first person

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 February, 2005, 12:00am

Billy Hau Chi-hang, 37, grew up in a remote New Territories village and is now an assistant professor of ecology and biodiversity at Hong Kong University. He contrasts his rural childhood with that of children growing up in his village today.

I was born and grew up in Ho Sheung Heung near Lowu. My father was a cook. My mother was a housewife. I have one brother and four sisters. It was a big family but that was typical in Hong Kong in those days.

As children, we went to the village school together, and we were probably the last group in our village to do that. Nearly all of our time was spent in the village.

We had traditional games and toys. After school, we played on the hillside and the surrounding countryside.

We stole birds' eggs, but not to eat. It was just something naughty that children do - you find something and you destroy it. I didn't realise at the time that there was anything wrong with what we were doing.

Then there were snakes. We were scared of snakes, of course, but at the same time we wanted to catch them - it was a dilemma. When you're with a group of other children and you kill a snake, you are a hero.

Most of the snakes were non-poisonous ones, like the keelback. There were other bigger and more dangerous snakes though, like the banded krait or the cobra, which was pretty common.

At the time I didn't know the names of the different species of snakes. I didn't find out until I read about them at university. The older people in the village knew which ones were dangerous and knew what to look out for but they didn't know the names.

Every child in my time was bitten by a dog at least once. Now it's a big issue and parents are paranoid about dog bites.

I once got a big bite on the thigh from a dog and it was bleeding badly. An old woman picked up some plants, chewed them, and put the chewed plants into the hole in my thigh.

The cure worked, but I've still got the scar. I don't think anyone would know which plants to pick today. That old woman isn't there anymore. The traditional knowledge has gone.

I think children's lives today are less healthy. They look fatter and their skin is pale because it doesn't get exposed to the sunshine. We used to run around in flip flops and were cut by broken glass and we were okay. We just ignored it and carried on.

When I was a child we knew everyone in the village. The relationships were very close.

Now, the associations are much looser. The older people all know each other but the children know each other less and play together less.

When we grew up, we all studied in the same school. We all knew each other very well. We used to share everything. Now, children study in Sheung Shui or Fanling and they are scattered around and don't know each other.

It was a happy childhood. And when I grew up, I was one of the few lucky ones who was able to combine my childhood interests with what I am doing now - working with wildlife, plants and animals.

But when I wanted to go to university I chose biology not because I was interested in animals and plants.

My primary consideration was to make sure I got into university and biology was the easiest way. The competition was much stronger in the late 1980s because there were far fewer places. I chose a programme with lower admission requirements just to get in. I didn't realise where it would lead.

I still have my house in the village. I won't sell because I believe I will still end up living back there some day.

The village is more modern and urbanised today and parents keep their children at home because they are afraid. Our playground used to be the hillside. Today, it is a concrete playground. I think

that's sad.