Top engineer was committed to a better society

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 May, 2003, 12:00am

Easy-going and energetic, Kenneth Chan worked on major road and rail projects

The first Chinese to assume the post of secretary for lands and works during the colonial era, Kenneth Chan Nai-keong, was a chief engineer who worked on Hong Kong's sophisticated and modern transport network during his 35 years' public service.

Chan, an easy-going and energetic man who died of cancer last Friday aged 73, got to know many contractors and real estate developers through his involvement in a diverse range of projects - from the Tuen Mun new town to the Mass Transit Railway network.

After graduating from Loughborough College in England as a civil engineer in 1952, Chan joined the Hong Kong government as a student engineer.

His first task was road-widening work in Wong Nai Chung Road outside the Jockey Club in Happy Valley.

While he helped to build various bridges in the New Territories, one of his major projects was to oversee the construction of the Connaught Road pedestrian underpass to the Star Ferry in Central.

At that time, Connaught Road marked the waterfront and reclamation was under way to form the land on which City Hall now stands.

In 1960, Chan went to Yale University for advanced graduate studies in traffic engineering, which led to his involvement in planning Hong Kong's network of railways and roads.

Over the years, Chan held a variety of job titles, including project manager of the Tuen Mun New Town Development Office, head of the Highways Office and director of engineering development.

In June 1981, he was named deputy director of public works. Following a reorganisation of the department, he was appointed deputy secretary of the newly established lands and works branch the following year, the first local Chinese to hold such a position.

Three months later, he became the first Chinese to become secretary for lands and works.

His recruitment followed the retirement of David McDonald. His new job demanded a detailed knowledge of every aspect of engineering and technical achievement, as he had to oversee a wide range of projects, involving engineering, construction, water supply, electrical and mechanical services and land use.

At about the time he assumed his new role, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Loughborough.

His achievements were further recognised in 1986 when he was elected to the British Fellowship of Engineering, the most prestigious award in the field. Members of the fellowship included the Duke of Edinburgh.

Chan's life was not without controversy. In 1987, at the age of 54, he opted for early retirement to take the post of managing director of Hong Kong Electric Holdings, a move that took many by surprise.

His decision also raised eyebrows among some critics, who voiced concerns about a potential conflict of interest, as they feared that civil servants might be tempted to use their former positions to influence former colleagues or reveal confidential information to their new employers.

In 1997, Chan formed the Hong Kong Experts Consultancy, which employed former senior civil servants, to offer advice to engineering and property businesses.

He was chairman emeritus of the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff (Asia) Limited.

Over the past decade, Chan was active in public service. He was a member of the preparatory committee responsible for advising the central government on the formation of the Hong Kong special administrative region, and of the selection committee that chose the chief executive.

He was also founder of the Former Civil Servants' Association, former chairman of the Hong Kong Institute of Engineers and president of the Association of Engineers in Society, an organisation dedicated to promoting engineers' participation in public affairs and offering financial support to young professionals for further studies.

It was this community work and public service that prompted legislator Raymond Ho Chung-tai, who represents the engineering constituency, to propose to Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa that Chan should replace Chung Sze-yuen as convenor of the Executive Council when the latter stepped down in 1999. However, this proposal was not taken up.

Describing Chan as an energetic, devoted and frank person, Mr Ho, who knew him for more than 30 years, said he had continued to express his views to the government after his retirement.

'Every year, before the governor or the chief executive's policy address, he would submit his views to the government. He was always a dynamic person, who could give clear and thorough suggestions,' Mr Ho said.

'He was especially concerned with young professionals and always offered them support and opportunities.'

Former secretary for works Benedict Kwong Hon-sang, who retired in 1999, said: 'All of us think it's a great pity to lose him.'

Secretary for the Civil Service Joseph Wong Wing-ping said Chan had made a significant contribution to the planning and co-ordination of Hong Kong's physical development.

Chan is survived by his wife and three children. A funeral service will be held today at Hong Kong Funeral Home in North Point.