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Ladies’ night in Hong Kong

I seem to have a knack for experiencing major world events first hand. Pakistan during the height of the Afghan war. Check. Algeria right when the civil war broke out in 1991. Check. Mid-air over the US airspace during 9/11. Check. Caught behind the Taj during 26/11. Check. So why be surprised to find myself in Hong Kong earlier this month during those massive protests?

Oblivious to the trouble that was brewing, I arrived at my bestie, Mrs Analytical Genius’ home. As luck would have it, my old college pal, a most un-Arab Arab Princess, was also visiting. Since my other college friend, Ms Private Banker also lives in Hong Kong, we were a reunited foursome after more than a decade. “This is so Sex and the City,” laughed the Princess, when we met for a succulent Chinese lunch at Madame Fu. Indeed, it did feel like a throwback to the late 1990s, when we were young, unencumbered by kids and dogs, and saw each other more frequently.

Fun and friends aside, the ostensible reason for my visit was the Asian University for Women’s (AUW) big fund-raising benefit. Modelled on a liberal arts university for underprivileged young women, AUW was established in 2008 and is located in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Today, 700 women from 15 countries study there, many of whom are on full scholarships.

Kamal Ahmed, an avuncular, bespectacled Bangladeshi-American lawyer with a long track record in education, founded AUW after steering a World Bank / UNESCO task force on higher education in developing countries. At a cocktail prior to the charity gala, I asked Kamal how they honed in on Chittagong. “We went everywhere, and spoke to many governments, including India,” he said. “We wanted to be institutionally autonomous and non-sectarian. Bangladesh was willing to ratify our charter into law by Parliament.”

I mentioned to him that I was a proud alum of a women’s college. “Which one?” he asked. “Mount Holyoke,” I replied. It turns out both his nieces studied there, too.

At a pre-event cocktail, I moderated a conversation between an alum, Sharon Panackal of Kerala, part of the first incoming class at AUW, and Guneet Monga, the Oscar-winning producer of the documentary short, Period. End of a Sentence. Sharon, who now works for a non-profit focussing on preventing blindness in Asia and Africa, spoke about the opportunities AUW provided her, including a study summer at Stanford University. After listening to her, Guneet said she wished she had attended AUW, too.

The sit-down gala dinner at the JW Marriott at Pacific Place was not without drama — and I’m not talking about auction prices. The place was surrounded by cops, and there was a media throng outside the venue. It was due to the presence of Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, who was delivering the keynote. Unlike so many of our politicians, Lam has a sense of humour. She opened her speech by noting that she had started her career as a protester!

I was seated at the Bloomberg table, next to my friend Mozez Singh (pictured above), the filmmaker. My soul sister, Mallika Kapur, who was MC for the evening, and her husband Siddharth were also at our table as were businessman Ravi Datwani and some Bloomberg journalists. Mallika introduced me to Jonathan Stone, Christie’s chairman of Asian Art, who was auctioneer for the evening. There were about 400 people in the room; guests raised USD $900,000 towards scholarships for students. It was a wonderful evening for a great cause. The only hiccup in the trip? Getting out of Hong Kong. Peaceful protesters had blocked huge chunks of the city. Thankfully, I was close enough to the airport train to jump on it. It just goes to show that in spite of the political turmoil, Hong Kong remains open for business.

This fortnightly column tracks the indulgent pursuits of the one-percenters.

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