The world’s spotlight has been on Hong Kong, where an estimated two million people took to the streets earlier this week not only to protest a contentious extradition bill but also to call for the resignation of Carrie Lam Yuet-ngor, the Chief Executive.
While Ms Lam’s life has been an open book, having spent much of her adult career in public service, it would be good to take a look at Ms Lam’s roots, how Hong Kong’s first female Chief Executive came to power.
“777” was anointed with a hug
The clearest sign that Ms Lam was slated to fill the top political position in Hong Kong was a public hug from Tung Chee-hwa in December 2016 at a public ceremony.
Mr Tung had been the first chief executive of Hong Kong in 1997 and remained a powerful and influential figure as a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
During the most recent campaign to become Chief Executive, the most popular candidate had been John Tsang Chun-wah, who had been the head of the treasury.
Elections in Hong Kong are decided by an election committee of 1,200 members, whose decision must meet Beijing’s approval. Ms Lam had garnered 777 of those votes, causing her to win the election.
“777” has become one of her nicknames since being sworn into office on July 1, 2017, by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Beijing.
Growing up in relative poverty
Ms Lam was born Cheng Yuet-ngor in Hong Kong on May 13, 1957. The fourth of five children, she and her siblings grew up in an apartment in a crowded tenement building in Lockhart Road, Wan Chai. She was educated at a Catholic school, St.Francis’ Canossian College, where she became head prefect.
She then went on to major in social work at the University of Hong Kong, where she was a student activist who supported boat-dwellers in their fight against being evicted from the Yau Ma Tei harbour in Kowloon. She later switched courses to study sociology, graduating with a Bachelor of Social Sciences in 1980, after which she joined Hong Kong’s Administrative Service
Upon her return to Hong Kong, she continued at the Administrative Service, getting assigned to various departments including health, security, and finance, and served as Deputy Secretary for the Treasury in the 1990s.
By 2000 Ms Lam was appointed as director of social welfare. In 2003, at the height of the SARS epidemic, she and three fellow civil servants started the privately-funded We Care Education Fund, raising HK $80 million for children who had been orphaned by SARS.
At a time of financial constraints in Hong Kong, as Director of the Social Welfare Department, Ms Lam had to limit the benefits of the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance scheme, which under her term became available only to Hong Kong residents of more than 7 years and excluded those who had newly migrated.
After her stint at the Social Welfare Department, Ms Lam became Permanent Secretary for Housing, Planning, and Lands (Planning and Lands) and chairman of the Town Planning Board in 2003. The following year, she was appointed the Director-General of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London, where she spent the next two years.
In 2006 she became Permanent Secretary for Home Affairs but left the civil service a year later upon her appointment as Secretary for Development, a position she kept in the next few years, until she became Chief Secretary for Administration in 2012, before going on to becoming Chief Executive in 2017.
In 1982 Ms Lam met her husband, Lam Siu-por, now a retired mathematician, while she was on a government scholarship at Cambridge University. Ms Lam had broken her leg in an accident while bicycling around the University, and her future husband had been one of her frequent visitors, which is how their love story began.
Mr Lam makes his home in the UK and is a British citizen. The couple have two sons, one who is studying in the US, and another who works in Beijing.
Hong Kong’s “Iron Lady” has admitted publicly that she misses her husband, and sometimes gets lonely in Hong Kong. She said in an interview in 2013, “I have talked to my husband and asked him to come back and be with me more,” but “he likes to stay in Britain and do what he likes to do.”
Though she talked about retirement in the past, Ms Lam has not failed to answer the call of duty, even as she admits to missing her sons. “The first thing will be to visit my two sons as they are not in Hong Kong,” she said in a radio interview in May 2016. “I’ll just stay for a while … I can cook them meals and take care of them.”
For Ms Lam, her mother is her hero, though “not an educated woman, but knew very well what was good for her sons and daughters” she told the South China Morning Post (SCMP).
Ms Lam added, “She noticed that I loved to read books and study, and so she arranged for me to apply to a very prestigious primary school.”/ TISG