Law & More: The Boase Cohen & Collins Podcast

Episode 37 - Sabrina Ho

February 26, 2024 Niall Episode 37
Episode 37 - Sabrina Ho
Law & More: The Boase Cohen & Collins Podcast
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Law & More: The Boase Cohen & Collins Podcast
Episode 37 - Sabrina Ho
Feb 26, 2024 Episode 37

In this episode, we are joined by Sabrina Ho, who is Vice Chair of Council at the historic Helena May in Central. Sabrina tells us about the club’s fascinating history and outstanding record of charitable work, as well as revealing her personal motivation for being so heavily involved in community outreach. She speaks with our Senior Partner Colin Cohen. Stay tuned.

00:31 Introduction and Guest Welcome
01:07 Sabrina's Retirement and Volunteer Work
01:38 Sabrina's Early Life and Education
02:06 Sabrina's Career Path and Experience
02:35 Sabrina's Connection with London School of Economics
03:02 Sabrina's Experience in Law Firms
05:11 Introduction to Helena May
05:23 History and Background of Helena May
10:56 Helena May during the Second World War
13:59 Helena May's Community Outreach
17:25 Helena May's Accommodation and Membership
20:34 Sabrina's Involvement in Child Development Centre
22:10 Future of Helena May
26:23 Conclusion and Farewell

Host: Colin Cohen
Director: Niall Donnelly
Producer and VO: Thomas Latter        

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we are joined by Sabrina Ho, who is Vice Chair of Council at the historic Helena May in Central. Sabrina tells us about the club’s fascinating history and outstanding record of charitable work, as well as revealing her personal motivation for being so heavily involved in community outreach. She speaks with our Senior Partner Colin Cohen. Stay tuned.

00:31 Introduction and Guest Welcome
01:07 Sabrina's Retirement and Volunteer Work
01:38 Sabrina's Early Life and Education
02:06 Sabrina's Career Path and Experience
02:35 Sabrina's Connection with London School of Economics
03:02 Sabrina's Experience in Law Firms
05:11 Introduction to Helena May
05:23 History and Background of Helena May
10:56 Helena May during the Second World War
13:59 Helena May's Community Outreach
17:25 Helena May's Accommodation and Membership
20:34 Sabrina's Involvement in Child Development Centre
22:10 Future of Helena May
26:23 Conclusion and Farewell

Host: Colin Cohen
Director: Niall Donnelly
Producer and VO: Thomas Latter        

[00:31:00] Colin: Today, I'm delighted to be joined by Sabrina Ho. Sabrina is the Vice Chair of Council at the Helena May, which I'm sure many of our listeners know.

That is the wonderful old heritage building in Garden Road in Central. It's a member's private club, a lodging house.

It has a wonderful, fascinating history and a proud tradition of serving the community. Sabrina is here to tell us, hopefully, a lot about it, and as well, about herself. Sabrina, welcome to our podcast. As I always ask my guests, what's been keeping you busy recently?

[00:31:41] Sabrina: I retired three years ago. And I feel Great, if I don't use it I lose it. So, I'm trying to find different volunteer services to keep myself busy. And also make new friends.

[00:31:53] Colin: Fantastic. I mean, that's a great thing. Everyone's worried, all my young lawyers say to me, Colin, you're getting on a bit, just had your 69th birthday. What's your retirement strategy? And I look at that and I think about that and I've got to think about what things to do when one does retire.

But let's go back in time. As I understand born and bred here in Hong Kong.

[00:32:13] Sabrina: That's right.

[00:32:14] Colin: Tell us a little bit about your schooling and early days and university. I'm interested in that. 

[00:32:19] Sabrina: I went to the same school from primary to upper sixth, St. Paul's Co Educational College on Macdonald Road.

[00:32:26] Colin: One of the best schools in Hong Kong.

[00:32:28] Sabrina: Well I was lucky to get in. I'm quite sure in today's standard, they wouldn't accept me. 

[00:32:32] Colin: I doubt that for one moment. 

[00:32:35] Sabrina: And then I went to the London School of Economics to study economics and geography. Spent three years there, graduated, and I went into chartered accountancy. 

[00:32:46] Colin: What made you do 

[00:32:47] Sabrina: What made me do that? My then boyfriend and now husband. I had a rather different career path mapped in my head and then my boyfriend convinced me to do the same thing as he did. So we did. We studied together, we qualified together. And we're still together 40-over years later. 

