Chong Chan-yau juggles many titles: He is president of the Hong Kong Blind Union, chairman of Carbon Care Asia and founder and chairman of Dialogue in the Dark Hong Kong, to name just a few. Blind since the age of 6, he has paved the way to show Hongkongers that having a disability is no limitation. Chong tells Adrienne Chum about his childhood dreams, a mission for change, and the need for hope in the city.
I was born in Kowloon City. We were a poor family. I have six other siblings: two older brothers, two little sisters, two older sisters.
When I was around 6 years old, I lost my vision.
I went to Ebenezer School & Home for the Visually Impaired.
We didn’t have too many difficulties at the school, as books were all in braille and we lived together in the dorms.
At Ebenezer, braille was taught using a steel board with nails, and of course we learned by feel.
After I became familiar with braille, a whole new world was opened up. I could read books and magazines—we could send mail! That was the most enlightening experience of my youth.
My dream as a child was to go to a regular school. At the time, blind people could only be telephone servicemen. I wanted to do something different, so I treasured education.
I wanted to prove that being blind was not a handicap, and that we could be like everyone else.
I was at Ebenezer until Form 3, and then went to a regular school.
The hardest thing about the move was that regular schools didn’t give blind students much chance to enrol. It took a lot of effort to convince them to take us.
Also, how could we deal with blackboards? And books—we needed them translated into braille.
Every day after school, I went to a student center for the blind at Maryknoll Convent School. There was a sister named Sister Moira who volunteered to help us. She learned braille when she was at least 65. Every day she helped us translate the books, from morning to 5pm. I am still very grateful for her help.
Photo by Kirk Kenny / studiozag.com
I cannot find things to celebrate about being blind. What I can say is that I’ve learned not to be afraid of losing, not to be afraid of darkness, not to be afraid of being different from others.
I have been the director of Oxfam; I have been a government administrator. These were things I never would have dreamed of doing as a kid.
Now, the opportunities for blind people have greatly expanded: We have the protection of the law.
I am really happy about working with other blind people because we have the same mission and belief: That society can change and that we are the ones who should be working for it, not waiting for others.
I believe that things can change if you have a dream, a mission for better things to come. The mission of life is to change.
Hong Kong’s young people only care about exams, as it is their parents’ priority. I want to change young people’s mindsets, to provide them with more opportunities to be global citizens.
Hong Kong is an international city. Our biggest asset is our global perspective.
Young people have the opportunity to travel, but ironically it seems the world they are concerned with has become smaller.
During Occupy Central, young Hongkongers tried very creative things and demonstrated a great sense of “self management.” It was pretty amazing.
But it is not enough.
It is good that they are willing to fight for their rights, for justice. But I hope more will also be concerned for other people in need around the world, like in Syria.
In terms of understanding blind people, there have been many changes in Hong Kong: The city has become more accessible, more friendly to people with disabilities in many aspects.
In 1978, even I was admitted to the University of Hong Kong—at that time Hong Kong was very poor and there were only two universities. The open-minded attitude has been part of Hong Kong all these years.
But I feel Hongkongers are more and more negative about their future. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: They are being negative, so their future is becoming negative.
Hongkongers should feel proud of what they have achieved. Don’t despair about the future, even if you encounter many disappointments.
Right now, there’s a lot of negative language being used to communicate with each other. People blame each other.
There is not enough hope being expressed in public. There should be more. Hong Kong deserves more.
Need to Know…
Chong Chan-yau was the first blind person to take and pass the civil service recruitment exam. He was director of student development at HKU and an executive director of Oxfam. He has an MBE and an Honorary Fellowship from HKU. He is currently the director of EL2100, an educational service provider that focuses on English learning.