Combining curiosity with questioning is the key to learning

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 March, 2009, 12:00am

I've always been curious and I think I can honestly say it leads you to learn more. I don't necessarily mean what you gain from books but simply learning by opening your eyes and ears.

And I'm still curious. At a meeting some time ago I was given a coffee and it was extremely smooth, and being a coffee drinker I knew it wasn't the milk. I asked the tea lady and she told me she'd put almond powder in it. Who'd have thought that - and, without asking, I'd never have known.

I've also found that people appreciate being asked questions because most like to be able to answer them.

Nowadays, youngsters don't seem to engage in the same way. People also don't tend to listen like they used to and I think that's a pity.

If you combine curiosity with listening, I believe strongly that you'll find it's like an encyclopedia opening up in front of you.

I grew up in the 1960s and there was no internet and so on, so I learned from those around me.

We were a grass-roots family - six kids, two parents and two grandparents - with my mum and dad having come to Hong Kong from China after World War II. Both were blue-collar staff and worked at the Tai Koo dockyard in Quarry Bay, although mum later moved to the post office.

When I woke up, dad had left for work and by bedtime at 10pm, he still wasn't home. He only ever seemed to have a day off when the Typhoon 10 signal was hoisted. As a result we had to be independent. We did our homework without guidance from our parents and so we had to get on with it.

I do think these days many kids are spoiled and should be more independent. By being that you become fighters and acquire a 'can do' spirit, and that's what we, as a city, seem to be lacking today.

I was the typical 1960s Hong Kong schoolgirl. I went to the government primary school in Hollywood Road and there I had good teachers who went beyond what was expected of them.

You either attended the morning or afternoon session. I went to the former then went to outside classes to increase my chances of getting into secondary school, which you sat an open exam for. I remember Ms Cheung, who was quite conservative but explained to us all the differences about Chinese history and literature. She had a knack for teaching. I passed the open exam and went on to Ho Tung Technical School in Causeway Bay, which I loved.

There were only three classes in each year and we had two principals - one liberal and free, and who encouraged us to sing, and another who was more rigid.

At lunchtimes we cycled and played basketball and ping pong. We also went to Victoria Park to swim. When I was aged 12 or 13, I'd go off to discos, putting on my HK$2 makeup.

It was a balanced education and I worked and played hard.

In Form Four or Five we had an excellent teacher - Ms Chan. I remember her because she spent the first half hour teaching us English and as a result mine, functionally, was pretty good.

By the time I was in secondary school, I wanted to be a secretary, so I took classes in shorthand and typing. And that's what I did as my first job then worked my way up.

A turning point came when I branched out into marketing and in the 1980s I joined Motorola Semiconductor, where I spent five years and which was a good place to learn. But I didn't really understand semiconductors, so I left to join L'Oreal in 1985.

Later I joined Jardine Matheson as an industry expert in cosmetics, which led me to working for IKEA and Mannings.

Now I'm on the board of Jardine Matheson Management Services Limited and I'm very happy to be involved in evolving strategy and taking the company forward.

Being also chairman of the Hong Kong Retail Management Association has been educational in that we've been actively promoting the need to cut plastic bag usage. Besides lobbying the government, I formed a taskforce to do something big and brave.

The result has been No Plastic Bag Day, launched early in March and more retailers are joining all the time. It's also about making every day a no-plastic-bag day.

We believe that a voluntary scheme, coupled with consumer education, is the most effective way to reduce plastic bag usage, and therefore more time should be given to the retail industry and customers to prove that voluntary efforts are effective.

We hope to reduce by half next year the number of bags dispensed. That's no small amount as - based on trade estimates - it amounts to annual cut from 830 million to 400 million.

Caroline Mak Sui-king is the chairwoman of the Hong Kong Retail Management Association and group specialty retail director of Dairy Farm. She was talking to David Phair.