[00:33:04] Colin: Yeah, well London School of Economics has a very good connection with Hong Kong. The firm of which I am associated with, Charlton's, Julia's, was from London School of Economics.

[00:33:12] Sabrina: She was my senior.

[00:33:13] Colin: Yeah, and of course, Michael Thomas, the Attorney General and King's Council. He's now retired and he was in the London School of Economics and of course I was in London and I was, around the corner. I remember, it's very close to Lincoln's Inn Fields where I did my traineeship.

So it's, it's a nice, nice place to study as well. So, you then came back to Hong Kong and as I understand matters, you worked for a law firm. Tell us a little bit about that. As an accountant for a law firm, I'm interested. 

[00:33:40] Sabrina: When I was in London, I got into one of the audit groups that just had a lot of solicitors as their clients. The audit fee wasn't particularly attractive, so I ended up doing a lot of that and learned quite a lot about law firms.

So when I came back to Hong Kong, I saw a recruitment advert. For financial controller in Hong Kong of an English London based law firm, Simpson Harwood. I joined them in 1995 and I retired nearly 26 years later at the end of 2020. 

[00:34:15] Colin: So you're really a one person. Very, very, very stable. Studied, met your husband, who I do know very well, and we'll talk about Fook a little bit later. I have some stories I could say. Perhaps my listeners would be interested, because we were together at the Hong Kong Football Club when he was the chairman.

But you worked for a law firm. Interesting, do you like lawyers? 

[00:34:35] Sabrina: I do. I really do. They are no different than any other professionals. Interesting, I've learned a lot through them. In fact, I used to top my law class when I was studying for my chartered accountancy exams. And my career path was actually to go to law school. My husband convinced me it's not worth spending another year without any income.

So, I work with really interesting people.

[00:34:57] Colin: Exactly as well. I mean, it is interesting because one of the work I do for the Law Society and I'm an examiner for the overseas lawyers qualifying exam for the accounts paper. And I used to teach accounts for solicitors accounts at Hong Kong University. So all dealing with the accounts rules and making sure solicitors behave themselves and don't dip into the client's money. It's a really interesting area. So your job was not only just to make sure all the accounts, rules and all that was observed, as well as running a big practice like Steven Howard. It's a big industry. It's massive.

It's huge and right now if you read in England, they publish all the turnover of the law firms.

That's unique in England and there's vast sums of monies and many of them have gone listed on IPOs. It's quite fascinating as well. Anyway interesting background as well, but let's turn really to the area which I think our listeners are very interested in, is the Helena May. Fabulous, as we said. Let's go back to the beginning.

Can you give us a little bit of background as to how Helena May was opened in 1916 and how that happened and tell us a little bit about it.

[00:36:00] Sabrina: I love history, especially Hong Kong history. Helena May was founded as a hospital for women.

So, it's mainly single women, traveling overseas, coming to Hong Kong to work as typists, telephonists, nurses, missionaries, and governesses. At the turn of the 20th century, women were a lot more educated and started to spread their wings. They travelled overseas to seek adventures and job opportunities.

But the reality was also, a lot of men died in the Great War, and there wasn't much marriage prospects. So they sought the opportunities overseas, and it would take them about a month to come to Hong Kong by sea. At the time, turn of the century The Qing Dynasty collapsed, the founding of the Republic of China was a time of great turmoil.

There was a massive influx of refugees coming to Hong Kong. And the city in those days was not orderly, and hygiene was far from ideal. There was no public transport, so these new arrivals needed safe and well managed accommodation. These women, however, could not afford to live in the traditional areas inhabited by expats such as the Peak, nor would they want to live among local Chinese.

They needed affordable housing, and who doesn't?

Lady May was already involved with the YWCA in Hong Kong at the time, but there was no accommodation. It was during that era that hostels already exist for women travellers in many other cities of the British colonies such as Colombo, Singapore, Bombay, Calcutta, but there wasn't any in Hong Kong.

Lady May, being a very community minded person, wanted to help address this issue. Lady May was actually a very interesting character. She was the wife of the 15th governor. But she was also the daughter of General Sir George Digby Parker, who was a commander of the British forces in Hong Kong.

So basically her husband married the boss's daughter. She had four daughters and was very much interested in Women Welfare in Hong Kong. And in 1914, a prominent local businessman and philanthropist, Sir Alice Koduri, wrote to Lady May and offered to donate $15,000, which was quite a princely sum, to build a women's institute or hostel, providing that the matching funds will be found somewhere else.

