When he started his career about 45 years ago, James Lai always assumed that he would work for his dad, a manufacturer of multi-use generators.
But fate and career choices took him on a different path, one you could say is the stuff of dreams.
Things started as he had planned — after graduating with an electrical engineering degree from the US in 1975, he joined his father’s company.
But instead of taking on a senior level position as a towkay’s son, James’ father wanted him to start from the bottom to learn the ropes of the business, so he became an apprentice engineer.
After five years at the company and a six-month stint in the US to study generators, James felt that he wanted to go out into the world to learn new things. As fate would have it, he landed an opportunity in 1980 that would forever change the course of his career – a chance to work in Shanghai as a project engineer for a Chinese construction firm.
Things were tough at first, but he soon got used to it.
“I didn’t know anything; the weather was different, the food was different, the surroundings were different. Then I got to know the local contractors who guided me.
“They invited me to their house for dinner, and it was very different because they give you the dishes first, then bring out the rice later. I didn’t like Shanghai food because it is cold and oily,” laughed James as he recalled his early days in China.
This set the stage for what was to be a long and illustrious career in the overseas property management industry.
Needless to say, he enjoyed the Shanghai experience and went on to amass several roles in China where he worked on prestigious projects such as the 1,200-room LN Garden Hotel, Guangzhou and the Grand Hyatt, Hangzhou.
The two-year stint in Guangzhou as chief engineer was particularly memorable for James because he got the job despite being clueless about the scope at first.
“At the interview, they asked me, ‘how much do you know about maintenance?’ I was frank and said I didn’t know anything about it but could lead people to do the repairs.
“I told them that I’m a hands-on man and if anything, I would do the work. I had a 200-man team reporting to me, with two supporting staff, and seven duty engineers,” he recounted
After a short stint in Macau in 1990, James returned to China where he worked with other firms before making a move to Hong Kong.
“I stayed in China because it had just opened up, and I felt that my expertise was more needed there. Chinese people respect Singaporeans because we provide good after-sales service,” he explained.
A Career High
While he had his fair share of good expatriate packages in China, James’ first foray into Hong Kong in 2006 was in a league of its own.
As corporate director of engineering for The Langham, Hong Kong, the posh sister hotel of its namesake in the United Kingdom, James was living in the lap of luxury. Accommodated in one of its elegant rooms, he regularly dined at its upscale eateries and travelled everywhere by taxi, all on the company’s dime.
His job also gave him the chance to travel to London, Boston, Toronto, and Australia. In fact, he spent almost 26 days every month in these countries to oversee their engineering operations.
“Langham gave me the greatest sense of fulfilment. I learnt different styles of management, learnt to work with different types of architects, different types of hotels,” shared James, who held the job for six years.
The Family Man
Despite his busy globetrotting schedule, James is every bit the family man. Whether it was taking home leave to return to Singapore or flying his family into the country he was based in for a family vacation, he made it a point to see his secretary wife and two sons every three months.
His family understood that he was simply a dedicated dad who enjoyed his job — which happened to be overseas.
“It’s hard to get this kind of opportunity elsewhere. As a man, I have to give them a better living; I have no regrets about not always being around,” said James. His only regret, if you could even call it that, is having to occasionally forego home leave and personal time for various assignments.
And rather than being the traditional dad who insists his children follow in his footsteps, he prefers his children to make their own decisions. Today, his eldest son is a banker while his youngest is a graphic designer.
A Sporty Side
James may be 69, but you would not guess it looking at him. Lean and trim, with a youthful twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step, he could easily pass for someone 20 years younger.
He has a hyperactive personality, healthy lifestyle, and years of playing softball to thank for that.
During the 1980s, James managed to find time to coach women’s softball teams in China. He also became a certified international softball umpire and was part of the first batch of Singaporeans to umpire the Women’s Softball World Championship in 1982.
“It’s very thrilling and very exciting, a split second of whether you can or cannot hit a ball,” said James of why he likes the sport.
Back home, he was active in the Singapore Softball Association’s league and played when he had the time.
A Career Low
All good things must come to an end, and James’ high life came to a screeching halt in November 2018 when he was retrenched from the property developer he was working for in China. The owner did not have enough funds to continue the project, so the company had to let go of a number of workers, including James.
Despite being 67, an age where many would retire, James wanted to continue working.
“Every day, I read the Bible, pray, relax, and take it easy. I was so active at work, then it became eight hours at home with nothing to do, so I was very bored and restless.
“Retirement is not on my mind; work gives me a sense of purpose. I want to stay active and have something meaningful to do,” he explained.
James applied for numerous jobs locally and overseas but to no avail. Depressed and out of options, he decided to approach the NTUC U PME Centre for help in June 2019 to find an overseas job.
The job coach gave the NTUC member tips to beef up his resume and boost his interview skills.
“My old resume was 18 pages,” said James with a laugh.
“The job coach said it should be point form, so I sent to resume writer to revamp, and it became two pages,” he added.
The job coach also helped James set up his LinkedIn profile and encouraged him to attend courses to use it more effectively. By the end of September 2019, he was swamped with local and overseas opportunities from headhunters and recruiters and found one right up his alley.
“I was looking for an overseas opportunity but targeting western countries as I wanted new experiences. I was headhunted by my current company through LinkedIn. I did a virtual interview through Skype and got a job in end-November 2019.
“Now I am connected to over 800 people on LinkedIn – some have job opportunities; some want to link up with me,” he elaborated.
The World Is His Oyster – Again
James started work with his new company in January 2020 as corporate director of engineering, where he oversees three hotel projects in Dubai. Apart from a respectable expatriate package, it also offers the new experience he craves, and it has no retirement age.
“Dubai is a Muslim country, and the weather is very hot. We work from 9am to 1pm, and if it is too hot, we take a break, and start work again at 5.30pm, then carry on till 10.30pm or 11pm. During the afternoon break, I get check out all the other hotels, shop and go to the movies.
“We also don’t work on Fridays because it is a day of prayer. So, we work Mondays to Thursdays and Sundays. I also get to work with people of many nationalities, but there are no challenges in cultural differences overall,” James described his experiences so far.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still in play, James is currently on home leave. While he is enjoying his new ‘role’ as grandfather to his two young granddaughters, he is looking forward to when he can return to work.