Although Christine Houston grew up in Garden City, she had never heard of Shelter Island until she was invited to visit with friends, and then, she recalled recently, “I just fell in love with it. I didn’t want to leave.”
She and her husband rented a place in the Heights for three years while looking for their own home. But in late 1993, the international executive search consultancy in which she was a partner asked her to move to Asia.
Ms. Houston and her husband moved to Hong Kong in 1994, when it was still a British colony. Since the British government handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, she’s seen a lot of changes.
“There was the Asian financial crisis in 1997,” she recalled, “and then the SARS outbreak in 2003, followed by the global financial meltdown of 2008.”
Currently managing director of her own consulting firm, Executive Strategies Group International, better known as ESGI, Ms. Houston is still based in Hong Kong. In December 2019, she came home to New York for Christmas, as she traditionally does, and when she returned to Hong Kong in February last year, it was locked down for the COVID pandemic. She didn’t know when they might be getting vaccines in Hong Kong.
When Hong Kong was returned to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), she recalled, the latter committed to a high degree of autonomy, a.k.a, “One Country, Two Systems,” as well as a promise to introduce universal suffrage. There’s been an uneasy peace as the promised universal suffrage stopped and started. In 2003, there was a first sign that autonomy was threatened with the attempt to enact anti-subversion legislation. Hong Kong citizens responded: an estimated 2 million people — out of Hong Kong’s total population of 7 million — marched in protest.
Ms. Houston, who has been active in elections since she was 18, has carried this interest to Hong Kong; she was one of those who marched.
More recently, China has taken an increasingly hard line, and in June of last year, imposed a National Security Law, which allows those deemed to be a risk to “security” to be extradited to China. Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong have been arrested and when some were granted bail, they were immediately arrested again on other charges.
The British Government then offered holders of British National Overseas Passports the option of moving to the U.K., where after five years they would have the option to become citizens. A significant number of people have taken this up and more are planning to. It’s not just that they worry about a lack of the freedoms to which they have become accustomed, they also worry about their children. Many are frightened the children will be educated in a system where the government has imposed a PRC-style of nationalistic education in order to make them “patriots,” Ms. Houston said.
This exodus is of great concern to both the Central government (Beijing) and to Hong Kong, since it’s potentially a significant loss of talent and capital. “I think we Americans take our personal freedoms and electoral rights for granted,” Ms. Houston said.
The Hong Kong legislature was stormed last year by a pro-democratic faction that was protesting authoritarian rule. When insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington in January, the Central government compared Hong Kong’s suppression of those protests (not riots) to those in the U.S. Although the actions in Washington were to overturn the results of an election, not as a protest against authoritarian rule, the difference was not noted in the press.
In some areas, Ms. Huston sees benefits in Hong Kong the U.S. lacks. “There’s a fabulous healthcare system, with the best doctors, many having overseas degrees,” she noted. There’s never more than a 15-minute wait at an emergency room, and many medicines that are expensive and require prescriptions in the U.S. can be obtained over the counter at a fraction of the cost. “The U.S. [healthcare] system is so screwed up,” she said.
Hong Kong is also incredibly safe, Ms. Houston said; her children started taking taxis and public transportation from the age of about 10. There are no guns, and while she knows there are drugs, this was not a concern among most other parents she knew while their children were in high school.
An Island state of mind
Although they moved to Hong Kong in 1994, Shelter Island was never far from her mind. She and her husband worked with realtor Georgiana Ketcham to find a home for their family on the Island, eventually buying a property off Nostrand Parkway, and later acquiring land next to it to give them more room. Later, they divorced, but she kept the Shelter Island property and sent her children there every summer.
Fixing up and expanding the space has been a “labor of love,” she said. “My kids went to British schools in Hong Kong and I wanted them to have a home in the U.S. and, at least in the summer, have an experience of America.”
While she didn’t have the ability to take the summer off, she sent the children to the Island with “Nanay Fedy,” the family’s housekeeper of nearly 26 years.
Because of the climate in Hong Kong, her children sailed all year long, except in the summer, when they sailed in the Shelter Island Yacht Club’s junior sailing program. “When my two older sons went to college on the east coast of the U.S.,” she said, “they sailed in college regattas and met friends from other colleges who had been their sailing mates on Shelter Island.”
When the pandemic struck, she realized that Shelter Island could not only be the safest place for her adult children, but also offered a unique opportunity for them to be there together through all this. They were accompanied this time by Andrew’s wife, Lori. They had been married in 2019 at Union Chapel in the Heights, followed by a reception at the Ram’s Head Inn.
Ms. Houston has kept up to date on the Island’s progress through the pandemic by reading the Reporter and staying in touch with friends like Ms. Ketcham and Kim Feierstein. She notes that when she first met Kim, she told her that Kim’s grandfather had taught Andrew to fish on the dock behind Jack’s Marine. There are few places, she said, that could have provided the continuity that Shelter Island has over the last 31 years.
“Shelter Island has been the constant,” she said. “It makes me so happy when I step on the ferry and realize I’m home.”