Former Shek Kip Mei students recall poor but happy years

More than 600 former pupils and staff of Shek Kip Mei primary gather to renew bonds formed decades ago in area of abject poverty

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 November, 2012, 3:35am

For poor children growing up in Shek Kip Mei until the late 1970s, school was more than a place of learning - it was a safe house.

Shek Kip Mei Government Primary School may have closed 32 years ago, but that did not stop more than 600 former pupils gathering at a local restaurant yesterday to honour their former principal and teachers, who practically brought them up and steered them out of poverty.

"We were all very poor, we had basically nothing, but those were happy times," said Lai Wai-lun, who grew up in the nearby seven-storey tenements erected after a fire destroyed a squatter area of mostly post-war immigrants, leaving 53,000 people homeless.

The school served children from one of Hong Kong's toughest neighbourhoods built to house the poorest of the poor, where gang fights, drugs and triad activity were rife.

"When I was assigned to Shek Kip Mei primary school, the first place I visited was the local police station to ask for more protection," recalled Wong Ming-chu, principal of the afternoon-session school from 1963 to 1977. "The people in the area were, let's say, a bit complicated."

Lai said there were always fights in the area, often among groups sometimes armed with knives and choppers. "There was a heroin dealer in our block who used to store his 'goods' in his family's kitchen cupboard - which was outside the flat, in the corridor. Of course, we never touched the dealer's stuff, or bothered him. In turn, his presence actually kept other bad people away," said Lai, with a laugh.

Due to their sheer numbers, pupils attended school in two shifts. There were 24 classes for the morning session, and the same number in the afternoon. Each class had 45 pupils, but sometimes Wong would sneak in an extra pupil if poor parents came to beg for schooling for a child. There were 34 teachers employed for the afternoon school, she said.

Not surprisingly, Wong, now 83, described a typical school day as hectic.

"Most parents worked all day and so the children played on the streets by themselves," she said. "If they got hurt, they didn't run home - they came to school. We weren't just their teachers, we were their babysitters as well."

Wong recalled rushing a child to the local emergency unit after a bad fall, and chasing away drug-dealers who would try to get children to be couriers.

Teachers volunteered as after-school tutors, watched children for free if there was no one to take care of them, and even took them home for dinner.

"This is probably why, even today, our students still keep in touch with the teachers, and treat us with such respect," said Wong. "The bonds forged in those days were very strong and deep.

"The students were incredibly close, too. They weren't brought up as princes and princesses - most of them worked very hard and never gave up."

Lai recalled how children in the tenements entertained themselves. "Unlike children now, we were never cooped up at home," he said, recalling simple games of tag in the hallways, and girls playing with dolls made of bags filled with rice.

In 1975, the government started redeveloping the Shek Kip Mei area, and Lai's family moved to Pak Tin. Other families were dispersed to other areas, but those who kept in touch looked back on those days fondly, said Lai.

After finishing primary school in 1971, Lai attended high school at La Salle College, then university to become a social worker.

Yesterday's reunion was the fourth and biggest to date, with many students flying in from around the world.

While society regards these old settlement areas as symbols of poverty, for former residents it was still home. "I treasure those days - and the people who helped me and those who grew up together," said Lai.