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Travelling in the shadow of trouble

Football in Switzerland, cricket in England and rugby in Japan have offered rich entertainment for Boase Cohen & Collins Senior Partner Colin Cohen, but Hong Kong’s ongoing social turmoil continues to be uppermost in his thoughts. Here, he reflects on a busy four months in which the delights of overseas travel have contrasted starkly with disturbing developments at home.

BLUM-ING MARVELLOUS

It’s late July and I’m in the Zurich offices of law firm Blum & Grob, our Swiss counterparts in Ally Law, where a group of Partners and Associates listen attentively to my presentation about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the business opportunities it offers. I think it’s an interesting talk on a relevant topic but, after I finish, 90% of their questions are about the protests in Hong Kong which are well into their second month. I may be 9,000km from home but there’s no escaping our city’s summer of discontent.

I’ve been invited to Switzerland by my good friend and fellow football fan Bruno Chiomento, who is keen to show me around his homeland. I meet him in Basel and, naturally, he takes me to a match. It’s FC Basel hosting PSV Eindhoven in the second leg of their Champions League second qualifying round tie. The Basel ultras are a sight to behold with their flags and flares and they celebrate wildly when their team scrapes through.

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FC Basel’s fanatical fans give the teams a raucous welcome.

Then it’s Swiss National Day and we do it justice with a return to Cheval Blanc, the three-star Michelin restaurant where we’d enjoyed a fabulous evening some months earlier. The Chef de Cuisine here is Peter Knogl, an ardent football fan (of course) who we’d met at last year’s World Cup in Russia. We also find time for a round of golf with Bruno’s teenage son, Michael – AKA Young Bruno – although I avoid wagers or even any good-natured teasing as I remember the kid is a very handy player indeed. As well, we visit the FIFA Museum when we are back in Zurich. Bruno, it seems, subscribes to the theory that you can never have too much football.

TEST OF PATIENCE

After a week in Hong Kong, my next destination is London and sport is again on the menu, this time the Ashes test at Lord’s. The last time I was at the home of cricket was August 2018 for England v India when a deluge hit and Lord’s experienced its first washout of a whole day’s test play since 2001. Maybe I bring bad luck, because it happens again. Once play finally begins, one of my guests is Premier League football referee Martin Atkinson and we spend much of the day discussing the rules of cricket, after which Martin concludes his chosen sport is altogether much less confusing.

Time spent flying has given me ample time to ponder the chaos into which Hong Kong has descended, with protesters and police seemingly locked in a cycle of violence while the government stays mostly dormant. During a brief lull in the storm I pen a blog, Reasons to Still Believe in Our City, in which I conclude “our government has the opportunity to begin rapprochement and show it is serious about reform”. The blog is well received by clients and friends and for a short time I feel genuine – but, sadly, misplaced – optimism that we might move forward more peacefully.

I spend all of one day in Hong Kong before taking daughter Marianne and grandson Nathan for a week’s holiday on Australia’s Gold Coast. Time to work on the golf game at Royal Pines (Young Bruno had better watch out) and spend some quality time with the family. We return home with batteries recharged.

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Grandson Nathan loves it in Australia, here he is atop a dam.

Early September and an important appointment, presenting the Boase Cohen & Collins Prize in Accounts and Financial Management at the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law’s annual prize giving. My association with HKU dates back to the early 1980s as a lecturer and I retain an honorary lecturer’s role here. It is always a pleasant occasion, catching up with old friends, although talk inevitably turns to what is happening on our streets. It is well documented that a significant number of the more radical protesters are students, a fact which seems hard to reconcile with the bright-eyed and earnest young law graduates collecting their prizes.

