It's not so exotic for the honorary consuls

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 July, 2010, 12:00am

They're often depicted as suave, sophisticated and never far from the next cocktail party. But while the job of honorary consul might sound exotic, the reality of life as 'Our Man in Hong Kong' is not quite the stuff of a Graham Greene novel.

Unlike career diplomats, they are not paid for representing the interests of the states who appoint them, nor do they get any direct reward for coming to the aid of its citizens who come into their orbit. Nor are they afforded the same privileges and immunities granted to full-time diplomats under the Vienna Convention.

While the position of honorary consul undoubtedly has its perks, not least the ability to carry on your day job and boost its and your profile, career diplomats can look down their noses at their honorary colleagues; the position is often seen as being one of style and little substance.

But all that may be changing, at least for the 59 honorary consuls who now ply their diplomatic trade in Hong Kong.

Their number has grown from 37 at the handover in 1997, an increase that reflects both the changing complexion of the diplomatic community because of the city's switch from being a colonial outpost to integral part of an increasingly powerful China and the cost constraints under which governments must operate.

Financial and logistical imperatives have already seen some consulates move their Hong Kong operations to Shanghai or Beijing; among these are those of Hungary and Norway, which had long stationed career diplomats in Hong Kong.

Others, including those of Denmark, may also be on the move, according to Dr Henry Chan, who has been honorary consul for the southwest African state of Namibia since 1993. Chan, by day a chiropractor in Causeway Bay, is chairman of the Association of Honorary Consuls in Hong Kong and Macau, which was set up in 2008 with 12 members and now boasts a cadre of 36.

He was appointed Namibia's honorary consul after making business trips there while he was living in the United States. Chan got to know, and treated, Samuel Nujoma , before he became the first president of an independent Namibia in 1990.

'People often joke that I only got the job because I literally had the president by the neck,' says Chan, adding: 'The position has definitely changed since the handover. Whether that be because of economic considerations, I can't comment.

'The number of honorary consuls in Hong Kong has increased since the handover. It is clear to me that the number one reason is that as China has opened up, as a result everyone wants a piece of the China, and by extension, Hong Kong pie. Foreign governments do not see Hong Kong as less important, they just have to make sure that their finite resources are used properly.

'I am attending 150 functions a year. There are more and more visitors now so I am involved with more visa work and I am also having to visit people [from Namibia] who are in prison here,' says Chan.

He says the role of honorary consul should be used to build bridges with the global community and serve the interests of both Hong Kong and the nation a consul represents.

As you would expect, asked about relations with their career colleagues, Chan is, well, diplomatic. 'We are very friendly and on a personal level, good friends. Of course, diplomacy is rooted in making friends, you don't want to upset anyone. But of course, sometimes we disagree.'

Socialite and businessman David Tang Wing-cheung, honorary consul for Cuba, has a different take on the job. 'All we really do is issue tourist visas for Cuba. Anything other than that we aren't allowed to do anyway as it must be sent up to Beijing or Shanghai. There's also now a consulate general in Guangzhou, so if it's not relating to visas it gets sent to them automatically,' Tang said.

'I have a business in Cuba where I sell cigars, so I was asked around 10 years ago if I'd take the position and I said yes. It was a logical move. I've met Fidel Castro a few times - not in my role as honorary consul, but because of my business interests.

'It is not a taxing job.'