Finding the right ingredients for a successful career: Ir Victor Cheung (By Secretariat)

Self Photos / Files - 59. photo

For many Hong Kong engineers who finished secondary school in the 1970s, choosing a career path was straightforward. Having picked the science stream in secondary school, aspiring youngsters who did not like their chemistry or biology as much as their maths and physics would choose engineering rather than the medical sciences in university.

Ir Victor Cheung, however, did not have that choice. Growing up the son of a cook, he seemed destined for a life in a commercial kitchen too – until two mentors stepped in.

"We lived in subsidised rental housing in Aberdeen" Ir Cheung recalled. "We had two neighbours who were teachers at the Aberdeen Technical School and they suggested to my father that I should study engineering rather than become a cook, so I took an exam and was accepted."

In addition to the core science subjects, he also studied carpentry, metalwork and machinery, as well as electrical and electronic theory and technical drawing. His family could not afford to send him to university, so after he finished secondary school in 1976, the options open to vocational students like him was to become either a factory worker or ship technician. As Hong Kong was beginning to develop a lot of new buildings at the time, however, Ir Cheung discovered a different option.

Following a classmate's footsteps, he joined Jardine Engineering Corporation as a draughtsman in the air-conditioning department.  The monthly salary was just HK$500, but there was much satisfaction in being involved in large-scale projects such as the Landmark and Harbour City. Keen to improve himself, the young man also took time to attend night school at the then Hong Kong Polytechnic.  

Going abroad

Then, in 1980, he saw an advertisement that was to change the course of his life. A consultancy firm was offering two years' training at its UK headquarters.  Ir Cheung applied and was hired.

The firm was Kennedy & Donkin, which had large-scale projects that included power stations and railway systems in Africa and the Middle East. Leaving behind his family and girlfriend, he found himself in an alien environment in the UK, one of five recruits who were to house together and lend each other support.

Again, it was a mentor that helped him. Ir Cheung had a project leader who was good at mechanical design and willing to teach the young man from Hong Kong. What's more, he was happy to arrange day release for him so he could further his education. Ir Cheung used the day off to study for an engineering diploma. However, by the time he finished, after two years, he found himself alone in the UK as the others had decided to return to Hong Kong.

"I asked to stay," Ir Cheung said. "I was very hardworking so they were happy to apply for a work permit for me so I could stay."

The decision meant Ir Cheung was able to pursue an engineering degree at the South Bank Polytechnic, which had a reputable building services degree programme, even though it was called a BSc in environmental engineering at the time. He graduated with first class honours after studying part-time for four years, taking a one to one-and-a-half-hour train journey to the polytechnic after work before finally going home everyday.

Ir Cheung also continued his upward journey as the consultancy firm promoted him and he went on to pursue a part-time master's degree in energy engineering at the University of Surrey.

Towards the end of 1988, Ir Cheung asked to be sent back to the firm's Hong Kong office. Many people had left Hong Kong by then due to uncertainty over the territory's future, but Ir Cheung returned at the right time. The Sino-British Agreement had been signed and the economy was recovering; there were more opportunities for work. His first project was the Tsuen Wan Library and Government Offices, for the Architectural Services Department. These were followed by infrastructure projects such as Tate's Cairn Tunnel, Tuen Mun Light Rail System and Black Point power station. By 1994, he had been promoted from senior engineer to director.  

Continual learning

That same year, Kennedy & Donkin was acquired by J Roger Preston (JRP) and Ir Cheung joined the directorship. One of the largest building services engineering firms in the region, JRP has a portfolio that includes the HSBC headquarters building, the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology campus, Two International Finance Centre and the International Commerce Centre.

"Actually many of the projects I handled when I was young were designed by JRP, so the connection has been there from early on," Ir Cheung said. "The company is also best known as the training school and cradle of many successful building services engineers in Hong Kong and the region."

Through the years, Ir Cheung has been able to apply what he has learnt as well as continue the learning.  

One example of the former is the district cooling system in Kai Tak. When he was in the UK he had handled a district heating scheme that involved large pumping stations and boiler plants. The only difference is the energy medium.  

"Air-conditioning design was difficult in those days because you had to calculate the heating/cooling load by long hand, which was tedious. The advent of computer software has made a huge difference to designers," Ir Cheung said. "But the art and techniques of manual drafting have long vanished as the tasks have been automated through the use of CAD systems, which have evolved from 2D to 3D building information modelling with many powerful design features."

Projects that gave Ir Cheung opportunities to learn something new include the City of Dreams project in Macau some ten years ago. To better understand the unique requirements of such a large-scale gaming project, Ir Cheung went to Australia to study the casinos in operation there. 

