wooing the support of voters on her campaign trails. Who knows whether she will return to her original uncompromising stance and show her true colours if one day she reaches the apex of her political career,' says Ma, who nonetheless concedes that Ip has reinvented herself as a politician who takes a centrist path while scoring points by being critical of the government on livelihood issues.
Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, who was convenor of the Article 23 working group under the Civil Human Rights Front, says Ip's relative success in reinventing herself can be attributed to an admiration of the elite.
'Many Hong Kong people have a good impression of the elite, like former senior officials who come out to criticise the government,' Tsoi says. 'But Ip's stance on democratic development and human rights remains ambiguous.'
Critics cite the subtle change in how Ip reflects on her handling of the national security legislation as evidence of a lack of sincerity. When she launched Savantas, she said she had nothing to add to her resignation statement of 2003, in which she said she was deeply honoured to have been given an opportunity to take part in historic legislative work during her tenure.
'I don't see any need to apologise for promoting that legislative work,' she said.
However, when she announced her candidacy for the Legco by-election for Hong Kong Island in September 2007, she issued a public apology for her handling of Article 23. She said she was ashamed of her provocative remarks about the bill.
Chong Yiu-kwong, an alumnus who attended the Chinese University national security law forum in 2002, says he does not believe there has been a fundamental change in Ip's political beliefs.
'When she apologised for her promotion of the national security law, she was actually talking about her handling of the matter, not the contents of the controversial bill,' says Chong, who is now chairman of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor.
Responding to accusations her approach is insincere and is merely aimed at winning votes, Ip says: 'You can't fool all the people all the time. You see MC Jin's hip-hop music video which he did for Donald Tsang? [Tsang] ended up with egg on his face!'
Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's media team invited US-born rapper and local celebrity Jin Au-yeung, also known as MC Jin, late last year to film a music video as a Christmas greeting to Hongkongers. The 21/2-minute video is called Rap Now 2010, a play on last year's Act Now campaign, which used online media to promote the government's 2012 electoral-reform package. It was an attempt to bridge the gap between Tsang and the younger generation but the move drew scathing comments on MC Jin's Facebook and YouTube pages, with internet users leaving messages such as 'this video is communist propaganda' and 'you just killed your career because u rapped for a guy who is hated by most hk ppl'.
Ip tells Post Magazine that her 'unnecessarily provocative remarks' in 2003 partly stemmed from her own character and official position.
'Article 23 was a very hard subject to sell, particularly in those times. Those were very hard times for Hong Kong - a poor economy, the Sars outbreak - a very sad and angry time for Hong Kong,' she says.
We do not yet know whether Ip wants the top job in Hong Kong, but what will she tell us about her political aspirations?
'I want to be a force in politics and develop a party with a policy programme which is capable of being implemented, which would contribute enormously to the governance in Hong Kong.'
She says she has a strong belief that party politics is an irreversible trend in Hong Kong.
'Beijing must have seen from the way successive Hong Kong administrations, no matter [if they are] under a shipping tycoon or an experienced senior civil servant, have stumbled from one crisis to another; have struggled to do their jobs satisfactorily. They must have learned that you need a new governance model. The old model, which simply relied on legal administrative power and bureaucrats, is not adequate. The Hong Kong government has lots of power and resources at its disposal; how come it is still unable to govern satisfactorily? There must be some problems with the old model.'
Asked again whether she intends to run for chief executive, she says: 'I've nothing to add to what I have said. At this point in my life, I can afford the time and, provided that my good health continues to sustain me, I am ready to serve.'
Speaking on Commercial Radio in January, Ip listed the qualities she believes are needed to make a good chief executive - and suggested she had them.
'I just want to contribute something to Hong Kong ... at the end of the day, I just want to do something for Hong Kong people,' she said.
At a seminar marking the 20th anniversary of Chinese University's faculty of engineering on March 28, fellow legislator Samson Tam Wai-ho praised Ip for her tireless efforts in urging the government to devote more resources to the development of technology in Hong Kong. 'I hope Mrs Ip will become an official again in 2012 and we all know what kind of official she wants to be,' he said.
Ip, another guest speaker at the seminar, left the hint hanging - and the audience guessing where the recasting of the iron lady will end.