Catalla’s eventful stint in Hong Kong

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Consul-General Bernardita Catalla

CONSUL-General Bernardita Catalla may have only stayed in Hong Kong for a little over three years, but with those three eventful years, it seemed like she has stayed here far longer than that.

Catalla is set to leave Hong Kong soon to assume being the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary (AEP) of the Republic of the Philippines to the Lebanese Republic.

Her stint here in Hong Kong could be described in two words: rebuilding, and revitalizing.

Consider this: she arrived on June 11, 2014, a day before the celebration of the Philippine Independence Day in Hong Kong. It was also a little over two weeks when Hong Kong and Manila officially put a closure to the rift brought about by the Rizal hostage-taking incident where eight tourists from Hong Kong died in a botched rescue attempt.

A few months after, the Occupy Hong Kong protests took place. In the following year, the Philippine Consulate began preparations for the 2016 presidential polls. And the following year, the polls took place, and finally this year, the Philippine Consulate was among the lead organizers of “Celebrate Colours”, an event featuring and showcasing talents and contribution of ethnic minorities to Hong Kong as the city celebrated its 20th founding anniversary.

Looking back at her stint here, Catalla described it as “fulfilling”.

“This is my first assignment as head of post so now I can do whatever I want to do. I’m the boss and I give directions…Now it’s my vision that I follow. So, how I think, how I believe an office should be run, and what activities should be undertaken and how to go about things.

“I was given the opportunity to do all the things that I wanted to do, [including] elevating the status of Filipinos here in Hong Kong and putting the Philippines [on the radar] of the businessmen,” Catalla said.

The PCG chief had hit the ground running on her first day in Hong Kong as it was the celebration of the Philippine Independence Day.

And the work had just begun then.

Those were the early days of the renewal of the ties between Manila and Hong Kong, and Catalla said they had to work hard to bring back Hong Kong tourists to the Philippines.

First up was convincing then Philippine Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr., who visited Hong Kong in June 2014, to push for the inclusion of a contingent from the Philippines to participate in the annual Lunar New Year parade, whose major sponsor was Cathay Pacific.

She said the parade had been held annually since some 20 years ago, but the Philippines was never invited.

“Sumasali diyan Germany, The Netherlands, pero hindi tayo iniimbita. Sabi ko kay Secretary Jimenez ‘sir pa-imbita tayo’. Nakipag-usap kami and we expressed our desire to be invited through
Cathay Pacific,” she said.

Catalla said they had back channel dialogues with the Hong Kong Tourism Board, which paved the way for the regular participation of the Philippines in the parade.

In September 2014, Hong Kong was rocked by the Occupy protests, and Catalla said she felt it was the PCG’s duty to remind Filipinos working in the city to stay away from local politics.

“We were certain of our moves to dissuade Filipinos from joining and going to the protest areas because it was very clear to me why Filipinos came here. They came here to work and if they engaged in such activities and they were identified, they could lose their jobs.

“The first thing was to protect them from losing their jobs because I believe the worst violation of human rights is depriving them of their means of livelihood,” Catalla said.

The PCG also began an active partnership with various NGOs and stakeholders to initiate programs for Filipinos working in the city, particularly the household service workers.

Catalla cited projects, among others, with the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, which extends free legal advice and consultation for Filipinos.

The PCG also has an existing programs with other NGOs for the financial education of and for the health and well-being of Filipinos in the city.

In 2016, the PCG officials were deputized by the Commission on Elections to hold the presidential polls for the overseas voting here.

“We were able to prove that the poll was clean and that we did not do anything to damage it or to mar it in spite of some insinuations by some people,” she said.

Catalla’s last major project in Hong Kong was the “Celebrate Colours” multi-cultural extravaganza held on June 25 at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Wan Chai. The event was part of the 20th anniversary celebration of the establishment of the Hong Kong SAR. The PCG collaborated with the ISS Hong Kong and the Hong Kong government to recognize the contribution of the ethnic minorities to the city.

In Lebanon, Catalla said she is looking forward to the post as it was a promotion and being an ambassador is the “apex of the career” of every diplomat.

“Lebanon is also a new place for me. As a young and lower-level diplomat, I served in Asia, especially in Southeast Asia – in Malaysia, Indonesia, and now Hong Kong, which is very near the Philippines and there were not much differences in terms of culture. Lebanon is an entirely new one, so it excites me in that way,” she said.