Another project that gave Ir Cheung particular satisfaction was the Green 18 project at the Hong Kong Science Park. At a time when Hong Kong was not very familiar with the green building concept, the client came up with the 'green' vision with a view towards developing a demonstration project. A study tour to Australia was organised for the consultants and Ir Cheung spent a week visiting green buildings in Melbourne and Sydney. Green technologies that were subsequently applied to the project included a lightweight roof material that would reduce both dead load and solar heat gain, a hybrid ventilation design that combines natural ventilation in the winter with air-conditioning in the summer, photovoltaic panels, a solar hot water system, wind turbines and, most importantly, an interactive display that introduces the green features and the energy savings they have achieved. The Green 18 project was completed in 2011 and won a Merit Award at the Green Building Award 2012.

Green building

Ir Cheung has long been interested in green building and energy efficiency.  

"People were talking about energy efficiency when I was in the UK because of the oil crisis during the 1980s. 'Energy manager' was a title that didn't even exist in Hong Kong then," Ir Cheung said.

When the Government was developing the first building energy efficiency code in 1998, he joined the lighting task force.  He also became involved with various technical committees as the Government moved towards a performance-based energy code, making an important contribution to the final enactment of the Building Energy Efficiency Ordinance in 2012.  Ir Cheung is a founding member of the Professional Green Building Council, which was established in 2002.  He also helped organise green initiatives such as the Green Building Award and Conference.

Ir Cheung not only helped the Government draft the energy codes, but also contributed his expertise to help Hong Kong combat SARS in 2003. As one of the 'SARS busters', he helped design an air-conditioning system for hospital ward that would minimise the risk of cross infection, a design that was subsequently adopted by many hospitals in the city. The SARS busters also re-designed the U-traps in floor drains to ensure they would retain water and not dry out and spread disease. This floor drain design has also been adopted for new buildings.

Ir Cheung became a chartered engineer in 1989 and joined the HKIE a year later. In 1994, he was invited to become Committee Member of the Building Services Division.

"I was involved in the committee organising technical visits at first. I started to enjoy these activities and wanted to contribute more," he said.  

In 1997 Ir Cheung became Chairman of the Division and a Council Member. In 2011, he decided to stand for election as a Vice President. He was elected and this year became the President of the HKIE in line with the succession plan. His theme for the 2014-15 is "Inspire the Young".

Inspiring the young 

"We engineers take great pride in our collective contributions and achievements," Ir Cheung said, noting that Hong Kong has developed from a tiny fishing village into a world city with world-class infrastructure and iconic skyscrapers, all built by engineers.  "To support sustainable development we need a steady supply of high-calibre engineers with the passion and dedication to create a better Hong Kong and a better world for future generations. My goal is to arouse the interest of young talents to pursue engineering to be their career of choice."

To inspire the young, Ir Cheung believes engineers should have what he called the '5As':

  1. Attitude: engineers must have passion for their work and always think positively
  2. Anaylsis: they must analyse themselves and situations and understand their own strengths and weaknesses and take correction actions
  3. Ability: don't underestimate one's own ability, but don't overestimate one's ability either; a balance is important.  Always apply one's best effort at work
  4. Adventurousness: one needs to get out of one's comfort zone and have the courage to take risks; young engineers should not be afraid of working overseas in order to broaden their horizons
  5. Assistance: nobody can know everything, so ask for advice; enlarge your social network so you can easily find someone to help you

He is keen to reach out to primary and secondary school students, especially girls, as women still make up less than 20% of members despite an increase in the number of graduate women engineers.  And from his own experience as a child, he knows how important it is to reach out to the parents.

"My parents didn't know anything about engineering.  If it hadn't been for our neighbours, I'd probably end up being a cook, like my father.  So I'd like to engage the parents, to let them learn more about engineering," he said.  "The profession will have more recognition in society as well if more people know what engineering is all about."

Although he never became a cook, Ir Cheung has by no means given up the culinary art.  "I love cooking and I'm good at making soufflés and other dessert.  If I wasn't an engineer, I would have probably become a Michelin-starred chef!" he said.

Ir Cheung is also a keen musician.  The Kenny G fan started out playing the harmonica and recorder at school, but decided to surprise his wife at their 20th wedding anniversary party by playing the saxophone. He persuaded a friend to teach him and duly performed at the party for his wife, who, of course, was deeply touched.  He enjoyed playing the instrument so much he has continued to play it. Like golf, he finds it a good way to relieve work pressure. Ir Cheung may not have as much time to play the saxophone or golf during his term as President, but young engineers are sure to be inspired, by his example as well as mentorship.

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