And eventually, my Grandfather, Mr Ho Kom Tong, donated the other half of the money. It will be a called the Helena May Institute, and that was the norm of calling a women's group, a women's institute, in Britain in those days. So, that was the beginning.

[00:38:48] Colin: And that enabled the Helena May to be built, and it opened in 1916, I understand. But it had to be more funding, how did that happen?

[00:38:59] Sabrina: The ladies of the days, they would do quite a lot of fundraising activities, but the fund didn't go to the club itself. They raised funds for war efforts in Europe. So the residents will, of course, pay for the lodging and the food and beverages. And there really wasn't much outgoings other than the matron.

The general manager was called the matron in those days, and a few staff. It was quite a lean running operation. 

[00:39:26] Colin: And in those early days, let's say, could you tell us a little bit more of the background and how the Helena May was actually used and the role within the community? Of course, it then became a place for people to come and live there.

Ladies started off as, as you said, a sort of safe haven whereby they could live and then do work in Hong Kong and be there. So what else happened, in the early days? 

[00:39:50] Sabrina: The Helena May was a great meeting places. Because of the war, we lost all the records. But members of the History Club then went through newspapers in Hong Kong and in UK to find out history of Helena May and try to piece together.

There were a lot of talks and workshops, well, we call it workshops now, but mainly talks by very prominent women of the days, including Madame Sun Yat Sen. Yeah. It drew a lot of interesting discussions. One very heated topic was about the abolition of the Mui Zai system in Hong Kong. 

[00:40:25] Colin: Perhaps you could explain that to our listeners.

[00:40:27] Sabrina: Mui Zai literally means little daughter, so a lot of poor farmers. Especially those who have girls couldn't afford to bring them up because a daughter needed a dowry. So they were effectively sold off to wealthy families to be companions or to help in domestic work. And these Mui Zai would stay with the family for the rest of their lives.

Now, for the good families, and I have to say my grandfather's And the extended family did treat them very well, but some others didn't. And in modern days, that will be called slavery. So the great British ladies of the days found this rather offensive and tried to do something about it. 

[00:41:13] Colin: And it's also quite interesting that even before the Second World War in 1922, Helena May was built, then there was extensions built to expand the building to what it is like today, and that's quite interesting.

Another twist, which I always found a bit fascinating when I looked to researched it in the Second World War, it was occupied by the Japanese troops. And once, they used it all the time. Once liberated, of course, it was then taken over by the Royal Air Force as well. And then it took time to get back into the swing of things, to revamp, redo and, and deal with that.

[00:41:48] Sabrina: The Japanese soldiers occupied the Helena May Building in early 1942 until May 1944. They stripped the building of furniture and fittings and all the records and documents.

Only two black wood benches remain in the building. But before they left the building in 1944, they tried to use the building as a citizens library.

It took them about eight months to organize that. They took a thousand books from Hong Kong U, and they requested book donations.

And the library would hold publications in Japanese, Chinese, and English.

But not long after it opened, Japanese surrendered. Like you said, the Royal Air Force took over the building. And the building wasn't returned to the Helena May in January 1947. But that was an interesting time because there were no members to return the building back to. All the subscriber members before the war were scattered all over and couldn't be traced.

So a new constitution has to be formed. And the Helena May Institute for Women ordinance for the incorporation of the council was approved by the Legislative Council and the Governor in 1946, December. And that was also the first time when two Chinese members became subscriber members. One was my aunt, Mrs. Victoria Low. She was the wife of Lo Man Kam. And the other Chinese lady was Mrs. Dorothy Wu.

So it was a period of, no, really, Helena May. And then the building was then handed back to Helena May in January 47, and the club began to ask older members, former members to renew the membership and recruited new members.

[00:43:45] Colin: When were gentlemen ever allowed to become associates? I think they can be members now, but have they become associate members?

[00:43:52] Sabrina: Yes, there are associate members that's written in our constitution. And to change it, we have to go through the legislative council.

[00:43:59] Colin: Let's talk a little bit about what bring us up to modern times, after the second World War, Hong Kong advanced considerably, and obviously like everything evolves.

So a little bit about how the Helena May has evolved in the last, let's say 30 years. I arrived in 81 and 81, Helena May, was well set in it's activities.

[00:44:19] Sabrina: I think Helena May has always had a mission to provide for the welfare of women in Hong Kong, and that was written in our constitution. In the last 30 over years, the scope has really broadened and we're very proud of our community outreach group. We don't just raise funds for charity of the year, which we select, but we also give a lot of services to community groups.

