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Looking for Change

James Wong, Chairman of Chinney Alliance Engineering, is an agent for change. He pushed forward new ideas at Island School and continues to do so as an urban developer. He explains why change is good!
10 Feb 2022
Written by Victoria Hill
Hong Kong SAR
School News
James Wong, third row, sixth from the left with his 10E form class
James Wong, third row, sixth from the left with his 10E form class

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Island School

Island School will open its new campus in August 2022. The school’s future and its legacy are being secured by the alumni who have come together to develop a network of support. James Wong, (Island School, Class of 1980, Einstein) Chairman of Chinney Alliance Engineering pushed forward new ideas at Island School and continues to do so as an urban developer. Here he explains why change is good!

We have would-be fighter pilot, James Wong, and his contemporaries to thank for a number of Island School firsts. James and Co: formalized the student union; initiated the senior school dances; started community tutoring classes, and they brought rock n roll to the school fairs! Thanks to James and friends the block 5 playground became party-central on campus and it stayed that way for 30 years, with carnivals, games, and performances being commonplace. James and the student union wanted the school to belong to them - prioritizing student's voice. Just once did Headmaster, Jonty Driver, invite James and friends into his office to ask them to “tone things down.”

What James put into school life he got back out. His History teacher, David James, ignited a passion for learning and introduced him to rugby. “I had zero interest in history and I didn’t even know what rugby was until David James joined the school. I had never studied French until Island School and I loved it. I developed a strong connection to France. Now I am on the board of governors for a Business School in Paris. And I wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for Island School.”

After Borrett Road, James went to the University of Washington in Seattle and completed a degree in Statistical Economics. Followed by an Engineering Degree a the Florida Institute of Technology and a Law degree at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, - where he met some notable classmates. “A year behind me in Law school was a clever young person called Kamala Harris. In class, we would argue together. She is really a wonderful arguer!”

Working as a lawyer, James moved back and forth between the States and Hong Kong for much of the 1990s and early 2000s before settling back in Hong Kong. “I think it is typical of my age group to do the back-and-forth. I know a lot of people who did the same. But in 2010 my parents were a certain age and needed help with the family business. I came back and I have been here ever since.”

The family business, the Chinney Group, has many branches, the main two being construction and real estate. “On the construction side, we are best known for our foundation work. We currently do most of the airport business: tower lights, radar systems, radio systems, and x-rays.”

“On the real estate side, probably the most famous thing we have is a couple of hotels, including one called The Bauhinia in Sheung Wan. And we have a very very large data center in Hong Kong right now and a whole bunch of things we do in China.”

But James’ real passion is aviation. “If I had better sight I would be a fighter pilot. That would have been my calling, but my eyesight is absolutely terrible.” “Much of our [company] projects are aviation-related and I sit on the board of the Florida Institute of Technology, the number one aviation institute in the USA.”

Technology and the development of new technologies is another source of inspiration. “I am a big believer that technology can solve our problems. I am not naive enough to assume it [tech] can solve all our problems but it can definitely help." “A good day for me would be when I find a technology that is immediately applicable. The building and airport industries are not particularly Green and I am very conscious that we need to keep our carbon emissions low. So I am very excited by technology that will help us go to carbon zero or carbon-negative operations.” “The good thing about being in a family business is that I can steer the ship and I can focus on the important things - like carbon-neutral technologies. I can actually make things happen.” “Recently we [the business] started exploring concrete that absorbs carbon. These types of technologies are not as expensive or as hard to find as you might think and people are commercializing them.” “We have the added advantage because not only can we invest but we can also go to the target of the investment and build connections with different providers such as HK airport, or the MTR or China High Speed Rail. We can bring the technology to the users and then the developer can scale their business very very quickly.”

 

True to his younger self James continues to be an agent for change. "I am part of a group called the Urban Land Institute. It is the largest real estate association in the world. This executive group is made up of architects, developers and money people, etc. All of us are trying to make the urban environment better, including developing carbon zero infrastructure.”

James and his family support development and change at the philanthropic level. With investment in education as their priority for societal advancement. “My sister Emily and I loved Island School. Island school is one of the reasons that Hong Kong is Hong Kong. It is a school meant for kids like us [my sister and I]. We came to Hong Kong from the US and we would not have fitted into a local school easily. We turned up at this place [Island School] and it turned out to be wonderful. And Emily and I would like it to continue to be wonderful.”

“We [Islanders] are global nomads. Going to an international school in a place that is as international as Hong Kong - stays with you.

 

For people who really need roots this is a bad thing but for people who don’t mind exploring new diverse cultures and learning about other civilizations and other ways of thinking - this is wonderful. I think Island School really encouraged that in me. And not only was it OK but school gave me a set of tools that’s helped me deal with being a nomad out there in the real world. Like learning to get along with people - no matter what they look like and where they come from.”

“We [my family and I ] believe that education is the road to civilization. The more people that are educated the more we are likely to be able to think reasonably about social issues - and issues such as climate change. I think education is the basis for common understanding." "Education is for people, it has got to be for people and it is the route to advancement. Through education, we can better address poverty, ignorance, and all the important things.”

This year James became a Back to Borrett Road Founding Patron. Click here to find out how you can be involved in the new campus and support the school future and its legacy.

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