The last bell

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am


'The college offers its pupils a wide variety of extra-curricular activities covering, among other things, community service, physical recreation and the liberal arts, thus ensuring that its pupils come out into the community well equipped to play their full part in its development.'

So said the late David Trench, governor of Hong Kong, in a congratulatory note on the 20th anniversary of New Method College, then the territory's largest Anglo-Chinese private school.

A month after that note was penned, on February 2, 1971, the governor unveiled the school's fourth premises, on Man Fuk Road, near the junction of Waterloo Road and Argyle Street, in Kowloon. The new campus joined ones on Caroline Hill-Link Road, Tai Hang Road and Prince Edward Road, all on prime real estate, then and now. New Method was at the time welcoming a record intake of 17,500 students a year.

Four decades on, the Man Fuk campus stands alone and empty, the surviving block soon to be rented out to another school before being demolished, when property prices are more favourable.

The last New Method students - 300 Form Seven pupils - bade farewell to each other on March 9. They were the last beneficiaries of an institution that, for six decades, had distinguished itself by pursuing an all-round liberal education rather than academic excellence. The wide variety of professions among its alumni - from space scientist to legislators - testifies to the fact that 'new method' was more than just a name.

'I find it very funny when I read in the news about the government offering land and resources for new schools to become international, engage in extra-curricular activities and give a general education,' says Wilfred Wong Ying-wai, a graduate of the class of 1970. 'That's exactly what New Method College did half a century ago, and I owe my career to my 10 years there.'

Wong chairs the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, the Council of Baptist University and a dozen other bodies. He attributes the school's character and success to Wilson Wang Tze-sam, who founded a tutorial school in 1949, two years before the name New Method College was registered, with vision that was far ahead of his time.

'Those were the days before Hong Kong's economic take-off, and the school provided an alternative, especially for those who didn't make it to the two universities,' says Wong.

Wai Kee-shun, a veteran sports commentator and publisher of the now-defunct Tin Tin Daily News, studied at the institute in 1950 and knew the principal personally.

'Wang believed in education for all with an emphasis on English and he took in many who did not make it to the mainstream schools, or any schools,' says Wai, 79, adding that all students were required to have an English name.

The school was then located among the low-rise residential buildings of St Francis Street, in Wan Chai. Wang turned the middle floors of a number of blocks into classrooms.

'We attended classes from nine in the morning to noon, and it was all in English, which was truly a 'new method' in Hong Kong at the time. One of the teachers was Robert Tay, the South China Morning Post sports correspondent, and English was taught not by reciting grammar, but by practical writing. This drew many students from the Chinese schools who hoped to brush up their English, such as Liu Lit-mo and Liu Lit-chi, the brothers who own Chong Hing Bank,' says Wai.

For Wai, the extra-curricular activities at New Method stood out, especially sports and dance, which were to become hallmarks of the college.

'We had no facilities then, so we turned the classroom into a dance floor, and practised basketball at nearby Southorn Stadium. Swimming and track and field were our strongest disciplines. Wang's stress on sports proved to be a winning strategy because sports received lots of media coverage and a medal meant free publicity.'

New Method College was to become best known, though, as a platform for students in transit, who were aiming for either overseas studies or a second try at public examinations and a university education. Wai, for example, left for the United States in early 1951.

Yau Lop-poon, chief editor of Yazhou Zhoukan magazine, spent a few months at New Method in 1967, while waiting for college examination results from Taiwan.

'My stay at New Method was brief but it left me with a deep impression of its liberal atmosphere and the lack of a straitjacket imposed on young minds, as was the case at many other schools in those days,' he says.

Because his Chinese handwriting was good, Yau was asked to prepare the class register.

'It was headmaster Mok Tak-kwong who assigned me the task,' he says. 'Good conduct was always appreciated there, and that ran counter to the general impression of New Method as a school for good-for-nothing tearaways.'

The term 'fei-tzai', or 'tearaway', had been generally associated with New Method for years. It was coined for good after the release of the 1964 movie The Student Prince, starring Form Five student Alan Tang Kwong-wing, probably the most famous alumni the school has produced.

Raymond Fung Wai-man taught Tang at the Caroline Hill campus in the turbulent 1960s.

'He was a decent young man, tall and handsome, and very polite, always bowing to teachers,' the English teacher says. 'He missed classes from time to time, but handed in homework on time. I enjoyed his writing, which had character.

'The same can be said of other students whose work reflected the society at the time, which was affected by the 1967 riots.'

A stream of showbiz personalities followed Tang out of New Method, including film directors Stanley Tong and Pang Ho-cheung and singers Emil Chau Wa-kin and Chung Chun-to, aka Kenny Bee.

Chung says he owes his career to his three years at the school's Tai Hang campus.

'I didn't study hard and changed schools quite often. So after St Joseph and Raimondi, I joined New Method as a Form Two student. One of my classmates was Alex Wong Yu-on, who became a famous jockey trainer.

