Not many people would choose to suspend a successful career as director of a surveying firm and start all over again to train as a barrister. But then James Pong has always looked for special challenges.
"It was a big investment in terms of both time and money, but I saw it as going forward, not backwards," says the head of the central prosecution unit of the Environmental Protection Department. "At the end of the day, I thought I would have a brighter future if equipped with a more substantial and detailed knowledge of the law."
So, with that objective, Pong quit a role that had seen him manage major construction projects, including the HK$200 million Academy of Medicine in Wong Chuk Hang, and head back to college in England.
Previously, he had taken a degree in building surveying at the University of Greenwich, a choice determined almost equally by an aptitude for maths and the desire not to follow an elder brother and other family members into engineering. He found the course thoroughly enjoyable, covering as it did aspects of building and maintenance management, contract law, tort, and arbitration. It led on naturally to two years' practical experience in London and an initial professional qualification as a chartered surveyor in the early 1990s.
"At the time, I was mainly doing project management and administration, making sure contractors met time frames and contained their costs," Pong says. "I then got involved in conversions and refurbishments for NatWest Bank buildings, and I became more interested in business law and finding out how a project is procured financially."
A logical next step was to take a master's degree in property investment at London's City University, but Pong's intention was never simply to collect qualifications. Rather, his steadily evolving ambition was to become a "one-stop shop", in effect an expert in every facet of the property business, capable of turning his hand to anything or running any size of enterprise.
Having returned to Hong Kong, he worked alongside major developers and quickly rose to director level with a firm of surveyors. However, he began to see there were limits to what he could learn on the job. He took a carefully calculated risk, deciding to retrain and become a fully fledged barrister. It involved studying at the College of Law in London, completing the academic requirements in Hong Kong and then following a master in the time-honoured tradition.
"I saw it as an important step in strengthening what I had and building a competitive edge," says Pong, who practised as a barrister specialising in construction and company law in the late 1990s. "Knowledge is power and, at the end of the day, my ambition is to become the chief executive of a large organisation."
That, though, is by no means a selfish or single-minded objective. Pong's role, for instance, which he has held since 2004, is very much about upholding the interests of the wider community. It oversees virtually all the environment-related prosecutions in Hong Kong under ordinances regulating such things as noise control, water pollution and the illegal dumping of construction waste.
Over the past few years, he has also made a point of dedicating as much time as feasible to helping advisory groups and industry committees. This includes involvement with bodies concerned with architecture, appeals, green buildings and facility management. It also accounts for his post as local committee chairman for the environmental group of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.
"These responsibilities are time-consuming, but I really want to do something for the people of Hong Kong," he says. "I love tackling problems and am very pragmatic in deliberating about options and coming to a conclusion. Also, one of the motives in becoming a barrister was to speak out for justice. I think that is very important. I will always try to uphold justice."
What still sometimes surprises him, in both his professional and voluntary activities, is how often people ignore the obvious ways to solve a problem. In most cases, finding an acceptable solution starts with taking the right approach.
"Nowadays, human beings tend to make things too complicated," Pong says. "When you want to tackle a problem, sometimes you only need to sit down with the other guy and frankly tell your side of the story with good intentions. Usually, there is no point worrying about tricks or technical things; what it comes down to is human relations and treating people with respect."
Does not "exclude the possibility" of one day working as a Christian missionary
Has a regular Saturday job teaching English to Primary Five students
Learned to play the guitar as an undergraduate and sometimes performs at church events
A favourite book when young was The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery because it showed there were different ways to look at the world
Managing quantity surveyor (building) HK$45,000 to HK$65,000 18 years up
Senior quantity surveyor (building) HK$35,000 to HK$45,000 10 to 15 years
Project quantity surveyor (building) HK$27,000 to HK$38,000 Eight to 12 years
Quantity surveyor (building) HK$17,000 to HK$28,000 Four to eight years