The announcement that the 1996 Summer Olympics would be held in Atlanta got Gene Hanratty’s attention as it did many others around the world.
The former Green Beret had spent much of his life before and after his military service in Hawaii, but the prospect of immersing himself in the Olympic Games, using his exposure to Vietnam and other Pacific Rim countries, proved irresistible and he moved to what could hardly be countenanced as a world class venue for the globe’s premier sporting event.
Prior to assuming his current position as the senior consultant for the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in New York, which came as somewhat of a fluke, he took on the responsibilities of heading the recently launched chamber of commerce linking the Southeast with Korea, which continues today as the Southeast U.S. Korea Chamber of Commerce.
His ties to Hong Kong began when he received a call from Alex Fong, then-director of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in New York, who said he wanted introductions to officials of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.
Mr. Hanratty scheduled a meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel downtown and Mr. Fong obliged arriving in a chauffeur driven limousine. “We met at the bar and talked for about five minutes,” he said. “Then I waited for a telephone call for a week, a month and then two months.”
When Mr. Fong finally did call the conversation also was kind of curt. “We want to put you to work,” he told Mr. Hanratty, and said “We can work out deliverables and compensation later.”
Shortly afterwards, Mr. Hanratty was organizing the Atlanta promotion of “Hong Kong ’94’” a nationwide rollout extolling the benefits of doing business with what was then still a British colony. Along with featured cultural events, a film festival and several banquets, heavy hitting business executives from the island participated in the tour.
Atlanta’s premier event was a luncheon featuring Mrs. Anson Chan, Hong Kong’s chief secretary, who was to provide an overview of Hong Kong’s attributes to a by-invitation-only gathering at the Buckhead Ritz.
As Atlanta’s business elite watched her slide presentation the sound system died. Perplexed how to continue, Mrs. Chan regained her seat while former U.N. Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, British Consul General David Wright and Atlanta attorney William Poole jumped from their places and scurried around the sides of the ballroom to solve the mystery.
Finally, Mr. Poole restored the sound when he located a pulled plug to a cord that a waiter had tripped over. Turner International’s vice president for Asia Pacific, John Hogan, drew a round of applause when he told Mrs. Chan her introductory comments were so forceful that they blew out the sound system. With Ted Turner looking on, Mrs. Chan thanked Mr. Hogan for his explanation, and Mr. Hanratty’s association with New York’s Hong Kong office was guaranteed.
Today, Mr. Hanratty looks upon the violence erupting on Hong Kong with dismay as antigovernment protesters wreak havoc on the city. The shooting of a protester at close range by police is a grim augury of what may be forthcoming. Protests first limited to the weekends are now interfering with daily commerce, the island’s top priority for many years.
While numerous causes for the violence are cited by commentators and various media, Mr. Hanratty pinpoints the rise in the cost of living and the difficulties that its youth face starting their careers and trying to find affordable housing as major causes.
“They have been priced out of the market,” he said, also acknowledging that some of the violence has been perpetrated by gangs fomenting trouble.
The Hong Kong government of Carrie Lam Cheng has made some attempts to calm the situation and help those adversely affected, he added, such as promising to subsidize small shops that have been shattered due to the outbreak of violence.
“None of this has been foreseen,” he said. “There has been damage to light rail and money is flowing to Singapore.”
Mr. Hanratty recalls the fears of many Hong Kong residents when the island reverted back to Chinese sovereignty after 156 years of British rule as a colony in 1997. Hong Kong residents took their money and moved to Australia, Canada and the U.S., anywhere they felt they and their wealth would be more secure.
As soon as the following year in 1998, Mr. Hanratty hosted Raymond Fan, the newly appointed director of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in New York, at the Capital City Club downtown where the official said that many of these emigrants were returning home.
“We are experiencing the reverse of the early exodus,” Mr. Fan said. “They not only have the right to come back, but we welcome them,” citing the island’s adherence to free trade, the lack of quotas and the absence of foreign exchange controls “We are capitalism,” he added, underscoring a commitment to transparency and accountability.
Hong Kong officials have visited Atlanta regularly from Washington, New York and Hong Kong itself since then. Mr. Hanratty recalled the visit of Chief Executive Sir Donald Tsang, who served as Hong Kong’s chief executive from 2005-2012, the second ethnic Chinese to fill that topmost post.
“He was a Catholic and very adamant in his beliefs,” Mr. Hanratty said of Mr Tsang, who upon his arrival to Atlanta immediately wanted to visit the Sacred Heart Church downtown where Mother Theresa had attended mass during her visit in 1995.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong took off as a financial center. A dozen years after the takeover its stock market became the top generator of initial public offerings in the world as well as the key trading hub for the offshore Chinese currency the renminbi. It also became the biggest air cargo hub and the freest economy in the world as rated by the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Hong Kong also experienced a real estate boom. Its population of more than 7 million is compressed into just 250 developed square miles. With more than 1,200 skyscrapers it could be considered the most vertical city on earth.
No one knows for sure what Hong Kong’s future holds now. The so-called “umbrella movement” of 2014 was a non-violent sit-in which pales in comparison to the current 53-week protest as of this writing which has become violent.
Mr. Hanratty doubts seriously the “one country, two systems” model that allowed Hong Kong to retain its British-based political and economic systems until 2047 will be dismantled. But he is aware of the ambition of nearby Shenzhen on the mainland to grow its global financial profile and fears what the Chinese government may be forced to do to quiet the protests.
While Georgia’s healthy trade relationship with Hong Kong will inevitably be affected, which has been larger than that of the major economies such as those of France, Italy or India, Mr. Hanratty can be focused on what has been a major accomplishment of his post here, namely the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival held annually at the Lake Lanier Olympic Park near Gainesville.
Mr. Hanratty’s involvement goes back to a 1995 phone call from Mr. Fong, the same Mr. Fong who got him involved with Hong Kong in the first place. “I want you to put on a Dragon Boat Festival…and make it an annual affair,” Mr. Fong told him of developing locally the ancient Chinese festival that draws hundreds of thousands of spectators to the Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong every year.
Would such a race on Lake Lanier foment the same enthusiasm that is so evident in other venues around the world? Mr. Hanratty could only wonder.
He no longer needs to wonder. The event which started with perhaps 200 people and six teams participating in the race has grown to more than 80 teams and 9,000 spectators. In addition to the participants manning the Dragon boats, thousands come to watch including local residents and a wide cross-section of the Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese and Thai communities.
He remains grateful for the support from Pin Pin Chao, the former chief executive of the Summit Bank, Jerry Allison, a founder of AJC International Inc., in the early years of launching the festival.
Next year will mark the festival’s 25th anniversary and Mr. Hanratty is already preparing to receive Hong Kong officials for Chinese New Year celebrations in January to begin the arrangements for the 2020 festival.
“Don’t forget that the Dragon Boat Festival is the best hands on cultural diversity event we have in this area,” he said. “It’s not a must look at, listen to, or taste kind of event. You actually get in the boats and do it.”
Mr. Hanratty may be reached by email at <firstname.lastname@example.org>