For all the loudly trumpeted deficiencies in the local education system - and there are plenty of those - the fact remains that more Hong Kong people can read now than at any other time in history. Neatly uniformed schoolchildren are one of the city's most common sights. The opportunity for universal free or heavily subsidised education is one of our three major modern success stories; the other two are a world-class public- health system and extensive, reasonable-quality social housing.
But not that long ago - less than two generations, to be exact - plenty of local children never saw the inside of a classroom, and missed out completely on the life chances such an experience offered.
This wretched state of affairs can be laid at the door of former financial secretary Sir John Cowperthwaite. A devotee of Ayn Rand-influenced economic policies, Cowperthwaite refused increased government support for universal free primary education - and other social welfare initiatives that would have paid long-range dividends - throughout the 1960s. Compulsory primary education for all Hong Kong children was only guaranteed in 1971.
As a direct consequence of Cowperthwaite's misguided, morally bankrupt economic theories, modern Hong Kong has a generation of working-age illiterates (the youngest are in their early 50s) who are now being supported by massive government subsidies. Ever wondered why Hong Kong has so many street-sweepers, pickers-up of leaves, and so on? Menial work is all that most illiterates can do. Long-term, it would have been cheaper - and infinitely better - to find the financial resources for primary education. And that's before we begin to consider the tragic loss of potential - all the people who could have done so much more, to their and everyone else's benefit - from not having modern life's most basic building blocks in place to start with.
Design themes used for MTR stations laid out in the 80s offer a stark reminder of widespread semi-literacy. Stations in East Kowloon's public-housing districts are colour-coded for easy recognition; Diamond Hill has a black and diamond-like background, and Choi Hung ('rainbow' in Cantonese) has a rainbow pattern. One reason why many elderly people are reluctant to move to new districts is that they simply can't find their way around, read destinations on buses, recognise shop signs, or do many of the everyday tasks (without help) that the younger generations take for granted.
According to an official survey conducted in 1923, it was estimated that more than 90 per cent of the Chinese population in Hong Kong were completely illiterate. This was unsurprising, as most migrants to the colony in those years came from impoverished rural districts, and in traditional China, grinding poverty and some level of functional literacy did not go together.
Nevertheless, illiterates still had to cope - somehow - with occasional correspondence, and professional letter writers filled the gap. Seated at small folding tables under covered pavement arcades, professional scribes wrote covering letters for remittances back to their heung ha ('home district') elsewhere in the Pearl River Delta, filled in official forms and drafted petitions when required, and wrote auspicious characters and couplets to be hung over the door at Lunar New Year and pasted on the kitchen rice barrel to bring good luck and stave off food shortages.
A few, mostly elderly, professional letter writers still operate in older areas. But these days, most illiterates have younger, literate family members who can assist them when required, and with far more privacy. For those without family, social workers fill the need. In consequence, demand for professional letter writers has almost evaporated, and another traditional trade is slowly passing into history.
Most local Chinese-language newspapers are pitched at a Form One reading age - which remains the general median adult educational level in Hong Kong.