A life as hard as stone
Children in Hong Kong and Yunnan live beneath a mountain with the same name - Lion Rock - but the similarities between their homes end there. This summer, 17 Hong Kong students went to the highland province to see first-hand how hard life is for the children there.
Their five-day field trip was part of the Young Envoys Programme organised by the children's charity, Unicef. The group went from town to town, talking to families and visiting schools.
At Liming village, a four-hour drive northwest of Lijiang city, people make a living growing corn and tobacco. Each household earns an average annual income of HK$3,000 which keeps them afloat, but putting aside one fifth for a child's education is tough. The lucky ones cherish their classes and work extra hard.
Hua Lan, 15, comes from a typical Lisu farming family. She is boarded 22 kilometres away from home, at Liminglisuzuxiang Middle School. During the weekdays and summer holidays, she stays in a dimly lit room crammed with 14 bunk beds. Yet according to the principal, the conditions are better than back home, especially when it comes to mealtimes, as portions are generous and nutritious.
Hua only goes home once a fortnight. When she feels homesick, she cries under her blanket. She told of how her sister had to quit school to look after the family's sheep, but then tragically died in an accident. Now, she feels she owes her education to her sister because her parents have worked so hard to ensure she can remain at school. Hua does not want to let them down. 'I yearn to find a job beyond the valley where we live,' she says. 'I don't want my parents to toil in the fields.'
The harsh reality of life in these rural highlands hit home for Avis Chan Wing-hang. The 14-year-old Diocesan Girls' School student rides the MTR to classes in Kowloon, relies on her helper to dry her hair and often attends student conferences abroad. She realised she shouldn't take it for granted.
'Life might not be fair for everyone because resources are distributed unevenly,' Avis says. 'But for those who are less well-off, they learn to persevere and grow strong.'
In Nanyaocun, close to Lijiang city, 47-year-old Mu Runxian told the young visitors how she toiled her way out of poverty and brought up two children who are currently studying for doctorates.
She told of her meagre existence, working day in, day out, and devoting all her resources to her children's education. All she could afford to eat was some rice and corn used for pig feed. And still she was constantly behind with tuition fees. Once the youngsters suggested dropping out of school, but she did not want them to copy her.
'I completed primary schooling. I loved studying,' Mu says. 'So when I had children, I put all my hopes into them. I told them, 'If you can't go to school, I can't bear to live'.'
Now, amazingly, her elder child, a son, has just begun a doctorate in physics at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in Chengdu, while her daughter is working on both a master's and a doctorate in chemistry at Minzu University of China in Beijing.
Richard Huang Su-hao, 15, of St Paul's College, Mid-Levels, was full of hope for the younger generation of Yunnan. 'The villagers' mindset has changed a great deal,' he says. 'They understand how important education is. They are more open-minded.'
Winky Lai Wing-kei, from Happy Valley's Marymount Secondary School, agrees. 'Every child is entitled to a proper education,' she says. 'They have the right to fly high like birds and blossom into charming flowers.'
For more about the Young Envoys Programme, visit www.unicef.org.hk/education/unicef-young-envoys-programme