How a group of Hong Kong students built four schools in rural Cambodia

Many Hong Kong students help in poverty alleviation schemes around Asia, but few set up their own charity and keep it going, as James Mak and his friends at Project Little Dream have done

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 May, 2016, 1:03pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 May, 2016, 3:43pm

During Cambodia’s dry season in 2010, James Mak spent a lot of time carting bricks through rice paddies to help build a school in remote Khna Rong village.

“It wasn’t too far, 50 or 70 metres to walk, but every piece of wood and brick had to be transported by hand,” he says.

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Mak and other volunteers had to hand-carry all the building materials through a rice paddy because the site wasn’t very accessible.

Now a graduate student at the Architectural Association in London, Mak chairs Project Little Dream, a Hong Kong charity that he and a group of like-minded friends set up in 2008 to design, build and run village schools around Takeo, a provincial town in southwest Cambodia.

We showed [the plans] to local engineers. Immediately they were almost drawing on top of our plans: ‘this column shouldn’t be here, this needs to be bigger’
James Mak

More than seven years on, the charity has built four schools which, between them, now teach about 630 children. A fifth school is due to be completed in 2017.

Many Hong Kong students help in poverty alleviation schemes or other development programmes around the region. Few, however, set up their own and keep it going beyond a year or two, as the Project Little Dream crew has done.

Their journey is recounted in Mak’s book, Of Dreams and Spaces: Stories from Cambodia, published earlier this year.

Looking back, he says the school at Khna Rong, the second that the group built, was particularly meaningful for him. “I think this was the first time we decided to have a little more influence on the architecture; it was done by us,” Mak says.

“My favourite memory was walking through that rice paddy every day to build the school. It really came down to how Project Little Dream has been growing step by step; plus I love the Cambodian landscape.”

What sparked the idea to build village schools was a trip that Mak took in 2007 with a Catholic school group to see communities in Cambodia; it was his first visit to a developing country.

Although the country was very poor, he found Cambodians to be a remarkably contented people, and it filled him with a strong desire to help provide access to basic services they needed.

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“When we see underprivileged people it’s hard to separate them from an image of a poor person but this [experience] has given me a new perspective on development issues when it comes to basic needs,” Mak says.

What he learned soon inspired an e-mail, titled “I have a little dream – Building a school in Cambodia”, which he sent to 15 friends.

However, the impetus to start a non-profit did not emerge until almost a year later, when Little Dream co-founder Clara Chung brought up Mak’s idea of building schools in Cambodia during her first term at university.

“It happened that he had almost exactly the same conversation with another friend, Francis [Wong], the current executive director. We had our first meeting at Christmas in 2008 and the rest happened,” Chung recalls. “I guess that’s how my six years of commitment started.”

Denise So, another founding member, had done volunteer work across Southeast Asia and planned to join Medecins Sans Frontières after completing her medical training.

But with Project Little Dream she could make a difference straight away, So says.

“It was also an opportunity to work on a big project and travel with a group of good friends and like-minded people, which is basically a dream come true in itself for any young person,” she says.

Several members were former schoolmates at Li Po Chun United World College, which fostered a sense of idealism and an international outlook among its students, and encouraged them to “dream big and go for it”, So adds.

Although there was some “hesitation at whether we would be able to pull it off, we got to work and it just blew up from there”.

They secured seed funding from a university, found an NGO partner in Takeo, and completed the first

school in January 2010 at Prey Run village.

At that point, the group had very little input on the building design, Mak says.

“We showed [the plans] to local engineers. Immediately they were almost drawing on top of our plans: ‘this column shouldn’t be here, this needs to be bigger’,” he says.

But the architects and designers among the Little Dream crew began to take the lead at Khna Rong, creating a school building more in line with their vision, with a main teaching hall and toilet cubicles. Previously, classes had been held in the dimly lit space under a local farmer’s stilt house.

Mak isn’t the only volunteer with fond memories of that second school; So recalls how she clambered to the roof and straddled the beams as she hammered in the thatch.

The view was amazing, I was laughing while sweating in the sun, sitting in a row with other volunteers
Denise So

“I was probably one of the least qualified people for the job, and was ruining more nails than knocking them in,” she says. “But the view was amazing, I was laughing while sweating in the sun, sitting in a row with other volunteers, and the school was almost finished. A really good moment.”

Chung says she picked up a lot of practical skills from working with villagers on their Cambodian projects.

These ranged from “mixing concrete to laying bricks that won’t collapse after three layers, hammering nails with the back of an axe, laying hay on top of a roof, eating a cricket or killing mosquitoes”, she says. “It was all humbling and these will remain my fondest Project Little Dream memories.”

But as the number of schools grew, the group became increasingly concerned about the students’ lack of progress in the free English classes being offered, Mak says, and began exploring the potential of reaching out to teachers in Hong Kong to see if more could be done.

After completing their fourth school at Thnouh – the first constructed entirely by themselves – Project Little Dream organisers started an education department, which created a new curriculum and hired and trained teachers to give English lessons.

“[The fourth school] is the first one where everything is done ‘in house’,” says a spokeswoman for the charity. “This school is the main focus for our education team now, as we have recently established a library and writing more materials for them to use.”

Beyond language skills, they are also introducing hygiene classes to teach village children about maintaining basic cleanliness through hand-washing and keeping cooking and drinking water separate.

During their visits to Takeo to check on construction progress, the volunteers conducted household interviews in the villages and realised that people often fell ill because they cooked with the same water that they washed their hands in after going to the toilet, the spokeswoman says.

“We realised they don’t have basic health-care knowledge so we developed this team of medical and public health students who go and promote proper [hygiene].”

Hong Kong volunteers who came to help with the building were university students in fields from medicine and nutritional science, to education and linguistics, and architecture to engineering. And their various specialities fed the work of the charity. “These eventually formed our three main teams in education, architecture and health care,” Mak says.

(Their architecture team usually carries out several survey trips to understand more about each village community before a school is designed, a spokeswoman says. “We look into factors such as the number of children in the village and where households are dispersed. We hope to incorporate local designs and building materials that suit the needs of each village.”)

Mak himself was inspired to venture into architecture: he was studying human geography at the London School of Economics when they formed the charity.

“[After] I started Project Little Dream, I realised I’d like to develop my skills as an architect to help those in need,” he says.

Of the 15 original members, only five remain active in the charity. But everyone is gratified by what their “little dream” has become.

“I am proud of the simple fact that we made the dream a reality,” So says. “Dreams are powerful, but it’s the people who believe in them that give them strength. There’s a saying that you can’t steer a parked car – just starting it is progress.

“We started, we took baby steps and bigger steps and somehow we found ourselves standing there, squinting in the sun, looking at the first school we’d built. I’m incredibly proud of that and all the people involved.”

If there’s one thing Mak could change from his time leading Project Little Dream, it would be to bring in local students and volunteers at an earlier stage.

“We started to recruit and work with [them] about a year ago and I thought it would be really nice if they were involved at the very beginning,” he says.

Chung still recalls welcoming the first batch of education volunteers in 2012 after Little Dream set up an education department.

“Even though I am no longer active in the organisation, I am proud to have brought that component to life,” she says.

“I hope that one day, as I return to Asia and have a less busy career, I can rejoin Project Little Dream in other capacities and experience the inspiration it brings.”