'Everyone had to take an extra-curricular activity, so I picked the Red Cross. But when I learned it required a lot of training and foot drills, etc, I looked for something less engaging. So I went to the school choir, which was easier to dodge but guaranteed a 'B' grade. At the audition, I sang off the cuff and passed, whereas others had prepared very hard for it.

'It was then that I discovered my singing potential,' he says.

During his time at the school, he came to know a Form Six senior by the name Anthony Chan Yau. Chung and Chan became core members of rock band The Wynners, who rose to fame in the 70s.

Was he fei-tzai?

'I'd rather say we had 'character',' he laughs. 'We dared to be different even when society did not accept us as such. But who said students couldn't take part in bands and movies? Alan Tang did it, we did it, and New Method should get credit for letting us do so,' he says.

Wilfred Wong suggests there was an ulterior motive to the school's seemingly laissez-faire approach.

'By keeping youngsters busy with parties or sports, including at weekends, the school was actually helping to keep youths out of mischief,' he says.

The sailor uniform worn by the girls at the school reflected the same approach, he argues. The uniforms of other schools tended to be unglamorous one-piece affairs but the sailor outfit - especially the skirts, which were adjustable in length - was seen as fashionable and remained a New Method icon.

Designed by Lam Chung-po in the late 50s after a trip to Japan, the sailor uniform conveys 'purity, style and is easily recognisable'.

'How I miss the hordes of blue-white uniforms all over Prince Edward Road before and after school,' laments Lam, 83, who still runs the tailor shop in Prince Edward from which all the New Method uniforms came.

'We were very proud of the uniform, which was matchless; not even St Paul Convent's tartan outfit came close,' says Kelly Chain, who was in the graduating class of 1970 and had been Wong's classmate since primary school.

It became so fashionable, students enrolled in New Method just for the uniform, claims Eliza Yang Mei-kuen, who, like her sister Kelly, is in the medical profession.

There are, of course, those for whom New Method holds less rosy memories. Shih Wing-ching, the founder of property agency Centaline, was a student at the Prince Edward campus, but he was asked to leave in Form Four.

'It was 1967, and the school expelled me because of, officially, poor grades. But there were those who were worse than me but stayed. I think the real reason was my political activism. I rallied students in the study of Marxism and Mao Zedong thought in the reading club.

'At the annual school congregation, everyone had to take part in 'Exercise of a Thousand' [a synchronised performance peculiar to New Method]. I called on everyone to boycott it because we were expected to sell tickets as well as perform in the show.

'It was then a time of rebellion, though we were rebels with a cause,' the businessman-philanthropist recalls.

Like Shih, legislator Chim Pui-chung calls the late principal 'Boss Wang' and his school 'an academic business'.

'Wang chose the first [college] premises on Caroline Hill Road and Link Road to be in the neighbourhood of prime sport facilities such as the South China Athletic Association and the Hong Kong Stadium [then known as Government Stadium]. All students were required to take part in at least one sporting event.

'Study became competitive in the pyramid system. There were many forms in the lower years, but only a few in the upper. Even so, the students who managed to remain until the final years were not the best, although they were dynamic with a quick mind,' concedes Chim, who entered Primary Six at the Caroline Hill campus shortly after arriving in Hong Kong and left without finishing Form Five.

William Lau Ka-ming, who arrived from Macau to enrol in Caroline Hill Form One, and Ho Kai-ming were among the highest scorers in the public exam of 1967. Both were granted full scholarships to study matriculation at Causeway Bay's Queen's College, the alma mater of Sun Yat-sen and the dream of many an ambitious parent. But in less than a month, both Lau and Ho had returned to New Method.

'We did not like the teacher at Queen's. We thought that the teachers at New Method were much better in teaching and caring for the students,' says Lau, deputy director for the Atmospheres, Earth Science Division at the Nasa Goddard Space Flight Centre, outside Washington DC, in the US. Ho is a distinguished professor of physics at Iowa State University, also in the US.

'I had fun studying and playing while at NMC. NMC was quite advanced in its push for sports and social [activities] ... it was ahead of its time in encompassing a holistic approach to education,' says Lau. 'Wang understood that he was not getting the best academically oriented students compared with Queen's and King's [College], etc. He hired good teachers, and motivated students in other ways to compensate for the shortfall. He was blamed by some for running NMC like a business but his approach was certainly different from the accepted norm at the time. I think it was a better model.

'In the end, NMC's contribution to society has not been any less - and perhaps even more - than Queen's or King's in producing all-round leaders.'

Wilfred Wong, now a deputy to the National People's Congress, began his career as a government administrative officer: 'The competition was stiff and I made it to the final four. In the final round - on problem solving and leadership skills - thanks to New Method's extra-curricular activities, I prevailed and got the job.'

Frederick Ma Si-hang, a New Method student between 1963 and 1970, became Hong Kong's secretary for commerce and economic development in 2002, a position he held until 2008. He attributes much of his self-confidence in public speaking and leadership skills to his alma mater.

