FROM THE EMPEROR’S COURT TO HONG KONG – Luck, of course, is God’s will

Hong Kong Correspondent

Nicholas Bodnar-Horvath lives comfortably from a successful legal practice but does not let that go to his head. From his Catholic roots and parents he insists that you “Treat people as you would like to be treated.” A colorful bon vivant, he enjoys being champion of billiards at the Hong Kong Club and reading about his illustrious maternal family in Hungary.

For example, his great-grandfather, a general, had one of the highest positions in a great power of Europe, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was adjutant to the penultimate Emperor, Franz-Joseph, who died in 1916. Also, a close relative was the deputy secretary of state for four prime ministers. Nevertheless Bodnar-Horvath is a modest man. After all, the family had to start with little in England after losing their wealth following the communist takeover of Hungary.

Before interviewing ​him for O Clarim, meeting him ​on several occasions, a Catholic spirit was on display, at work and at home, not pride – unless you bring up billiards and snooker, his passion.

Bodnar-Horvath’s principle of treating people as yourself, he states, came from his “very caring” parents and a mentor, a Benedictine monk, his “wonderful” parish priest in England where he grew up. This mentor played an important role in Bodnar-Horvath’s life when his education in England was suffering. The monk persuaded the school at Worth Abbey to accept ​Bodnar-Horvath after failing the entrance exam.

I know you said earlier you treat people as you would like to be treated and respect your staff well but how has this Catholic principle been part of what you do in your legal practice?

As a lawyer I answer to a lot of pro bono (free legal advice for people who can’t afford legal fees) We took a pro bono custody of children’s case where a mother could have lost her children. She was Thai, had lost her boyfriend, a Cathay pilot who died of septicaemia after cutting his hand in the garden. There was a lot of money in the Cathay retirement fund, but they decided to allow funds as they saw fit. The mother was going to get little and lose her children to the husband’s family. We started a fund to allocate money to the mother which Cathay agreed to and gave free legal services for her to keep her children which she did. Some money went to the grandmother, some to the mother, more to the children. The youngest was only two years old. The mother went to Thailand to save money. We’ve been investing the fund, drip-feeding the money, going to Thailand to check on the kids, pay their education.  The parents of the husband in Canada wanted to keep the children. We helped the mother to keep custody and provide income for the family.

What else in your in legal work gives you the most pleasure and satisfaction?

I enjoy working with people and dealing with their problems. I don’t always solve them, but I am there for them. I take it off their shoulders. I especially like it when they come from overseas probably for their career. I am pleased that they have come to me to help them. I am a sociable person. I like people. I  don’t like litigation. I prefer getting people around a table. One side can win with 70% after legal fees or if they lose, they can be bankrupt. I used to work volunteering for the (international group supporting charities) Round Table helping disadvantaged people.  I had to stop, it’s only for the young, until forty. Old people are conservative, the young can change.

You’re English from Hungarian parents with a notable family history from the time of the Crusades, more recently working closely with the penultimate Autro-Hungarian Emperor and several prime ministers. With that history, how do you feel about Hungary and being Hungarian?

I like Hungarian. We spoke Hungarian at home. I went to Germany to the Hungarian school in Munich to develop my Hungarian. Many Hungarians fleeing the Russian communist occupation were there. I have a working knowledge of Hungarian and use it for legal work. I grew up with the English so I am not very outgoing, I repressed that. Hungarians are very outgoing, they’re the Irish of Eastern Europe – easy going people. Even in communist times they stayed the same. I was in Hungary in 1973. In the other Eastern European occupied countries I love my family history. It’s from my mother’s side; my father’s family were poor. We have a crest from the crusades. My first cousin’s husband was Józef Sivak, Deputy Secretary of State, to four prime ministers. I asked the foreign minister be the honorary consul of Hungary. I like ​being with diplomats. Interesting, intelligent. Hungary did not want a consulate here or a consul under colonial rule. I worked with the consulate after it was established here. In November 1997, in Beijing, working for the ambassador, my wife (her mother tongue is Cantonese) was speaking Mandarin. She is fluent. There were four people there, speaking also Hungarian and English. Four people speaking three languages, interpreting!   

Where does that people caring side of you come from and how are you as a father and husband?

I had very caring parents. I treated my children as adults at an early stage to be independent.  I even gave them a sip of wine at twelve so they wouldn’t drink too much at eighteen. (Because they are still at the early stage of their careers) they don’t get very well paid, but they have good jobs and enjoy their work. I had many girlfriends in England, but my wife and I are well suited. I can express myself with her, she has her own hobbies. People say marriage stays the same but it’s not. You have to grow.

What do you consider most important in your life? Is it work or family and how important is the influence of Catholicism?

Family is most important. Luck in my life is of course God’s will. Luck: my father survived as a 16-year-old soldier in 1945 and then caught by the Russians. My parents escaped from Hungary. I have a successful practice here. The influence of a Catholic upbringing is “Treat people as you would like to be treated.” I was ​brought up ​Catholic, both parents were Catholic and religious education began at five with the Belgian sisters. Catholic influence too with our parish priest, a ​Benedictine monk. Wonderful man and it was from him that I got my education with the ​Benedictines at Worth Abbey school. I only got 53% in my common entrance exam. I needed 55% to pass and get in but Fr Ceolfrid talked to the headmaster at Worth to get me in. Fr Dominic (the headmaster) did and am always grateful, a very nice man and Worth was an easy-going place compared to other strict boarding schools. I liked the monks. I still stay connected to the school at reunions and meeting the headmasters when they come here (for education fairs).

Tell me about your father in Hungary in WWII as a child soldier and after in England.

He doesn’t like to talk about WWII but at 15 or 16 he was in black markets. They had to make a living for the family. They were selling vegetables to Czechoslovakia for cigarettes across the Danube river. They had to use (waterproof) bags blown up with air. It was very dangerous the river is dangerous.

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