Trust and optimism in the future and people are what led Jack Maisano back to preside over the US trade facilitator JACK'S BACK. Jack Maisano, former publisher of regional magazines and newspapers, has returned to Hong Kong five years after he left for New York. This time, the athletic executive and wife Tina, are back for good; they are looking to buy a house somewhere near Clearwater Bay. What prompted him to resign the presidency of the New York-based China Institute, a non-profit organisation which aims to bolster an appreciation of Chinese culture in the United States, and come back to Asia? He almost explodes out of his chair with enthusiasm. 'This job!' he says. He is sitting in a 19th-floor corner suite of Bank of America Tower, headquarters of the American Chamber of Commerce. The view sweeps from Wan Chai, the Peak to the financial spires of Central. It is an appropriate observation post for the president of AmCham. The job that brought him back from New York sees Mr Maisano running an organisation he knows very well. As president of the primary organisation representing the American business community in Hong Kong, he is chief executive of a well-oiled machine that is focused on serving its 2,000 individual and corporate members. Under the AmCham system, members elect the 26-strong committee and board which elects a chairman. The board then hires a president to run the show. Mr Maisano grins as he admits one challenge will be to fill 'the very big shoes' of his predecessor, Frank Martin, who retired earlier this year after 14 years in the job. It will not be easy, he concedes. For many years after its foundation in 1968, AmCham was routinely described as 'the largest American business association outside the United States'. That title has moved to Shanghai where the American Chamber counts about 2,800 members. Beijing ranks about the same membership as Hong Kong and there are other AmChams in Guangzhou, Chengdu, Tianjin and other cities. Mr Maisano does not see this as a threat to Hong Kong's position. If you are doing business in China, then Shanghai is a fine place to be, he says. But if you are playing a regional game, Hong Kong remains the top spot. He enthuses over his return to the city which was home for a quarter of a century. 'Hong Kong has improved over the past five years,' he says. 'In New York, you read nothing but bad news. The reality is different. 'Relations with China are conducted on a more realistic level. There are dialogues carried on which result in real progress. We get resolution. 'Take pollution. It's now on the agenda. It's being addressed on a cross-border basis. It's being discussed. We want to solve it. Maybe not tomorrow, but progress is being made.' He looks out the window. It is a gray, rainy day. Visible pollution hanging over Hong Kong used to be brown. Now it is white. Well, he shrugs, that is progress. He sees other challenges in his job. The struggle to protect international property rights is one hurdle before him. There are problems which did not exist five years ago, he reflects. But they are problems of progress, problems caused by improvements in many spheres. Take the World Trade Organisation and the dispute over China exports and the US trade imbalance; that is a problem that arose because of the 'great achievement' of China's entrance to the world trade body. In many ways, Hong Kong has come through catastrophic situations with admirable aplomb, he believes. He ticks off disasters; bird influenza, the economic crash of 1997, a change of sovereignty, the tourism setback after September 11 choked visitor flows and Sars. 'Hong Kong has been through so much,' he notes. 'But the city and its people have a spirit of optimism. They've weathered those calamities. 'People who bet on Hong Kong have usually won. People who bet against Hong Kong have lost.' Though he was far way during the Sars crisis, he dealt with it on a daily basis. As president of the Asian Wall Street Journal Weekly, he spoke regularly with the New York offices of every Asian territory, their trade offices and tourism organisations. 'The Hong Kong representatives were by far the best,' he claims, heaping praise on government officers and staff of the Trade Development Council and the Hong Kong Tourism Board. 'They were excellent in telling the total truth and keeping people informed. You could trust them. So when they said the crisis had passed and Hong Kong was on the road back to recovery, you could trust them.' This gives him great confidence in the future where he sees AmCham playing an important role working with bodies such as the TDC, HKTB and other voices of Hong Kong Inc as a conduit for China. AmCham, he insists, has a key role not only to channel and aid American firms seeking to do business in China, but to help steer Chinese firms as they seek business opportunities and connections in the US. He is sceptical of viewpoints that AmCham is seen by many people as staid, middle-aged and packed by vested interests. 