HKU's difficult early years recounted in new history

A chronicle of the University of Hong Kong recalls the early years before its rise togreatness, writes Linda Yeung

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 December, 2012, 11:20pm

Despite the University of Hong Kong's enviable ranking in international league tables, it has been a long and sometimes difficult journey for the city's oldest tertiary institution, which struggled to raise funds and suffered staff shortages in its early years.

The story of HKU's early development is chronicled in A History of the University of Hong Kong, Volume 1, 1911-1945, published recently to mark its centenary. It is the first of two volumes by Peter Cunich, a history professor who became interested in the project in 2006, when an archive was established to bring together the university's scattered records.

"Doing the project let me gain an appreciation of the family nature of the university," he says.

It also took him to London, where the National Archives held valuable correspondence between former Hong Kong governors and the Colonial Office, and other places, including Russia.

The book also charts how educational institutions emerged in the city through the efforts of Christian missionaries. A prominent advocate was Robert Morrison, sent by the London Missionary Society, who believed evangelising China could be best achieved through cultural exchanges.

By the early 1880s, as more schools sprang up, Hong Kong was slowly building capacity to warrant a higher education institute. A few local residents had pursued Western educations abroad, including Yang Wing, who travelled to America in the late 1840s and returned with a degree from Yale in 1854. Ho Kai, who became a Chinese community leader and supported the founding of HKU, studied medicine and law in Britain during the 1870s.

It began with the Hong Kong College of Medicine, attended by the famous revolutionary Dr Sun Yat-sen, which was set up in 1887 with the support of missionaries and local medical practitioners.

Having produced only a small number of graduates, the colleges were incorporated into the newly established HKU.

"All of the foundations for the higher education system were laid in HKU," says Cunich, an Australian who joined the university 20 years ago.

The proponent, former governor Frederick Lugard, envisaged HKU as an "imperial university", a conduit for spreading British influence in China. Cunich highlights the role played by Lugard's wife, Flora, a former foreign correspondent for The Times, who staunchly supported the idea.

"The imperial purpose was there from the very beginning," Cunich says. "Lugard saw HKU as the first opportunity for Britain to really stake a claim in China. Obviously commerce had been going on for 60 years between the two countries, but Britain had no cultural relationship with China.

"His idea was that Chinese students would come down from the mainland, Malaya and local schools, and they would learn engineering, medicine and science. He was not very keen on the arts."

A true visionary, Lugard harboured high hopes for the university to be the "Oxbridge of the Orient", writing that "the embryo university of Western learning, not merely for our own colony, but for the great and friendly empire which is on our frontier".

By 1908, the University Committee charged with implementing the huge project was formed. Lugard wasted no time in mobilising community leaders to assist with the daunting task of fundraising, as neither the British nor the Legislative Council were willing to offer financial support.

"The Colonial Office was horrified to learn about the fait accompli state of the university project when Lugard presented it to them. Unlike today, universities at the time were commonly self-supporting private institutions," Cunich says.

Progress came, however, in 1911 with the passage of the University Ordinance, which spelled out the governance and organisational structure of the university. Although a substantial amount of money had been raised for the endowment fund, the university was far from robust financially and ran into a financial crisis in 1921. Luckily, a rescue came in the form of a HK$1 million bailout from the colonial government.

Cunich describes former vice-chancellor William Hornell as "really the one who established the university as a serious institution in 1924 to 1937", although the 1930s were a decade of continuous crisis when it was difficult to find adequate staff for an expanding student body. There was no organisation to represent students' interests in higher councils; neither were there adequate halls of residence. The predominantly English-speaking faculty, however, enjoyed a close rapport with the students who lived on campus with them.

By 1941, the student population had grown to 600, creating pressure for more staff and laboratories.

During the Japanese occupation of China and later Hong Kong, HKU students and staff showed a strong spirit of resistance, helping with relief work on the mainland and other efforts. Psychology professor Lindsay Ride was commanding officer of the field ambulance units in the territory. He later also became a vice-chancellor.

Cunich says he came away from interviews with wartime students deeply impressed. "They wanted to do something to rehabilitate Hong Kong after the war and to help China. The second world war let them see themselves as good British nationals, sons and daughters of Hong Kong and Chinese patriots by joining together with China in the battle against Japan. It was a defining moment for the students," he says.

The war took a heavy toll on the campus, most of which was destroyed and not rebuilt until 1948. A number of faculty members had been sent to internment camps. Campus life came to a halt, but the spirit of learning was kept alive by jailed professors, who ran classes for fellow inmates. The teaching was done also partly to keep up their morale; faculty members in the Stanley internment camp, among them vice-chancellor Duncan Sloss, kept all the university committees going.

The post-war decades witnessed continuous growth for the institution, which recruited largely from local schools, as the number of students from the closed-off mainland, Singapore and Malaya, which had set up their own universities, dwindled sharply.

The second volume of the book, now being written, will deal with HKU's development in recent decades. Later supporters said the original vision was for HKU to be more than just "the Light of the Orient" bringing European learning to China, Cunich says.

"The people who talked about that image were saying that one day HKU will cast its light back to the West. There was this idea that one day HKU might turn into an institution which will then somehow help the rest of the world," he says.

That certainly rings true today, judging from its contributions to the global research community and its increasingly international student population.

It comes as little surprise, then, that Cunich himself finds more to celebrate that he had expected. "There is so much about it that we within the university should be celebrating," he says. "The people of Hong Kong owe the university quite a lot in terms of civil society, the professions that have been established in the city. The stories of Hong Kong and HKU are so closely intertwined."