MUCH TO DO IN MOSCOW

Fast forward two days and I’m bound for Russia again, the latest of several visits I’ve made this year. During my usual flight to Moscow via Helsinki I finalise the three important items on my agenda – dealing with an ongoing case, meeting firms who are candidates to join Ally Law and catching up with my good friend Andrey Gorlenko. When he’s not watching football, playing in a rock band or introducing me to different brands of vodka, Andrey is Executive Administrator of the Russian Arbitration Centre at the Russian Institute of Modern Arbitration. He’s accepted my invitation to speak at the Ally Law Asia Pacific Regional Meeting which we will host in October and is looking forward to visiting Hong Kong, protests notwithstanding. We’re enjoying a pleasant meal when I receive a text saying our firm has been named Dispute Resolution Boutique Law Firm of the Year at the Hong Kong Law Awards for the second year in a row. Naturally, this calls for a vodka shot or two.

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Pit stop – fine dining with friends at the Singapore GP.

After a lightning visit to Manila to see my friend Jeremy Glen and play golf (though not well enough to worry Young Bruno) my next trip is always one of the year’s highlights – the Singapore Grand Prix. This time there’s a large group of about 12, including Hong Kong legal counterparts Greg Knowles, David Lamb and Michael Lintern-Smith, plus of course Bruno Chiomento, once again displaying his amazing ability to juggle work commitments at home with flying visits to major sporting events. For once, our hero Lewis Hamilton fails to get on the podium as the Ferraris dominate but this does little to dampen a brilliant weekend of good friends and marvellous cuisine. We will never get tired of Singapore.

BIG IN JAPAN

By now the Rugby World Cup is looming large. I’ve sorted out tickets and arranged my schedule for the six-week shindig, which basically involves flying in and out of Japan numerous times, Bruno-fashion. For the first match, I land in Tokyo and catch the train to Kobe for England’s comfortable win over USA followed by a visit to Hodogaya Country Club in Yokohama where Japan’s Cambridge & Oxford Society is hosting its annual Autumn Golf Meeting. I’d like to think my game is improving! We watch on TV as Japan beat Ireland, sending the host nation into a frenzy and sparking the Rugby World Cup to life.

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Scrum time for England and USA – really, why do they bother?

After several days’ work in Hong Kong, I’m back in Tokyo for England v Argentina. As someone raised on the round ball game, I find certain aspects of rugby annoying. For a start, the constant hold-ups while the TMO reviews a passage of play are irritating and scrums appear a complete waste of everyone’s time. I voice my opinions to fellow spectators and am called a philistine for not understanding the rules. Argentina have a player sent off, which I’m told is not unusual, and England win with ease.

The following weekend offers a choice – Yokohama for England v France rugby or Nagoya to watch Formula 1. I love to see England beat France at anything but the motor racing is irresistible, so I give the rugby tickets to my friend Victor Apps and head for Suzuka Circuit to meet up with old Hong Kong friend Fred Pretorius, reluctant butler and laundryman John Garratt (see previous blogs) and my nephew Jason Cohen, who has flown in from Shanghai. It proves a smart move because Super Typhoon Hagibis causes the rugby to be cancelled whereas the race goes ahead after some disruptions to qualifying. We use the downtime to watch a rather good movie, The Joker, which chimes some familiar chords for this particular Hong Kong resident. The race is also entertaining although it doesn’t follow the hoped-for script as Lewis rolls in third.

HOST WITH THE MOST

I return to Hong Kong where we are hosting the Ally Law Asia Pacific Regional Meeting at the Conrad in Admiralty. The build-up has included some stressful moments due to the protests but, having taken the decision a month previously to forge ahead, we are rewarded with a hugely successful conference. We have a record attendance for Asia Pacific, our guest speakers are excellent, the panel discussions stimulating and the social events thoughly enjoyable. I’m particularly grateful to Michael Hartmann, former Non-Permanent Judge of the Court of Final Appeal, whose compelling keynote address covers the rule of law in Hong Kong and his experiences as a young trial lawyer in his native Zimbabwe, and to Legislative Councillor and barrister Dennis Kwok, who is eloquence and passion personified in a fascinating Q&A session during our Closing Dinner at the China Club.

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Dennis Kwok holds the audience spellbound at the China Club.

Back to Yokohama for the Rugby World Cup semi-finals. First, I watch the best performance I’ve ever seen by any England international team in any sport as they demolish the mighty All Blacks in what is clearly the real final. Next day, South Africa edge Wales in an altogether more pragmatic and low-key contest. Nothing for us to worry about next weekend, is the general view of England fans.

