This issue, Diplomat sits down with Mr. Juan Manuel Lopez at 1/5 Nuevo for the Spanish gazpacho, Telmo Rodriguez 2010 Rioja and his cool, spicy stories.
Consul General Juan Manuel Lopez-Nadal is not shy about who he is. The public persona he projects online is scintillatingly clear: Leftist. Humanist. Agnostic. Supporter of FC Barcelona. Everything is right out in the open with an atypically undiplomatic, yet somehow very Spanish, flair.
Un español en la China de Deng
First stop, China! One can only imagine how interesting that was for a young fresh graduate out of ‘oven’ to be sent to and posted in Beijing, such a faraway place at that time in 1980s. “It is very difficult to move around inside in this closed political regime.” These were the years immediately following the Maoist period and Deng Xiaoping had begun the reforms that would shake the world. “In the diplomatic compound, we had the feeling of being permanently watched and observed. It was difficult to travel too.”
Nevertheless, he managed to beat his Embassy rivals to get the chance to come to Hong Kong on short visits. He was fascinated by the city right away. “It was already a quite interesting place 30 years ago, and now it is even more so. There were some [diplomatic] colleagues—I don’t want to mention the country of origin—that brought foodstuffs, sweets and drinks back in the diplomatic pouch”. Stricter rules might make this less common today, but it was completely different time back then.
One of his shortest postings was also the most explosive – literally. In 2002, he was thrust into the hot zone of Kabul. “I’m an old bachelor who doesn’t have family constraints. I became the right candidate to be sent there”. He did go on rides with NATO troops in full battle armour. It was a good thing he had it. He was with a patrol that hit a monster land-mine that exploded in front of his unit. He learned some hard lessons, but it was a valuable experience, both professionally and personally.
Lopez- Nadal – The Exalted White Elephant
Since Juan Manuel’s hometown Mallorca is only a stone’s throw away from Barcelona and he himself a firm FC Barcelona fan, we have no surprise finding out that Barcelona is his favorite city in Europe.
However the straightforward answer “Bangkok is my favorite city among all my postings!” came in a rather shocking yet refreshing way, as the typical diplomatic replies to our frequently asked question “where was your favourite posting?” are usually: “I loved them all.” or “They all have their charms.” Not Senor Lopez-Nadal. For him, it is just Bangkok, out of a long list of competitors: Jakarta, Tunisia, India, Lisbon, Copenhagen, the aforementioned Beijing and Afghanistan, and Hong Kong.
So what exactly happened in Thailand that was so extraordinary? Juan Manuel marked the first posting in Thailand as Consul General from 1993-1996 as “personally, the best years of my life.” On his second tour of duty, this time as Ambassador, he was awarded the Knight-Grand Cross of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, Kingdom of Thailand. This is indeed a magical place for him. In a deeply appreciative voice, Juan intoned, “This is a distinction that is given by the King and the Thailand government to ambassadors who have served for a long time as an acknowledgement of our modest work in improving the relationship between our respective country and Thailand. But for me it is rather dear…this is indeed a country that I bring closest to my heart.”
Tapas time – The Spanish presence in Hong Kong
With a team of 10 staff now (6 locals, 4 Spanish), Juan has an interesting role to play. He presides over the normal “taking care of the Spanish community” (which encompasses 70~80 companies and 1,400 Spanish people). He cooperates to “promote Spain economically and commercially” with his colleagues in the Trade Commission, which is a separate branch under Spanish system. Culture is a strong focus of the mission here where he has the essential support of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce.
“The Spanish Chamber of Commerce is extremely important and useful…even more nowadays because we are facing the financial difficulty in Spain and Europe and the budget for the consulate has been sharply cut. So we need the support from the private sector to promote activities.”
Together they provide support to the Hong Kong government in expanding Spanish teaching. Spanish was included as an optional second foreign language in the secondary school curriculum just a couple of years ago to meet increasing demand in the student population. The Consulate is also financing the university students from CUHK, HKU, CityU, PolyU and HKUST for summer courses in Spain.
The biggest project undergoing for Juan Manuel right now is to bring Cervantes Institute to Hong Kong. This will be the 3rd centre in China after Beijing and Shanghai. Similar to France’s Alliance Francaise and Germany’s Goethe Institutes, this will bring extra cultural activities and educational assistance. It will launch in 2014 if current negotiations go according to the plan.
Another area that Juan Manuel will be happy to see more progress is wine. The market is competitive, needless to say, but Juan Manuel—enjoying a Spanish red with Diplomat’s editorial board—seems to be confident about his country’s product. “I’m pleased to announce that this year in the [Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Fair 2013] in November, Spain is going to be the guest country…this is a very good opportunity and I hope to show not only the options we have but also the increasing quality of Spanish wine.” That being said, friends, mark the calendar for the Cava and Rioja time!
Like his fellow colleagues, his biggest challenge here is also rent. “This is our main concern now. Because due to the rental prices here in Hong Kong, we have to renovate our rental (the lease is up in March 2014) and that is going to be a difficult issue…we will consider the possibility of sharing office with the Trade Commission if any or both of us will have to move.”
Diplomat’s clear winner for the most unusual answer we have got for the question of what he does with his leisure time: He goes to school! Already a double Masters degree holder, Juan Manuel is currently enrolled in the Master programme of International Affairs in Hong Kong University. He has completed half the programme and has another year to go. “I enjoyed it tremendously. Number one: I believe we have always time to learn. Number two: Being back to the university makes me feel younger” The subjects – international affairs, Chinese foreign policy, Asian politics, and theory of international relations – are all of intense interest to this academic gourmand.
Retiring, Juan Manuel hopes that he could take use of what he has learned here to give back to the community. Through his teaching and writing, he hopes to bring Asia closer to his people in Spain, especially Mallorca. To prepare, he is honing his skills by occasionally giving lectures at his alma mater, The College of Europe in Bruges.
Closing out a storied career
With another 2 years in the Hong Kong posting, Juan Manuel expects to be posted elsewhere for another term (hopefully in South-East Asia where he is most at ease), and then retire according to Foreign Ministry requirements between 67-70 years of age. After the retirement, he will of course spend time in his hometown Mallorca in a nice country house there from his mother’s family, and spend the winters in his favorite place, Thailand.
Final message for the new coming diplomats in Hong Kong?
“It is a place you can learn many things, because Hong Kong is a unique city where so many different cultures and lifestyles mix. Very Chinese yet very cosmopolitan at the same time. The transportation system here is one of the best among all the cities. When you have your Octopus card, you can go everywhere. So it’s a fascinating place to work and take advantage and enjoy the dynamics!”
Consul General of Spain: Mr. Juan Manuel Lopez-Nadal
- Ambassador, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Spain, 2009-2011
- Ambassador of Spain to Thailand, 2004-2009
Education and background:
- Master in International Affairs at Hong Kong University
- Master of Arts in International Relations and Diplomacy, Spanish Diplomatic School
- Master of Arts, College of Europe
- BA in Law and Journalism, University of Barcelona