Hallowed halls and tainted walls

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2007, 12:00am

In 1965, when Po Yan Catholic Primary School opened its doors in Tung Tau public housing estate in Wong Tai Sin, its surroundings were far from the safe environment every parent envisages for their child.

With gangs of triads running rampant in the nearby mainland-controlled Kowloon Walled City, the school faced the unusual dilemma of operating in a British colony beside a crime-ridden neighbourhood where local police had no power.

'It was a very dangerous place,' said Sister Rosa Smets, who has been a permanent fixture at the school from day one. 'Some teachers used to have things stolen by people who used to run into the Walled City and disappear. You couldn't go in there after them. Even the police couldn't go in. I remember some local police being captured and held there. They had to be rescued.'

A place where dangerous criminals wreak havoc, only to flee behind walls protected by another state, may resemble the script of a futuristic movie. But for the residents of Tung Tau estate, many of them poor mainland migrants, the challenge of finding a school for their children was all too real.

For many, Po Yan provided the solution.

Run by the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and built to cater for the public housing community, Po Yan broke with tradition by becoming the first estate school in Hong Kong to be built on the ground floor. Until its opening, estate schools commonly operated in the only available space - the roofs of public housing buildings.

Annexed to Block 22 in Tung Tau estate, Po Yan quickly attracted children who lived in the cavernous, multi-story housing estates.

Sister Rosa, now 75, was there to welcome the first students, many of whom were new arrivals from the mainland. Her reflections reveal an intriguing part of Hong Kong's education history and illustrate the city's increasingly diverse population.

Changes in enrolments have mirrored the growing internationalisation of Hong Kong, with a wider ranger of nationalities now represented.

'Most of our children were from China in those days and we still accept them today. We also have Thai children and pupils with special needs. We believe in inclusive education,' she said.

Sister Rosa, a Belgian who learnt Cantonese by sitting in on the Primary One classes and having private lessons, was one of the school's first head mistresses. She also taught English.

'Our school was a kind of experiment. Parents were very happy that their children could come to school in a separate building,' she said. 'We said this school is built for the children of the neighbourhood. We always give preference to the children of the neighbourhood.'

The inclusive nature of the school has continued to be a defining feature of the school, according to Sister Leticia Bartolome, 70.

'From the very beginning we said that all the children in this area have the right to an education,' she said. 'We tried never to turn away anyone.'

In an arrangement that would horrify today's small-class advocates, she talks of how students were squeezed into classrooms in the early days.

'We used to have 24 classrooms with more than 2,000 students in two sessions, am and pm - 48 classes from primary one to four and they all had 45 or more students. We couldn't even accept all the students,' she said.

Back then, the classrooms weren't the only spaces that were crowded. Tung Tau estate had thousands of residents, including many of the school's students.

Tracey Pang Siu-fong was one of them. She finished at the primary school 27 years ago but regularly returns to drop off her daughter Jessie Chan Chun-man, a 10-year-old Po Yan student.

'I remember there being so many children in the playground that there wasn't space to move or play,' she said.

Her former classmate, David Lam Chor-shing, used to live in block 22 and now sends his son to the school.

'I remember that every year there was a fire drill and all the students had to go through the door to block 22 and then down into the playground,' he recalled.

One former student who spends more time at the school than most of her old classmates is 39-year-old Lam Kit-yuk.

Ms Lam had been working in other schools for five years when she saw a job advertised for a teaching position at her alma mater.

'I saw the job advertised in a newspaper and applied for the post immediately because I wanted to come back to my old school. Sister Rosa recognised me from my picture when she was looking at my resume. She asked the principal to arrange an interview for me and then, of course, I got the job,' said Ms Lam, who has taught at the school for 13 years.

Ms Lam described the sense of coming home: 'When I went to the old classrooms with Sister Rosa it was very strange. They were exactly the same as they were when I was a pupil here, even the same desks and chairs. I had a sense of belonging.'

The school now has about 560 pupils, so the children have more room to move. Principal Wong Chun-chung, who has worked at the school for 39 years, said there were now 19 classes, with class sizes ranging between 25 and 38 children. There are also four smaller classes with only 20 pupils each.

The school, which featured in a RTHK educational television programme this year, has been extended and renovated but the original building remains.

Kevin Li Pui-K, a member of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects who provided historical information about the city's school buildings for the programme, said Po Yan was one of many estate schools built in the early 1950s to cater for the influx of mainland immigrants. 'This type of school was quite common in the 50s and 60s,' he said.

While some of the schools had been upgraded, Mr Li said many others had been relocated and there were now few estate schools left in Hong Kong. He said it was important to keep a historical record documenting how schools had evolved over the years.

'The school represents a common building type and has collective memories for a sector of the population, especially those living in public housing estates,' he said.

While overcrowding was a concern in the school's early days, today, like many Hong Kong schools, the declining birth rate has left the school with falling enrolments. In the last academic year the school had six Primary Six classes but this year there are only four.

Sister Rosa is concerned about the government's policy of closing schools with declining numbers.

'Our big concern now is to get enough students to keep the school going,' she said.

Whatever the size of the school's population, Sister Rosa said the continuing hallmark of the school was its desire to accept all children from the neighbourhood, regardless of ability or nationality.