'New Method was the only school that would take me in, and I had a great time there,' says Ma. 'The balanced education ... provided inspiration and never turned us into bookworms.' Ma made his acting debut in a school play at City Hall, performing the role of the progressive fourth son in the Chinese classic Sorrow of the Gentry.

'Headmaster Mok Tak-kwong looked after the entire production, including furniture and stage-setting. It was also he who initiated the Tung Chung project,' says Ma, referring to a field trip to the Song-dynasty fort on Lantau. The project was an entry in a Tourist Association contest.

'I was the project leader and we ended up beating 17 schools. It was a proud moment for me as a 17-year-old to collect the prize at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel,' he recalls.

'New Method College was a fei-tzai school, there's no question about it,' says Ma. 'But that doesn't mean we were never going to amount to anything. If my success as a civilian official is not convincing enough, consider Tang King-shing, the police chief.'

It would, perhaps, be surprising if Tang, who was police commissioner from 2007 until last year, saw himself or his schoolmates as fei-tzai. However, 'what we did was what young people were generally doing then', he says.

'I had my wide-bottom pants, too, although it took me a few days to get enough guts to put them on,' says the graduate of 1972, with a laugh. 'I am thankful to the school for a very happy boyhood overall. Yes, there were parties, but I never took part. I was with the road safety patrol for two years, although I'd rather have joined the soccer team.'

Tang says he felt a profound sense of belonging when wearing the safety patrol uniform, which 'inspired pride, loyalty and discipline, qualities children today need'.

The road patrols, he adds, had no direct bearing on his police career, but being a New Method graduate did.

'In contrast to graduates from elite schools like Wah Yan or Queen's, I kept quiet about my New Method past. In fact, I had the lowest academic qualification among all the police inspectors at the intake in 1976. But it was because I was aware of my humble status that I worked harder than the rest,' he says.

'A school for underdogs' is what Eric Ma Kit-wai, a graduate of the class of 1977 and now a professor in journalism at the Chinese University, calls his alma mater. 'We never needed to concern ourselves about the school's reputation or ranking. Our schoolmates came from a wide range of social classes. I was the son of a butcher, for example. But we played together without the slightest sense of superiority or inferiority.'

New Method provided political cartoonist Zun Zi with more than just a good time; it also gave him a second chance. His secondary school, Diocesan Boys' School, did not offer him a place for Form Six. He found out just before the start of a new term and he had few options.

'New Method took me in and provided me with a very intensive year of study, which got me into Chinese University,' says the alumni of 1974. 'There were many students like me from elite schools who ended up at New Method for a second try or who were preparing for overseas study. We got very good teachers, such as Chan Man-hung and Victor Sit [now professors at Polytechnic and Baptist universities, respectively].'

New Method old boys Wilfred Wong and William Lau both taught at the school, before embarking on illustrious careers. Chairwoman of the New People's Party Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee taught English at the Tai Hang campus in the early 70s, before undertaking postgraduate studies in Britain.

'The school was keen on fresh HKU [University of Hong Kong] graduates, especially those with honours, and paid them according to their honours level. So I got the highest rate, which was HK$1,400 a month,' says the legislator. 'The teaching atmosphere was very intensive as it was exam-oriented and students were determined to succeed. I have very fond memories of teaching there.'

When the government began taking a more active approach to education in the late 70s, New Method's raison d'?tre began to wane. In 1978, the secondary school entrance examination was abolished, ushering in the nine-year education scheme. Perhaps more importantly for New Method, that year marked a shattering of principal Wilson Wang's succession plan, when his eldest son jumped to his death. Bernard Wang was 32.

'That incident was the turning point for New Method,' says financial analyst Louie Shum Chun-ying, of the class of 1981. 'I was then a Form Two student and witnessed the change as the school's high profile gradually began to slip.

'It's never been the same since,' adds Master Shum, as he is known in the financial sector.

Furthermore, New Method was never likely to outrun the city's voracious property market. The Link Road annex was sold off in 1985, ahead of the rest of the Caroline Hill campus. Then Tai Hang closed, followed by the Prince Edward site in 1999.

As the government's education policy continued to evolve, private schools such as New Method became difficult to sustain. The death of Wilson Wang, in 1998, marked the end of an era.

'The era of private schools ended long before New Method's 2006 announcement that it would close by 2012,' says Shih.

In the words of the last principal, Chan Kam-tong, the closing of New Method was like the end of the Tang dynasty, 'but Chinese people live on'.

Hugo Chung Ka-hang, of the class of 2012, was one of the last pupils to benefit from a New Method education.

'When I arrived in 2010 as a Form Six student, the school was quite deserted, as there were no junior forms. Although our volleyball team won the Kowloon division, the classrooms were still; we came to school and waited for the bell to ring, so to speak. There was a very good maths teacher, but he left us half-way. We all knew the end was near, but we weren't aware of the school's long history and those famous alumni.

'They make me feel good, but a bit sad, too,' the 19-year-old says.

Note: the author is an alumni of New Method College's Man Fuk Road campus and graduated in the class of 1977.