How mission schools gave girls a chance
Schools were for sons. A daughter needed only to learn to be a resourceful and charming wife. That was Chinese tradition.
And in families not rich enough to send all of their children to school, sons became the priority.
Such was the atmosphere when Hong Kong's first schools for girls started.
The beginning of British rule in the late 19th century brought traders and businessmen, but also enthusiastic Christian missionaries who were intent on converting the Chinese. These missionaries believed in education for girls. Running counter to tradition, their schools provided opportunities for girls to learn to read and write, and perhaps gain a better future.
Their foresight created schools that became pioneering models and forerunners in modern education.
The first girls' school, the Diocesan Native Female Training School, was founded in 1860 to educate Chinese girls. The school - which later became the city's top girls' institution, Diocesan Girls' School - was affiliated with an orphanage that took in unwanted Eurasian babies.
The Sacred Heart Canossian College also opened sections for orphaned Chinese girls, English girls and Portuguese girls. St Paul's Convent School, founded in 1864, and St Francis Canossian College, founded in 1869, soon followed.
The first government-run school for girls, the Belilios Public School, started in 1893, and St Stephen's Girls' College, for upper-class Chinese girls, opened its doors in 1904.
Despite the hard and humble beginnings for some, these girls' schools are recognised today as among the city's best; often seen as breeding grounds for the next generation's leaders and elite. Many parents would do anything to get their daughters into these prestigious establishments, starting with lining up overnight just to get application forms.
'Diocesan Girls' School started off as an English-language school for Chinese girls. We were also affiliated with an orphanage,' said Stella Lau, headmistress and a former pupil. Under Lau, the private school joined the government's Direct Subsidy Scheme, which provides funds but still allows schools freedom in its operations. It has also just moved back into 1 Jordan Road after three years of renovations.
Lau said the school, Anglican in background, prided itself on instilling a strong sense of morality and adherence to Christian principles in its pupils.
Too So Kwok-chun, a retired headmistress and former pupil of StStephen's Girls' College, said these schools did not just teach children a set of knowledge and skills, but they provided a whole experience.
'SSGC attempts to create an environment that helps girls study, ask questions, learn, communicate and grow. It's not a certain syllabus, not a certain facility or textbook, but an atmosphere,' Too said. The school aimed to help girls forge a sense of identity, to encourage them to see they are important and beautiful the way they are, and to explore the world.
She remembered her days as a pupil, when extracurricular activities were part of the education. Classes in gardening, knitting, calligraphy, volleyball and more were part of the week's schedule. 'Much of the learning was done outside the classroom,' she said.
Minnie Lai, former headmistress of Anglican girls' secondary school Heep Yunn School, said the schools' traditions played a big role in their success. 'When a girl enters a school like Heep Yunn School, which has a considerable history, they are entering a tradition. It's a system of principles, beliefs, morals and how they are positioned in the world,' Lai said.
She said all of the prestigious girls' schools today - such as Diocesan Girls' School, St Stephen's Girls' College and Marymount Convent School - were building and moulding girls by providing a worldview.
Christian morals played a big part in these traditions, Too said. Though not Christian, many graduates took away a set of the religion's moral principles.
To critics who call some of these schools elite, Lai said it was not true. She said the graduates might have a strong sense of identity, but it did not mean they were elitists.
'DGS is not an elite school,' Lau echoed. 'We try to tell our girls that they can accomplish a lot, but they are no different from other girls. We just want them to be able to do their best - and often the results are just very good.'
And do girls-only schools cause problems for pupils in contemporary society? The three educators said no.
They said girls tended to mature faster - intellectually and emotionally - than boys, so co-educational classrooms might be harder to teach and monitor.
'Secondary school is a time when young people are very curious, and easily distracted,' Lau said with a laugh. 'It is easier to focus on studies and other parts of personal growth in a same-sex environment. Also, girls can be more 'themselves' among girls, without boys around.'
Too agreed. 'If you look at Form One students, a 13-year-old boy is very different from a 13-year-old girl. Girls mature a lot faster, so it may be easier to educate them separately in secondary school.'