HKIE Awards - Gold medal
By Angela TAM
Laying down roots and building a world city: Ir James Blake
Fifty-five years ago, a young British engineer was posted to Hong Kong during his national service. After supervising the construction of the swimming pool at Gun Club Hill Barracks in King's Park, among other projects, the young man was sent back to the UK, in 1959.
Smitten with Hong Kong, however, the 25-year old was determined to find a way back. Remembering the name "Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick & Partners" when he observed the opening of the Kai Tak runway before his departure, he promptly applied when, back in London, he saw an advertisement placed by the firm of consultants seeking engineers.
Ir James Blake was not only hired: he was able to persuade his employers to send him back to Hong Kong, to supervise a government works contract. Thus began a career in civil engineering that saw this year's winner of the HKIE Gold Medal assuming responsibility for many of the large-scale, high-profile projects that have transformed the city into such a successful metropolis, notably the Airport Core Programme (ACP) projects and West Rail.
For members of the public as well as those in the industry, Ir Blake is best known as Secretary for Works and the senior director of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation (KCRC). He did not assume the positions as a career civil servant, however.
Joining a local contractor
After overseeing major works such as the development of Kwai Chung, the construction of Lai Chi Kok Bridge, Tuen Mun Highway and the first cross-harbour tunnel, he was invited to join Paul Y Construction Ltd, the contractor for the Lai Chi Kok Bridge.
The government was looking to build a mass transit system in Hong Kong at the time and the contractor was interested in bidding for some of the contracts, including the Kowloon Bay depot and the Kowloon Bay to Prince Edward section of what came to be known as the Modified Initial System. Short of design capability, the firm initially engaged a firm of consultants to help with the tenders.
Ir Blake worked with the engineers from the consultants, developing construction methods suitable for local conditions. For example, to excavate the MTR stations, the contractor proposed to use hand-dug caissons rather than heavy machinery because Hong Kong had plenty of labour but little experience of diaphragm wall construction at the time. The approach was successful and the firm won the contracts for constructing Diamond Hill and Choi Hung Stations, the running line in between, the running line between Choi Hung and Kowloon Bay, and Kowloon Bay Depot.
Ir Blake spent 18 years with the contractor, helping the firm and its joint venture partners develop the Eastern Harbour Crossing before leaving in 1988.
Joining the Government
After a stint working for himself as well as for Maunsell Consultants Asia, Ir Blake was persuaded by friends to apply for the position of Secretary for Works. Having decided to launch the ACP, the Hong Kong Government then realised that the projects would be far more complex than any works programme it had undertaken previously. As a result a new post, Secretary for Works, was created and a worldwide search was conducted to find a suitable candidate to oversee the programme.
Ir Blake was offered the position in July 1991 - at almost the same time he assumed the presidency of the HKIE. His initial concern over potential conflict of interest was assuaged by the Executive and an arrangement was made under which his predecessor, Ir Dr James Chiu, would represent the Institution at meetings with the Government as Immediate Past President.
"The Works Bureau was staffed by professionals who were beholden to policy bureaus led by administrative officers for policy support and funding for projects. My job as Secretary for Works was to intercede between them as necessary in order to keep the projects moving," Ir Blake recalled.
During his tenure Ir Blake not only oversaw the implementation of the ACP, but also the extension of the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre and other projects. His negotiating skills also helped the Government develop a way forward for what was then called the Strategic Sewage Disposal Scheme, under which treated effluent was to be discharged south of Hong Kong Island, beyond Hong Kong waters.
Joining the KCRC
Ir Blake left the Government at a time when then KCRC chairman Kevin Hyde was promoting the idea of a new western rail corridor. When approval was given for the development of West Rail, Ir Blake was appointed as senior director, capital projects - by the one member of the government panel who had voted against his appointment as Secretary for Works. The former Financial Secretary, K Y Yeung, had left the government and succeeded Mr Hyde as KCRC chairman.
"He told me he was the only one who voted against my appointment, but once I assumed the post, he thought I was all right," Ir Blake recalled.
Mr Yeung had realised that, just as the Government was not geared to handle the ACP without a new structure under a new head, KCRC's works department was not geared to run a project on the scale of West Rail. Ir Blake was picked out of a shortlist of candidates to steer the project, the budget for which had by that stage swelled to HK$65 billion at 1997 prices.
Ir Blake took the decision to replace the project management consultant with an in-house project management team. By the time the project was completed in 2003, its budget had been brought back down to HK$45 billion.
In 2006 he was appointed chief officer of KCRC, in which capacity he helped his colleagues manage the corporation's operational merger with the MTR Corporation.
"The advantage of the single operator approach is the introduction of point-to-point fares and efficiencies at system interfaces," he said. "I had the job of persuading my KCRC colleagues to join the MTR. The embedment of KCRC staff in the MTR team is good for Hong Kong."
He remains proud of the way West Rail has changed the New Territories landscape, delivering hundreds of thousands of new homes which also provide the Government with a healthy share of land revenues.
Now 79 and resolutely a Hong Konger, Ir Blake seldom visits the UK. When he does, it is usually for no more than a few days.
"When I came in 1958 I had no inkling of what 'the Far East' was like. The Hong Kong way of life got hold of me very quickly so when it came time to leave I had to find a way to come back. Since then I've had no interest in going anywhere else," he said.
Ir Blake is certainly not going anywhere else: he has been tapped, and has agreed, to act as an expert adviser on another major project, though he will not say what it is. His vast experience is sure to benefit whoever work alongside him.
"On West Rail we knew the guiding words: a shared problem is a solved problem," he said. "As I said at the [HKIE Awards] ceremony, the Gold Medal in reality represents the hundreds of engineers that have been around me and worked with me on these big projects."
Many more will learn at first hand Ir Blake's team approach towards engineering, when the next project is launched.
Ir Blake on a West Rail train in 2003. Image: KCRC
Ir Blake was made an Honorary Fellow of HKIE in 2007