David McDonald

Scottish architect who helped build modern Hong Kong

Born: 9 October, 1927, in Armadale, West Lothian.

Died: 8 March, 2007, in Perth, Australia, aged 79.

AS A young man in 1955, the newly-married Dundee architect David McDonald moved to Hong Kong intending to spend three years making enough money to set up his own architectural firm back home. He ended up staying for almost 30 years, became a senior official of the British colonial government and helped build the city into what it is today.

When he and his wife, Betty, also from Dundee, arrived in the bustling colony, it was being swamped by refugees fleeing communism on mainland China, who were forced to live in squalid conditions in makeshift homes. Progressing rapidly through the public works department, McDonald saw that his architectural skills could be vital in coming years and that he could play an important part in Hong Kong's development. He sensed he was part of something historic, something grand.

By the time he retired in 1983, by then the colonial government's secretary for land and works, McDonald had designed and helped build several towns in the previously-undeveloped New Territories north of Hong Kong Island, supervised the High Island reservoir scheme to provide drinking water and pushed through the coastal highway link between Sha Tin and Tai Po.

He was in charge of construction of the Aberdeen tunnel, linking Wong Chuk Hang and Happy Valley and greatly cutting travel time between the north and south of Hong Kong island.

Among his other best-known projects were the HK$3.5 billion scheme to modernise and electrify the Kowloon-Canton Railway and construction of the 1,400-bed Prince of Wales hospital.

Believing it vital that he could communicate effectively with his workers on the ground, he had learned Cantonese soon after his arrival, creating mutual respect that lasted throughout his career.

As director of public works from 1973, McDonald streamlined his over-bureaucratic department to slash delays in getting development projects off the ground. He also set up a unit aimed at eliminating bribery and corruption, endemic at the time.

David Wylie McDonald was born in Armadale, West Lothian . He attended Harris Academy in Dundee and volunteered for the Black Watch at the age of 17 in late 1944, serving domestically until the war was over.

He recalled that one of his first postings was to guard the future Queen at Balmoral, where he was immediately asked by his superior: "Can you dance?" It turned out the young Princess Elizabeth needed a practice dancing partner. He also served as part of the King's Guard in Inverness and Edinburgh.

A humble man throughout his life, he never mentioned his memorable dance to the Queen when he escorted her during a later visit to Hong Kong. After the war, he took his architecture degree at Dundee College of Art, obtained a trainee job with a local architectural firm and married Eliza (Betty) Roberts Steele on 3 July, 1951.

When he saw a Home Office advert for an architect's position in Hong Kong in 1955, McDonald jumped at the chance, thinking three years' tax-free salary would allow him to set up his own firm back in Dundee. His daughter Mairi recalled that he first had to look at the world atlas to check the colony's location in relation to China.

Employed by the public works department, he found his skills channelled into one major project after another as the colony's free market economy boomed. His fluent Cantonese gave him a key advantage, as did his love for the people of Hong Kong and Chinese culture in general.

A visionary among his British colleagues, he was always pro-China, not for its communist regime but merely because he believed Hong Kong and China would ultimately be better off together, with the former casting off colonial rule.

During his term in Hong Kong, McDonald was active in the local and expatriate communities, coaching the colony's swimming team at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was an active member of the St Andrew's Society and served for a time as its chieftain.

After his retirement in 1983, David and Betty McDonald returned to Dundee, where neighbours and new friends knew him only as "a retired architect". His daughters said he rarely mentioned his work in Hong Kong. In Dundee, he worked as a volunteer for the Edinburgh-based Margaret Blackwood Housing Association, a foundation which provides homes for disabled people and their families, remaining on its board until reaching the society's retirement age of 70.

A few years ago, the couple moved to Perth, Australia, to be close to their two daughters.

David McDonald is survived by his wife and daughters.