John So, the popular and flamboyant Hong Kong-born lord mayor of Melbourne will not seek a third term. After seven years, Mr So, the city's first popularly-elected mayor and its longest serving, was the strong favourite to win re-election on November 29. But the jovial politician, well known for his infectious laugh, felt it was time to move on. The Age newspaper reported that he choked back tears when he made his announcement at Melbourne Town Hall on Wednesday. 'I've given almost a quarter of my life to public service, and in return it has given me many of the most rewarding experiences of my life,' said Mr So, who went to Australia from Hong Kong in 1964. 'You cannot work 110 per cent forever and that is what this job requires. I am confident this is the right decision. It's time to pass the baton.' Before politics, Mr So was a physics teacher at Fitzroy High School in Melbourne's suburbs for eight years before opening a Chinese restaurant in 1976 and then setting up the Dragon Boat chain of restaurants. He was elected to the City of Melbourne council in 1991, and has been lord mayor since 2001. Mr So said he was proud to have served, and cited as his main achievement helping Melbourne regain its sense of pride, while winning the trust and confidence of its people. He said Melbourne was now recognised internationally as one of the foremost liveable and sustainable cities in the world. 'Melbourne has undergone such a phenomenal transformation,' he said. 'It is the fastest growing city in Australia and we forecast that at this rate in 20 years we will be the largest city in the country. 'I've always tried to contribute to the changes taking place in Melbourne, but since 1991 I've had the opportunity to be actually involved in formulating policy.' Mr So said he would not miss the hustle and bustle of public life and would still be actively working with the community, especially the Chinese community. 'I believe that a person from a Chinese background serving as the lord mayor of Melbourne sends a powerful message that this is a country of opportunity - a young country that welcomes people from all over the world to a land of a 'fair go'.' Mr So said he would continue his efforts to forge links between Australia and Asia. 'We have to capitalise on our geographical advantage and the fact that we have people here from all over the world,' he said. 'I think Australia should take a leadership role to connect western democracies with Asia and to identify opportunities in China.' The lord mayor ruled out full-time work and said that balancing work and family was his biggest challenge over the years. 'I'm grateful to have had the support of my wife Wendy and my wonderful children,' he said. On Thursday Mr So enjoyed his 62nd birthday with his family - uninterrupted. 'I had a wonderful day,' he said. 'My wife switched off my mobile for the whole day.' Now he looks forward to regular visits back to Hong Kong, where he still has two younger brothers and many school friends. Asked to take a punt on who would take his place, he said it was too soon to tell. 'I urge people with the passion, energy, enthusiasm and vision to take Melbourne forward to put their hand up,' he said. But Mr So is not without his critics, who say he spent too much. They point to figures from consultants Ernst and Young predicting the council will be insolvent within eight years if his spending programme is not curtailed. He was also criticised for travelling too much, seeking publicity and for overspending on marketing and media events. But whoever replaces him has huge shoes to fill. During his tenure Mr So became a cult figure with a strong media profile. He was the subject of a rap song (John So, He's My Bro), and was elected 'world's most popular mayor' in 2006. At the 2006 Commonwealth Games, he was cheered more enthusiastically than Victoria's then premier Steve Bracks or even the Queen. And despite affectionate ribbing about his 'incomprehensible' accent, Mr So has become an emblem of multicultural Australia. Municipal Association of Victoria president Dick Gross praised Mr So as a totally uninhibited and enthusiastic advocate of Melbourne. 'He did a great job. Town Hall was stodgy and he put a bit of life and eccentricity into it. Every nation that receives immigrants likes to celebrate the great stories and John was the classic great story,' he said. Former independent Melbourne city councillor Carrillo Gantner said young people loved his accent. 'He connected with my 15-year-old. He is a migrant and has a strong accent. Lots of migrants do. You had to listen to understand but that's not a bad thing,' he said. Mr Gantner, also former chair of the Asialink centre that works to enhance Australia's engagement with Asia, said Mr So was a great ambassador for Australia and hoped a role would be found for him to continue doing that. 'To have a Chinese lord mayor was very well received in Asia,' he said. 'I travelled the region a lot and they like that idea. 'He was very hard-working and very honest. My wife is Chinese and my impression is that he was also much liked and respected in the Chinese community.' That sentiment was echoed by Helen Sham-Ho and Benjamin Chow, who both came to Australia from Hong Kong as students in the early 1960s. Ms Sham-Ho, who became Australia's first Chinese MP in 1988, said the Chinese community was delighted when Mr So was elected lord mayor. 'And I was very pleased he stayed on for a second term,' she said. 'It was good for the Chinese community. We wanted to be recognised for our contribution to this country.' Mr Chow, former chairman of the federal government advisory Council for Multicultural Australia, said his election broke down perceptual barriers and opened doors for people of other backgrounds.