Academic finds true calling

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2011, 12:00am


It is common enough for university students to have second thoughts about their choice of course and switch to something different. Much rarer is to find a senior academic, with a PhD and established name in one field, deciding on a mid-career switch and tackling the challenges of a brand-new discipline.

That, though, is what Stephen Chan Ching-kiu, academic dean for the faculty of arts and professor of cultural studies at Lingnan University, did in the late 1990s and, in the process, he found his true calling. It enabled him - with the help of others, of course - to create programmes, instigate research, and build a fuller understanding of the diverse cultural influences that continue to shape Hong Kong society.

Crucially, that has inspired serious study of previously neglected areas such as local cinema, grassroots politics, preservation of heritage, and social identification. And it is having an impact on the broader community by exploring practical issues and perceptions faced by teachers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the like in a fast-changing environment where tradition and collective memory still count for a lot.

After returning to Hong Kong in the mid-1980s with a PhD in comparative literature from the University of California at San Diego, Chan spent two years at the then Lingnan College teaching translation and English. Being young and ambitious, it seemed a logical step to move on to the English department at the Chinese University, but becoming more interested in the changing attitudes and ideas of the pre-handover period, Chan felt the need to teach a subject that reflected and moved with the times. He therefore jumped at the chance to join Lingnan's School of General Education in 1998 with a mission to bring cultural studies into the curriculum as a distinct degree discipline, not just an afterthought tacked on to other subjects.

'I saw cultural studies as a very useful contemporary platform for scholars to engage in important issues away from the more traditional confines of English, sociology or communications, which were driven by their respective but, to me, narrow disciplinary concerns,' Chan says. 'I was increasingly interested in the real Hong Kong - its structure, culture, and the way people see their past, present and future.'

Given freedom, he built the initial BA programme by developing cross-disciplinary themes. These included how pop culture emerged in colonial post-war Hong Kong, the manufacturing phenomenon, and how the deadline for the transfer of sovereignty changed society in the 1980s and 1990s.

'We were literally inventing courses, but would look at filmmaking, popular music and how [ordinary] people dealt with the bigger changes,' Chan says. 'We started to bring issues into the classroom and it was a completely new experience. Nothing like this had been done previously in Hong Kong, but we managed to produce a very good programme and have made a significant contribution to the community.'

A self-financed MA was added in 2003 and has continued to attract a wide cross-section of students in the media, education, social work, NGOs and activist groups. The challenge there has been to develop a practical programme that doesn't just get the class talking, but helps people become interested and directly engaged in social justice, reform, and effecting economic and policy change. 'My own sense of commitment has developed through the education we offer,' Chan says.

Moving with the times

Stresses the importance of good writing skills for anyone looking to influence policy or create change

His own extra-curricular activities include active involvement in the work of the Civic Party

Has been invited to act as a part-time adviser to the government's Central Policy Unit