[00:44:45] Colin: And in particular with your community outreach, can you give some examples as to, the groups which you would help out, at the moment. 

[00:44:53] Sabrina: All the charities of the year that we select focus on women and girls, naturally. So one of our prime beneficiary is the Chi Sing Kok. This is a female only retirement home in Pok Fu Lam.

 And it is aimed at low income senior citizens They first became our charity of the year in 2008, but we continue to support them by awarding various grants like to replace a hot water boiler, repair spalling concrete.

Other than during the COVID restrictions, our members always pay them visits and we bring them dim sum and other treats made from our own kitchen.

We also bring along students to sing Chinese opera to entertain the old ladies.

This nursing home is run on shoestrings with very limited resources. Another organization that we support over the years is the Barnabas Charitable Service Association.

This is actually a drug rehabilitation facility for females only.

We raise funds for them as charity of the year. And that was used to create a vegetable garden for residents to grow flowers and vegetables to help them get through the most difficult process of drug rehabilitation. We still visit the residents every year and in particular our visits is to help them practice English.

So we play games and only English will be spoken.

More recently, we have selected the Southern District Women's Association as our Charity of the Year. The money raised was for a few stress relief projects during COVID time when women in low income families bore really heavy burden of looking after their elderly and young family members in really difficult situations, especially when quite often their husbands would have lost their jobs.

And in one of the classes, women learn to make soap and jewelry.

We have members at the Helena May who specialize in marketing. And and they help these women to package and sell and teach them how to sell the products. So we invited them to the Helena May and sell the products at our Christmas and annual bazaars, which proved to be very popular.

They earn pocket money, but it's more than the money. They earned self-esteem and it really improved their self confidence. 

[00:47:25] Colin: Yes. I, also noted, that you had supported Bethune House. It's a refuge for domestic helpers who have been battered and feeling difficult, and our firm has been involved in helping them out on the legal issues as well.

So that seems a very good outreach project, also. 

[00:47:42] Sabrina: Yeah, we try to reach vulnerable members of our society. And usually for NGOs who are slightly smaller in scale which would otherwise be quite difficult to raise funds. 

[00:47:54] Colin: At the moment now, a lot of people I know, Helena May is a lovely place, go and have your drinks. A lot of your members are, like any club. It also still has the ability for accommodation. So I know someone who's actually been living there for quite a long time.

[00:48:10] Sabrina: Yes, indeed.

[00:48:11] Colin: As part of the council, is it difficult to find accommodation there? Or is there a huge demand for that?

[00:48:19] Sabrina: Well, of course, we've lost all travelers during COVID. The travelers have started to come back, but we also have long term residents, like you said, who've made Helena May their home. It is a really lovely community there. We are in a historic building, so we don't have a lot of modern amenities like ensuite bathrooms.

So the 25 rooms In the main building, it's for women only, because they have to share facilities. But we do have a block of 16 studio flats, and couples and men can stay there. We had a lovely couple who lived there for more than 10 years.

[00:48:56] Colin: Yeah, I've heard lots of good stories about that. Obviously, historically, you're the vice chair now, and of course, you have your roots of your family involved in the beginning. How did you get involved? 

[00:49:06] Sabrina: Well, I'm also the treasurer. Like I said, I have a skill in management, in finance and administration. So, in preparing for retirement, I was looking for things more than what I was already doing in other NGO sector. And I approached the general manager. To see if I could be of any help.

And Mrs. Usha Casewell, your colleague. Yes,

[00:49:30] Colin: My partner, he is now enjoying retirement, although she's coming back to Hong Kong in a few weeks time. Because her husband was a de district court judge and he's been reappointed as a deputy 'cause a great shortage of decent judges.

And he's taking out that role. So Usha is coming back and she was the chairman, 

[00:49:46] Sabrina: At the time, yes, she was a chairman and she asked if I would like to help. I jumped to it and after being a member of the council, observing and learning about the club, I took on the role of treasurer and then also the vice chair. But I'm passionate about the Helena May, it is really unique. It is still operating for its original purpose, which is a hostel and a meeting place, in the same place. And that is really rare in Hong Kong.

[00:50:16] Colin: Yes how much time do you have? I mean, I know what it's like to when your husband was chairman of the football club, I was honorary secretary as on secretary. I had to spend a lot of time putting out, but we had very good managers. You always have fires to put out, so you must spend a lot of time.