Much as it’s tempting to stay in Japan, work remotely and wait for the final, I absolutely have to be in the office for a poignant day in the history of Boase Cohen & Collins. My long-time colleague and fellow co-founder of our firm 34 years ago, the legend that is Melville Boase, is retiring. There are smiles, cheers and even some tears as dozens of colleagues past and present gather in our boardroom for his leaving party. The esteem in which he is held by everyone is obvious. The Partners and I host Mel and wife Linda to a farewell dinner in the evening, a wonderful occasion full of nostalgic reminiscing. Not that Mr and Mrs Boase are disappearing anytime soon. After a well-earned cruise to Vietnam, they will be back with us for our office Christmas party.

THE RED ROSE WILTS

And now, the Rugby World Cup final! I attend with Victor Apps and, like the thousands of other England fans present, we are confident our team can join the fabled class of 2003 as world champions. South Africa, however, have saved their best until last, dominating an error-prone England and striking with two late tries for a 32-12 victory. They are deserving winners. Not that the occasion is spoiled, far from it. Victor and I retire to the hospitality lounge, drown our sorrows, congratulate South African fans and reflect on a truly brilliant Rugby World Cup. I’m still no wiser about the rules, though.

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Final disappointment for England as South Africa celebrate.

I return to Hong Kong and another major legal gathering. This time it’s the annual LAWASIA Conference which has attracted some 600 lawyers from the region and the event’s importance is highlighted by the presence of two senior ministers, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung and Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng, at the opening ceremony. We might be watching a lion dance but, thanks to the protests, there is also an elephant in the room.

On day two of the conference I appear on a panel discussing sports law, which proves an illuminating experience, one that underscores the rapid expansion of the multi-billion-dollar global sports industry and the impact it is having on the legal profession. Naturally, my thoughts turn to sporting events on the horizon, such as Euro 2020 football – tickets sorted already!

CAMPUS CHAOS

A flying work visit to St Petersburg (it might be my sixth trip to Russia this year, I’m not sure) is followed by a welcome family break in Shanghai but news on the home front is more gloomy than ever, with radical protesters causing weekday travel chaos by blocking roads and disrupting train services while our city’s universities are turned into unforgiving battlegrounds. The Education Bureau is forced to close all schools for several days. Of course, safety of our staff is the top priority so those who cannot make it to the office are allowed to work from home while others adopt flexible working hours to try to avoid the travel disruptions. I compose an email for our clients, contacts and friends to keep them updated about the situation on the ground and say I’m hopeful “commonsense will eventually prevail and that senior figures will come to the fore and take decisive steps to defuse this situation”. Like many Hongkongers, I feel we are crying out for some firm leadership.

Fortunately, the District Council elections are coming and it appears even the most radical protesters don’t wish to give the government an excuse to cancel them, so we enjoy a few days of welcome calm. The 24 November ballot is being widely viewed as a barometer of support for the anti-government movement and interest is high, as evidenced by the long queues at my local polling station. The results flood in overnight, confirming an overwhelming victory for the pan-democrats, with pro-establishment councilors ousted from seats throughout the territory. The people have spoken but still, it seems, no one in the government is really listening.

KING LEWIS

The roar of F1 provides a much-needed distraction. I fly to Dubai and take a car to neighbouring Abu Dhabi for the season finale, to be enjoyed in the company of my brother Ian who has flown in from the UK. Lewis Hamilton, already confirmed as world champion for the sixth time, does not disappoint, dominating the race and winning with ease. Every F1 Grand Prix is enjoyable, but a victory for Lewis is always a welcome bonus.

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With brother Ian outside Lewis Hamilton’s garage.

The post-race scenes of joy and camaraderie, alas, are not being replicated at home. News comes through that the city is experiencing its first outbreak of trouble since the District Council elections, with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets in Whampoa as mobs smash up shops with mainland connections. And so it continues. As I concluded in my recent letter to clients: “I hope the outlook will be brighter the next time I write to you.”