Skyscrapers bearing tens of thousands of homes, theme parks melding cultures of the East and West, and iconic sculptural art adorning the entrance of a university, all constitute a part of Hong Kong’s unique cityscape. Without team efforts and hard work of the architectural, engineering and construction professions, our city would never have looked the same. VTC alumnus Tony Za is proud to be a key player in the construction sector. Right after he graduated from Morrison Hill Technical Institute (the precursor of IVE) with a Diploma in Building Studies in the 1980s, he joined the construction industry while pursuing further education. Tony is the General Manager of Hip Hing Construction Co., Ltd. and he now oversees various construction projects. He is also the President of Hong Kong Institute of Construction Managers (HKICM). Despite being a veteran in the business for over three decades, Tony is always keen on keeping abreast of new knowledge and technologies that improve construction efficiency and site safety. He has also been actively fostering the next generation of industry leaders, taking young talent under his wings.
Practical experience builds solid foundation
In the 1980s, the number of university degree programmes for secondary school students were strictly limited in Hong Kong, and studying overseas was not an affordable option for most. Tony admitted that his HKAL exam results were not particularly good, so that there weren’t many opportunities for him to further his studies. Feeling uncertain about his future, he once considered enrolling in a business programme, but an office job might be too static for his temperament. Meanwhile his brother-in-law who was working in the construction industry recommended building studies instead because of Tony’s active personality. In his own words, he enrolled into the Department of Construction at the Morrison Hill Technical Institute purely “by coincident”.
Reminiscing about his time spent there, Tony’s eyes shone with passion and excitement. He said, “We enjoyed our school days a lot. Most of us were guys and we never sat still. Besides theories, the programme also covered the practical tasks – we got hands-on in bricklaying, carpentry, painting, erect formwork, bar fixing, and surveying. Two year passed by sooner than we expected and we graduated in the blink of an eye.” The campus was not especially spacious, but it worked to bring students from different departments and years closer together. “At recess, it felt very much like a secondary school. Students from different streams of study gathered at the basketball court for a match. It felt so warm and familiar.”
A fulfilling school life, opportunities for real-life practice, and close relationships with companions gradually instilled in Tony a profound interest in construction industry and laid a solid foundation for his career to thrive on. He graduated from the Technical Institute with flying colours and was accepted in the City Polytechnic of Hong Kong where he was awarded with a higher diploma and a bachelor’s degree. Into the 1990s, he officially joined the construction industry and contributed to projects of varying sizes. Meanwhile he kept on seizing opportunities of further education in his quest for self-improvement, and he obtained a master’s degree later on.
When Tony started working full-time, the construction of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology near Tseung Kwan O was about to commence. It was the first project he participated in and it was also the most unforgettable one for him. At that time, he was one of those assigned to install the “Circle of Time” sundial sculpture in the Entrance Piazza. “How do you measure the angle of the sundial precisely and fix it securely by grouting, so that it tells the time accurately as the sun casts a shadow? Those precise surveying techniques that I learnt at the Technical Institute just came in handy.” Tony conceded that he derived much satisfaction from his job. Signature projects that he was involved in as a construction manager include Main Street U.S.A. and Tomorrowland at Hong Kong Disneyland, and a district cooling system buried 20 metres underground in the Kai Tak Development Area, all leaving him with vivid memories.
Mastering new knowledge for higher efficiency
From a young man who knew a thing or two about construction, to a general manager of a construction group who manages multiple projects simultaneously, Tony believes practitioners in the sector need to keep abreast of the times by closely following the new technologies that drive the industry forward. For instance, Building Information Modelling (BIM) digitises construction site data, helps managers monitor on-site progress accurately, and enables lifecycle management of buildings after completion. Managers should also master technologies related to Modular Integrated Construction (MiC), in conjunction with the concept of Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) which has gained much popularity in recent years. According to Tony, these revolutionary concepts help the industry step out of the confinement of a construction site towards automation in a factory setting. Not only does it address the challenges of an aging workforce, it also improves safety and efficiency in construction sites. He said Singapore has been ahead of its neighbours in the deployment of BIM; Hong Kong needs to catch up and embrace new technologies so as to stay competitive in the Asia-Pacific region.
However, despite the emergence of machines for construction works in recent years, they need to be operated by human beings. “For someone who isn’t familiar with, or doesn’t understand how a job is done, it’s still hard to perform tasks like bricklaying or painting even with assistive tools.” So Tony attaches great importance to the fundamental skills among novice workers in the industry, and he has much confidence in VTC graduates in this regard. “Many university graduates expect a well-defined career ladder when they start a job. They want to be promoted to the management level as soon as possible. However, without accumulating frontline hands-on experience, one may not have the abilities to handle a full range of managerial tasks satisfactorily. For instance, they may not be able to tell the quality of cement, or whether the procedures are carried out in correct order in a construction site. Thus, university graduates usually don’t master fundamental skills as well as VTC graduates or associate degree holders.” From his experience, Tony encourages non-university graduates to seize the opportunity and pursue self-improvement. “At HKICM, for example, some of our presidents aren’t graduates from the most prestigious universities. But we stay humble and learn tirelessly, embracing new ideas and knowledge, while responding to the ever-changing needs of the industry.”
Hunger for knowledge unperturbed by pandemic
COVID-19 has been raging on for over a year. Tony believes the construction sector is among the luckier ones that have not been undermined too much by the pandemic. Though the supply of raw materials has been disrupted by lockdown measures in other regions, and a few projects have been put on a halt due to outbreaks tied to construction sites, the problems were solved after trade organisations joined forces to formulate infection control measures.
Recently appointed by the VTC as a member of the Building, Civil Engineering and Built Environment Training Board, Tony felt truly honoured. “It feels amazing to be able to give my opinions on VTC’s educational directions after studying at the Technical Institute over 30 years ago. I wish my own experience and knowledge can help younger VTC students fit in the construction industry.” He also urged younger VTC students to “stay hungry for knowledge, and remain eager to learn all their lives.” He emphasises that learning knows no bounds, but the pandemic will be over eventually. Therefore, young people should not feel frustrated by such crisis. He also used a marathon as a metaphor for career. “In a marathon, it doesn’t matter if you start 15 or 30 minutes later than others. Take your time to equip yourself with the best skills. You’d have your chance to outperform others and take the lead one day.”