Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 June, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong's income disparity levels are the widest in what passes for the developed world, and you don't have to look far to find disgusting extremes of poverty and affluence. However, the city is a paradise compared with what was endured by many of its citizens before they arrived. The early 1950s saw about 1,000 desperate refugees cross the border each month, which stretched the colony's limited social-welfare conditions to breaking point.

Throughout this period, though, social conditions steadily improved, driven by bodies such as The Hong Kong Housing Society, The Family Welfare Society, The Society for the Protection of Children and the Community Chest. The vision behind these vital institutions, and many others, was ultimately that of one man: Ronald Owen Hall, popularly known by his initials, R.O., who served as the Anglican bishop of Hong Kong from 1932 to 1966.

Known in Chinese as Ho Ming-wah, Hall was a friend of Zhou Enlai - later the premier of China - from the 20s, and in the 50s he was a frequent visitor to the mainland, where he openly praised the social-welfare advances made during the early years of communist rule.

Over considerable official opposition - unkind critics labelled him the 'Pink Bishop' and a foolish stooge - Hall provided assistance to openly leftist schools for refugee children. He took the sensible view that desperate poverty combined with ignorance and lack of opportunity were communism's natural breeding grounds; people who have chances early in life and the opportunities for social betterment that education offers usually show a mark- ed preference for personal freedom when they reach adulthood. Contemporary Hong Kong society vindicates Hall's views.

Socially progressive in other areas, Hall, who was fortunate to be on the other side of the border when Hong Kong fell, ordained deaconess Florence Li Tim-oi as the first female vicar in the Anglican Church, in 1944. Li served in wartime Macau, which was surrounded but not occupied by the Japanese. Now commonplace, female ordination was highly controversial and the experiment was not repeated for some decades.

A Chinese community welfare organisation in London, a secondary school in Kowloon Tong, a theological college in Central and a public housing estate in Shau Kei Wan are all named in Hall's memory. But the tremen- dous, lasting legacy of hope for a better tomorrow that R.O. bequeathed to Hong Kong's disadvantaged is best summed up by borrowing words from the gravestone of Christopher Wren, architect of post-great-fire London: 'He lived not for himself, but for the public good. If you seek his memorial, look about you.'