 It's not easy, being on a board, running it, dealing with people. Everyone has their different agendas, there's always a little bit of politics. 

[00:50:40] Sabrina: A little of that, yes indeed. But we do have a group of likeminded people together. one of my first tasks, or projects, if you like, was to update the account system. I had the knowledge to help. And then I also streamlined some of the back of house things.

[00:50:57] Colin: So you're, you're kept very, very busy. Moving a little away from Helena May, you're also involved in other matters. As I understand matters, you are the chairperson of a child development center. Can you tell us a little bit about that? I'm interested. 

[00:51:10] Sabrina: The Child Development Centre is under the Social Welfare Department. We are what they call the Early Learning Education Centre, EETC, for children with special educational needs. I

came across it because my son was born acutely premature with a lot of problems.

And my son spent two years there, when between the age of two and a half to four and a half. And in those two years, he received what we call early intervention on an intensive basis. So speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy. And that enabled him to go to a mainstream school, even though with learning support.

My son graduated from university. He has a job now. And without those two years of help, my son's life would have been very, very different.

And so I just wanted to help other families.

[00:52:03] Colin: And you spend quite a bit of your time, 

[00:52:05] Sabrina: A lot. I have been involved for 22 years now. I was a treasurer for 3 years and I've been chairman for quite a long time now, succession planning is an issue. That takes up a lot of my time. Even though as Executive Committee, we're not supposed to micromanage. The reality is there are a lot of consultations and there are a lot of aspects dealing with the government, dealing with donors.

Same as Helena May. I spent an incredible amount of time. It's like having a two full time jobs now. 

[00:52:39] Colin: And what is the future for the Helena May? It's a fabulous location. It's obviously a listed and protected building. But there's always issues in Hong Kong for change. And you look around. Old buildings are very, very few in respect to matters. Are there any significant events coming up? Are there any real issues or cause for concern for the Helena May?

Where's the Helena May going in the future?

[00:53:03] Sabrina: Well. It's just like a person. An old lady needs a lot of maintenance.

Helena May needs a lot of pampering. At the moment we are carrying out a major renovation work funded by the Intinquities and Monuments Office to repair the roof. You come from Britain, as old houses always leak and we have the same issue. Even though it's a listed building and the government look after the exterior.

The interiors is all the responsibility of the Helena May. We need quite a lot of money to look after the building, maintain it in a good condition so that we can pass down the generation. But, to make ourselves relevant in this day and age, we try to engage our members in more and more community outreach work.

[00:53:48] Colin: is it difficult to become a member nowadays? Is there a waiting list 

[00:53:51] Sabrina: No, our entrance fee and monthly subs are really, really affordable. And I think that's why a lot of our new members these days are much younger professionals. It is, if you like, their first step into a private members club. We have really good dining facilities, really good food at, I would say, at much cheaper prices than what would be in Central and Admiralty area.

And they meet new people.

[00:54:19] Colin: Yes just to give you a little story, Usha was the chairperson, or chairman, or chairlady, whatever you call everyone at the moment. We decided to have our firm's retreats, you a weekend, and we did our retreats, it's like a day's getting together of partners.

We did it at Helena May, and we had a wonderful little room, and then we had a lovely lunch, and also we did it at the football club. I have to be very honest, the Helena May won hands down because it was a wonderful old building and people were so nice and it worked very, very well for us.

So, it is a great facility. I think a lot of people go by it and don't know really what's in there, nowadays.

[00:54:57] Sabrina: Yes, so that's why if you walk down Garden Road now, there's a huge banner, very elegantly. Put there with some brief information and a giant QR code for you to scan if you walk past, you'll find out more about us. We've been fortunate to attract new members through Words of Mouth. And, like I said, the younger professionals who invite their friends there.

[00:55:21] Colin: Yes, I mean, I think it's an integral part of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is changing. Hong Kong is going through, well, let's call it interesting times, different times. Things are different, which is good. Your views, hong Kong is your home. You're here forever, like me. I'm here. You're here, Fook's here, we're all here.

[00:55:40] Sabrina: Yep, I'm a third generation Hong Kong. I have no desire to go anywhere else. In any place, there's the good and the bad, but I think the good outweigh the bad here.

[00:55:51] Colin: And Sabrina. It's been fascinating to chat with you. Thank you so much for joining us on Law & More. Your insights into the Helena May were of real interest and I'm sure our listeners will be fascinated at what you have said. So thank you so much.

[00:56:07] Sabrina: Thank you very much for having me.