Dr Thomas Tsang, Hong Kong's flu-fighting official, takes a well-earned break

Dr Thomas Tsang Ho-fai, the renowned health official who led the fight against Sars and deadly flu outbreaks, is calling it a day

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 November, 2012, 5:45am

The resignation of Dr Thomas Tsang Ho-fai as head of the government's disease prevention centre last month came as a shock to the city.

The unexpected move has prompted much speculation over why Tsang - Hong Kong's respected and indefatigable "flu fighter" and defender of the city against severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003 - who would leave public service after 20 years.

Some believe the writing was already on the wall when Tsang, controller of the Centre for Health Protection for almost five years, lost out to his colleague, Dr Constance Chan Hon-yee, to head the Department of Health when Dr Lam Ping-yan retired as director in June.

Since then, it has been rumoured that Tsang turned down an enviable offer from Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man to become his deputy. Tsang has declined to give interviews since resigning, but those close to the doctor said the 46-year-old was determined to take a well-earned break to enjoy life.

One friend said Tsang was no longer interested in seeking a higher position in government.

"He had made up his mind some time ago to resign as work was taking up too much of his life," the friend said.

Word has it that Tsang, like many other retired officials before him, may take up a teaching post at a university.

When Tsang was spotted on the street by Next Magazine reporters recently, he reportedly explained that he simply wanted a year off to "refresh" himself. He was quoted as saying: "I have reached a stage where, if I continued to stay, I would find it even more difficult [to leave].

"I need a year to recharge myself. I may go on a vacation with my family, play music with my friends, or undertake some voluntary work. Or I may also indulge myself by being a couch potato, watching television dramas all day."

During a television interview conducted some weeks before his resignation, Tsang declared his lack of interest in joining the private sector if he were to quit his job. He dismissed rumours of an "unfriendly" relationship with the new administration, saying he got along well with Ko.

Tsang would later say his decision was made before the new health minister was appointed.

His parents, speaking to other media, pointed to Tsang's hectic work-related social schedule as a possible reason for his departure.

Tsang's father, 70, was quoted as saying: "When I asked him why [he had resigned], he told me there were too many social functions to attend almost every night. Sometimes he had to rush to three occasions in a day and still needed to travel to the mainland [for business trips].

"Even though he enjoyed red wine during the social events, he started to worry about his health. He felt the drinking was bad for his liver."

Since being appointed the health centre controller in 2009, Tsang had gained weight and become less physically fit.

Perhaps what surprised the public most about his resignation was that Tsang had an excellent professional reputation and was seen as a rising star within the government.

Tsang's mission to protect the health of Hongkongers began when he joined the Health Department as a doctor in 1992, soon after graduating from the University of Hong Kong. In 1997, he took a lead role in the battle against bird flu.

During the 2003 Sars outbreak, his contribution to containing the disease earned him the nickname of "Detective Fai" for tracing the source of infection. The intrepid disease control expert had led his team into the Metropole Hotel in Kowloon to track down the index patient who carried the deadly virus that sparked a global health crisis and killed 299 people in Hong Kong.

When he took the helm of the Centre for Health Protection six years later, Tsang built his public image as a flu fighter when he appeared in front of cameras to give daily updates on the swine flu epidemic.

His contribution to public health in the city is indisputable.

Tsang has promised to stay until next month to ensure a smooth transition. Among the candidates to succeed him are head of surveillance and epidemiology Dr Leung Ting-hung, assistant health director (health promotion) Dr Regina Ching Cheuk-tuen, and consultant community medicine (communicable disease) Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan.

Leung, being the highest ranked among the three, is the most likely candidate.

But whoever takes over as the new protector of public health, "Detective Fai" will surely be a tough act to follow.


Thomas Tsang Ho-fai

Age: 46


Controller of the Centre for Health Protection since 2009


Consultant in community medicine with the Centre for Health Protection of the Department of Health in 2004

Joined the department as a medical and health officer in 1992


Obtained Fellowship in Community Medicine from the Hong Kong Academy of Medicine in 1999

Graduated with a Masters of Public Health degree from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA, in 1992

Obtained his medical degree at the University of Hong Kong in 1990

Hong Kong Wa Yan College

Personal: Single