'Nobody can choose where they start in life'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 April, 2006, 12:00am

I was 15 when I first realised I was academically capable, which prompted me to leave the comfy confines of my convent and go to a high-achieving government school. As a result, I came to experience a less privileged side of life which led me to become a social worker.

I started at St Paul's Convent's kindergarten and stayed throughout primary and secondary school. The most memorable time was when I was a prefect. The worst time was studying for a history test then finding out it was a geography test.

I loved being in the school choir. Choir singing is a team effort and the greatest test is not to let your own voice stand out.

I found school to be a very positive experience; I learned so many things such as how to help organise school plays and participate in debates. Looking back, I also think it was very much a finishing school, learning how to clap politely and to cover our mouths when laughing. However, study was never emphasised that greatly.

My interest in people stemmed from those early days. The convent had an orphanage and the school also encouraged people without a formal education to night classes. I remember tutoring a primary school pupil whose mother had just died and that was how my first seeds of compassion were sown.

After Form Five I switched to King's College in Bonham Road. I'd done well at the HKCEE and discovered I was academic. The move was a big step. Boys studied differently to girls and seemed more interested in academic work. They challenged the teachers and the pursuit of knowledge made them happy. Furthermore, King's students came from different backgrounds.

At the convent, many of the girls were driven to school. I had grown up in comfortable surroundings in Stanley and felt ashamed being chauffeured to school. It was at that time I went to a friend's public housing flat for the first time. I wondered how these people could live in such conditions without it affecting their attitude to life. They worked so hard, talked about real-life issues and didn't know if they had enough money for the next month. It was these kinds of experiences that prompted me to study social work.

I graduated in social sciences and social work from the University of Hong Kong in 1980. Those years were important because they were the last phase of the active student movement. It wasn't just about debating social issues but going out and visiting the disadvantaged. I was filled with admiration for the way people coped and found strength in the face of adversity.

I then went to Chicago to study for a master's in social service administration.

I did a variety of jobs afterwards including with the Red Cross in Hong Kong where I came into contact with people in life and death situations. Four years ago, I accepted the position of chief executive with the Hong Kong Council of Social Service. It's about working with agencies, dealing with the disadvantaged on the front line and helping to communicate the difficulties they face to those who matter. It's not just about obtaining money; we try to mobilise staff in all sorts of companies to become volunteers and make a difference.

Nobody can choose where they start out in life. You can be born into a family with few choices available to you but I now know you can overcome it. One thing I learned in university was the story of the turtle from my professor. You can have a safe, protected life within your shell, but if you never stick your head and legs outside you'll always hide away, never taking one step forward.

Christine Fang is the chief executive of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service. She was talking to David Phair