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Octopus: The inventor of the electronic payment system talks to Around DB

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Sam Agars sits down with 23-year DB resident Paul Chan, the man behind the ever-expanding electronic payment system we all know and love.

Of the 20,000 or so people who live in Discovery Bay, you would be hard-pressed to find many as unassuming as Paul Chan. When asked, he admits he is proud of his achievements, but the 23-year DBer is totally low-fuss when chatting about his career and his all-important role in creating a Hong Kong institution, the Octopus card.

Born in Hong Kong, Paul moved to the UK as a six-year-old – “my uncle opened a typical Chinese restaurant so my dad sent me over” – and took his first degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at King’s College, London. Interestingly, his children, Nicholas and Chloe, are following in his footsteps, with Nicholas currently at the University of Surrey studying Electrical and Electronic Engineering, and Chloe, fresh out of Discovery College, heart set on taking a Physiotherapy degree in the UK.

Paul returned to Hong Kong in 1979, at his parent’s urging, convinced that there were big opportunities for graduates in the then territory. Un-enamoured by the prospect of high-rise living, he quickly settled in Sai Kung, and then moved to DB just as it was coming up.

Connecting a city

Looking back on his career, Paul remembers the exact day it all began: October 1, 1979. This was the date that he joined the MTR Corporation to start work on its automatic fare collection (AFC) system. By the early ‘90s, he was leading the team behind Octopus and, since its inception in 1997, he has watched his brainchild become a crucial part of everyday life in the city.

“I developed the magnetic stripe technology at the very beginning,” Paul says. “In those days, the come-and-store-value ticket was the same as Octopus but they used the magnetic stripe like a bank card.”

To fully appreciate the impact Octopus has had on the city, it is worth considering that there are currently 24 million cards in circulation, according to Paul, of which seven million are active in a population of seven-and-a-half million people. Little wonder, when you can use it to pay for transport, to buy food, as a library card, to access your apartment building and even to record your child’s attendance at school.

“We had a lot of discussions with the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, saying Octopus will be the future e-payment system in Hong Kong,” Paul says. “They said we were only MTR, that we couldn’t take the whole of Hong Kong. But we convinced them it was the next generation and Octopus became multi-application around 2001.”

With an MBA and a PhD under his belt, it has been an interesting ride for Paul. In addition to his 35-year stint with the MTR, he has worked as a consultant throughout Asia and in Europe, where he helped develop the AFC system in Holland and the Oyster card in the UK.

Now in his mid-60s, Paul has taken a step back, having finished up his full-time role at MTR. Self-employed as a consultant, he is enjoying the change of pace and the chance to spend some well-earned time at home. “I love DB very much and I don’t think I would ever leave,” he says.

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