'People see us as a working chamber,' he argues. 'We're serious. Our programmes are content driven. I hope that doesn't mean we're devoid of fun. 'We're relevant to peoples' businesses. We produce a large number of position papers. Our annual door-knock in Washington sees us briefing Congress and leading business bodies on Hong Kong. We're constantly approached by branches of government, trade groups, business organisations and universities with MBA programmes asking us to brief them on current issues and trends. 'Today, there was an AmCham breakfast where we were briefed by 12 officials from the consulate. It wasn't exactly a time for cracking jokes.' Mr Maisano is anything but staid and dreary. He was a child of his age. He graduated with an arts degree from New York University in 1969, then gained his master's in the philosophy of law at the City University of New York. Instead of going into lucrative practice, he joined the Peace Corps. Why sacrifice a legal career to try to help people on Cheju Island off the coast of South Korea? 'I believed in what the Peace Corps was doing,' he says. 'I was a John F. Kennedy-era child, and an optimist at heart. In 1970, I had travelled overland through the Middle East all the way to Delhi. I saw a need to bridge the cultural divide that separates country from country. 'I asked to be sent to Ethiopia or India. Probably because of the burgeoning growth in East Asia, I was invited to go to Korea. I was delighted to accept.' He still haltingly speaks and writes the Korean he learned as a volunteer, a handy addition to his spoken Putonghua. Mr Maisano served two years in Korea in the grim era of the early 70s and in the freewheeling spirit of the era decided to travel around Southeast Asia. He did not go business class. He recalls boarding a rusting freighter in Hong Kong for the voyage to Singapore. He explored the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Laos. Travel was mostly by bus and train. He met the people. He fell in love with Asia. There was another sort of romance, too. When he first landed in Hong Kong in 1974, he had met a girl named Tina Tse. 'I fell in love with her at that time but wasn't smart enough to realise it,' he laughs. Months on the road in Southeast Asia honed his senses; he flew back to Hong Kong to propose. They were married in Taipei in 1976. Their two Hong Kong-born children, Jacelyn and Nicholas attended ESF schools before going to the US for higher education. There were few logical career paths in 1975 for an American lawyer whose only proven work skills was social service on a Korean farming island. So Mr Maisano did what many other foreign newcomers have done; he got a job on a newspaper. It was to prove a fateful choice. Starting as a sub-editor on the Hongkong Standard was a springboard which lifted him swiftly into the management ranks of publishing. For the 25 years he was in Hong Kong he held increasingly important positions. In 2000, he was president of Asiaweek. Before the demise of that newsmagazine, he was appointed publisher of the New York-published Asian Wall Street Journal Weekly. The weekly was circulated to the top bracket of US powerbrokers. But by 2002 with future profitability looking increasingly shaky, the owners, Dow Jones, closed it. That effectively ended a 27-year career in publishing for Mr Maisano. During his tenure at companies such as Far East Trade Press he had also been president of the Society of Hong Kong Publishers and a spokesman for the industry. During those same years, he was active in the American Chamber of Commerce. He sat on the board for a couple of years and was busy on a series of AmCham committees. It was largely because of this network of friends he had made over two decades with his time on AmCham that he was shortlisted by headhunters seeking a replacement for Mr Martin. Mr Maisano accepted immediately. It is not hard to understand why. 'The greenery,' he exults waving his arm at the rain and the luxuriant growth on the spiny ridges of Hong Kong Island. 'The weather; ever been in a New York winter? The efficiency, the food, the majesty of what's left of the harbour, the subway, the airport, the sophistication and energy of the people, their power and imagination.' Jack's glad to be back. Biography Since 2002, Jack Maisano has been president of the China Institute in America, a not-for-profit organisation working on cultural exchange. He has an arts degree from New York University, and a master's in the philosophy of law at the City University of New York. Between 1972 and 1974, he was a member of the Peace Corps, stationed in South Korea. Arriving in Hong Kong, he began as a sub-editor with the Hongkong Standard in 1976. In 1980, he joined Times Publishing (HK), rising to general manager. He served on various government and local committees in his 25 years in Hong Kong. He is married with two children.