'The truly remarkable Helen Wong doesn't so much sell the new China as a destination as stand emblematic of it,' Australian journalist Glenn A. Baker said recently. Arriving in Sydney from Hong Kong in 1979 with a small suitcase, a rice cooker and a Walkman, Wong left her family behind to establish an Australian-based travel company. With China its focus, for the past 23 years, the 54-year-old's multi-award-winning business, Helen Wong's Tours, has been the conduit for thousands of Australians visiting China. 'I was one of the first Western business operators to sell tours to an emerging China and, in those days, little English was spoken, there were no international hotels and shopping was mainly at Friendship stores. It was a raw, authentic travel experience,' Wong recalls nostalgically. Her pioneering efforts received an important boost in 1993, when she tailored an itinerary for former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam and his wife, escorting them on a study programme of a country still largely unknown to the West. The mention of Hong Kong elicits childhood memories of street-hawker food, particularly seafood in Lei Yue Mun, the Botanical Gardens and riding on a sampan across Victoria Harbour. 'There were terrible water shortages and sometimes we only had four hours water supply every four days but we took daily swims at Stanley beach and I loved watching the aircraft land at Kai Tak airport. 'I was one of six children and life in Hong Kong in the 1950s to early 70s was tough. Most families relied on one factory income, putting plastic flowers together, sewing shoes and making toys to support themselves. As a child, I learned to make all these crafts and helped mum with the domestic duties. We learned to be independent, work and study hard. [At] my first job, [I had to work] over 12 hours each day, earning about A$50 per month. 'Dad always took care of the family and his words were always, 'respect the old',' sentiments deeply embedded with Wong, whose 90-year-old mother lives with her and her husband in Sydney. Wong recently decided to show her appreciation for China, a country she's spent her career promoting, by adopting a newborn panda named Ankali, meaning 'friendship', which is cared for at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in Chengdu, Sichuan province. Wong may have been honoured by international business and tourism bodies but her hope is that by financially supporting the work of this research organisation, future generations of Australian and Chinese visitors can continue to view these symbolic creatures in their natural habitat.