The expat life is not for everyone but, for those with a thirst to learn and live in a new culture, it can lead to a remarkably rich life. Walter Jennings has come a long way, from a modest upbringing in rural New Jersey to a global life based around Hong Kong. It is a life that was probably not on the menu that his high school guidance counselor offered him, but it is what Walter has designed and made work wonderfully well for himself and his family. His area of expertise is communications specializing with the companies working in and with China. His life is full and vital; an avid reader and huge fan of literature, he is also a cook, husband, dad, and 5-day-a-week gym goer.
Hong Kong is a super-age zone, where more than 1 in 5 people is over the age of 65. It is also a place where age is seen as a positive resource rather than a handicap to be overcome. Being a Westerner in this vivid, energetic Asian culture allows Walter valuable insight into the topic of age, and how there are alternatives to the way it is viewed in many parts of the West.
How old are you?
Born in ‘61 and now 61 years old. I was born in the year of the Metal Ox, according to Chinese Zodiac. The Ox comes around once every 12 years, and each year they are influenced by different elements (earth, fire, air, water, wood). You only experience the unique combination of “your animal” with “your element” every 60 years.
Where are you from?
I was born in Saddle River and raised outside Flemington in New Jersey — a very rural area. My father ran the county’s Ford dealership — Jennings Ford!
You are a China aficionado going back quite a while. How did that happen?
My first business trip to Beijing was in 1992 when I was living in Sydney, Australia. I ran regional technology communications in APAC for Edelman Worldwide. We had a strong network in China. China has changed so much in the past 30 years. In some ways, I miss the old ways but I’m happy that tens of millions have been lifted out of poverty.
“What I admire is that experience is revered in China”
How is age regarded differently in HK? My recollection is that HK is one of the super-age areas of the world, with a great deal of older people. How is that impacting life there?
Hong Kong has one of the world’s longest life expectancies. That’s due in part to socialized healthcare and one of the highest rates of public housing in the world. There are many, many multi-generational families living under one roof. Family is never far away!
What I admire is that experience is revered in China. As I’ve grown older I’ve become more valuable due to my accumulated wisdom.
In China, it is common for the grandparents to care for their grandchildren while the parents work. There’s not a strong daycare industry but lots and lots of elderly people out walking with children.
The middle class in mainland China has exploded. Has that had an impact on traditional multi-generational family life?
In China’s mainland, frequently parents relocate to urban centers for work. They’ll leave their children home with relatives. Some only see their children once a year when they return home for Chinese New Year. With Covid, many could not travel. It’s placing more strain on the elderly to care for their grandchildren.
What is it that Westerners have most wrong about China?
China has an exceptional education system that turns out world-class engineers, mathematicians, scientists, and technologists. Yet the “soft skills” such as communication, management, marketing, and human resources aren’t as developed. Think high IQ but lower EQ. Yet in the West, we’re taught to value the individual; Americans are seen as the most outgoing, dynamic presenters. IQ and EQ don’t always understand each other.
Every time I leave China, I have a hollow feeling that I know less and less about the country. It keeps unfolding and surprising me. Just when I think I understand the nation, it changes. I’ve had that feeling for the last 30 years.
What is your day-to-day life in HK? I believe the big Covid lockdowns are over now.
I live in Sai Kung, a fishing village on the east coast of the New Territories — the northern part of the region. My home is in a very rural area; we have water buffalo, wild boars, snakes, and plenty of frogs in the area. Yet I’m only a 35-minute direct drive to Central.
China has “ripped the band-aid off” its Covid restrictions. In Hong Kong, we never had lockdowns yet today we still must wear masks out of the home. The border to China reopened and it’s great to see more Mainland visitors in the shops and restaurants in Hong Kong.
“I’m unnaturally excited about blockchain”
What is Asia Insight Circle?
Asia Insight Circle is a C-Suite networking association. We host monthly, closed-door meetings with 15-20 CEOs of major companies and invite guests to speak to major issues in business. This allows a frank, candid discussion among peers. It’s a great way to keep abreast across a wide range of industries, and to get peer support from your fellow CEOs.
As a tech enthusiast, you were at the global launch of the first fax machine; what are you seeing now that is of greatest interest to you?
I’m unnaturally excited about blockchain. I host a podcast “Waves in the Finoverse” that features tech CEOs. We’ve recently featured Algorand, Cardano, NEAR, and others. I am waiting for Security Token Offerings (STOs) — they’re an IPO equivalent for physical assets, whether an office building or a shipping route. Whatever has income and can be measured by IOT (Internet of Things) can likely be tokenized.
What is it like having a 19-year-old son? What is he interested in? What are you learning from him?
My husband and I adopted our son when he was 8 months old. He was born in Southern China and abandoned at birth. There is no record of his biological parents. Now that he’s 19, I have a front view seat into a new world of priorities. He’s less concerned with “things” than he is with “people.” I like his priorities.
He’s so much more centered and chill with the world, but likewise concerned about the future. He’s now studying International Commerce in The Hague in The Netherlands.
“While gay marriage isn’t available in Hong Kong, the government does recognize and honor our marriage and adoption”
You and your husband have been together for 32 years. How is gay marriage regarded in Asia? How has it evolved over the last decades?
We were married in Niagara Falls, Ontario in 2003 — months after that province legalized same-sex marriage. While gay marriage isn’t available in Hong Kong, the government does recognize and honor our marriage and adoption. It’s taken time — and a few lawsuits — but slowly, slowly it’s coming around.
On a day-to-day basis, there’s no drama. People here respect “face” and would never insult you in-person. We’re a quiet, low-key family living in harmony in our broader community.
What is your fitness regime?
I lift weights on average five mornings a week. I tend to go heavier to challenge my body. And in Hong Kong you walk everywhere. We have a car, but we’re not in it every day. There’s exceptional public transport but a lot of stairs in this steep city. Everyone walks every day.
HK is a food paradise, and we understand you are quite a domestic cook. What are you into these days?
I’ve always been a baker. I make all the desserts you remember from your childhood — cakes, cupcakes, cookies, pies, bars, etc. In early Covid, a friend gave me a sourdough starter; three years later, I still make two loaves each week. I make a delicious multigrain seeded sourdough that makes delicious toast!
You have a garden, which in space-constrained HK is quite a thing to have. What do you grow?
Living in the countryside we have a sizable yard. I’m more about aesthetics than practicality. Flowers over vegetables! Yet over the years I’ve learned a lot about tropical plants. I have a small grove of lemons and oranges, along with a few curry leaf trees. A lot of chilis, sweet potatoes, bananas, and herbs. Right now I’m learning to propagate bamboo.
“I really dislike older music. I lean into whatever is new”
What music are you listening to?
Okay. True confessions? I really dislike older music. I lean into whatever is new. I have a playlist on Spotify I curate. Called “Shredded Sexy,” it has 28 hours of music — 99% published since 2010. As I am in communications, I lean into the new to understand how people communicate today. It keeps me fresh and current.
Any guilty pleasure TV shows you are watching?
I’m getting tired of content. I feel during Covid we became one with the sofa. I can’t recall the last time I was in a cinema. That said, we did watch Vikings Valhalla on Netflix on a cold winter’s weekend.
What are the 3 non-negotiables in your life?
I’m proud of my reputation and I won’t undertake any assignments that aren’t ethical and legal. I can’t lie, and I remain above all a gentleman. That said, I have a sharp wit and a fast tongue. I am a raconteur who pushes the envelope.
Connect with Walter:
Images by Kirk Kenny.
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