SETTING up a university sounds like it should be a grand affair. And the British and Chinese communities gave a certain gravitas-with-streamers-and-potted-plants to the opening of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) on March 11, 1912. The university, governor Sir Frederick Lugard said in the opening address, is 'intended to enable the richer among the Chinese to study in the environment of their own country, close to the ancestral shrines of their forefathers, and in touch with their own people . . . while its scholarships will enable the very poor, who have ability, to acquire an equal degree'. After plenty of long speeches and a fete selling handicrafts organised by Lady Lugard and featuring a scenic railway which threaded its way around the stalls, the university was officially opened. And yet, despite the noble intentions, the generous private donations and the good teacakes and champagne, the colony's first centre for general tertiary studies was a poor cousin to the new redbrick British universities. 'The beauty of the scenery in Hong Kong [in 1912] was a delightful surprise, but the university was a disappointment,' remembered Professor Middleton-Smith, the first holder of the chair in engineering. It was no understatement. Middleton-Smith was one of only three professors - in medicine, engineering and the arts, the latter faculty being set up in 1913 - and the staff numbered just eight English and two Chinese teachers. The original building - still mostly intact - was colonnaded and filled with gently swishing palm trees - the Edwardian dream of a colonial institution. But HKU opened with just $90,000 in the bank (not an impressive sum for an entire institute even then), an anthem penned in a morning by the up-and-coming civil servant Cecil Clementi, some weird and wonderful official garments designed by the eccentric first vice-chancellor and 54 bright-eyed first-year male students. Four years later, in 1916, 23 of these would become HKU's first graduating class. There had been previous graduation ceremonies in Hong Kong - the Medical College (inaugurated in 1887) had been awarding diplomas since 1892, and indeed its first graduate, the Watson scholarship-holder Dr Sun Yat-sen of Canton, was later to become famous for far more than his medical abilities. But by 1908 several prominent men - including Sir Kai Ho Kai, who had founded the Alice Memorial Hospital after his English wife who had died young, and Sir Frederick who saw this as his pet project - were pushing for more. Hong Kong and China were experiencing a brain drain that was to precede by decades the emigration in the 1980s that would be taken so seriously. Talented rich Chinese were travelling overseas to complete their education: in 1910 more than 5,000 students were in Japan, with 400 in Britain and the United States. At the same time, the Germans were planning a university in China, the French in Indochina, and the Americans had already helped set up the Tsinghua College in Peking. Hong Kong had to act quickly. As the governor's men looked around for money, the businessman and former opium-auctioneer Hormusjee Nowrojee Mody stepped forward - with a massive $150,000. 'Mr Mody was a Parsee gentleman who had been without education, and who mildly retaliated on destiny when he subscribed a magnificent sum towards the provision of a university,' British poet Edmund Blunden wrote, describing how the laying of the first stone was enlivened by the announcement of a knighthood for its sponsor. Sadly, Mody did not live to claim the title or see the opening of 'his' university a year later. HKU was to struggle over the following decades - from the beginning it was living in the shadow of international unrest. The overthrow of the Qing Dynasty by Sun's revolutionaries in 1911 led to many fewer mainland undergraduates than planned. Indeed, the primary aim of HKU to be a university for China was never achieved, with only 28 of today's undergraduate student body of 9,219 from the mainland. Three years later, the 1914 war started in Europe, making it hard to hire good teachers, especially in the medical faculty. As Hong Kong lurched from strike to crisis to occupation over the next 30 years, there were other generous sponsors, their names familiar today to anyone with a walking map of the university. Loke Yew (Examination Hall) of Kuala Lumpur, Fung Ping Shan (Museum) of Hong Kong, Sir Robert and Lady Ho Tung (Hall of Residence) also of Hong Kong, all played - and paid - their parts. Other changes happening in the rest of the world would be crucial to the university - and one of these was the women's movement. When in 1912 the principal of St Stephen's Girls' College had asked about the role of girls in the new university, the answer no doubt disgusted her. 'The admission of women students was not at present contemplated,' the all-male committee decided. In 1921 Rachel Irving - with the dual advantages of being intelligent and the daughter of the director of education - was the first to point out the sentence in the university's statutes, saying that 'any person who has passed the prescribed examination and is over 16 years of age may, on payment of the prescribed fee, be admitted to the University'. Women were people, too, she argued, and since she had passed the examination in England, she insisted on being given the chance to join the students. Hearing of the council's mildly begrudging 'yes' to Irving, Irene Ho Tung - daughter of the influential Sir Robert and a star pupil of the Diocesan Girls' School - entered the arts faculty. She was to be the university's first Hong Kong-born female graduate. 'In between classes the 'lady undergraduates', as they were then called, could only go to the library or wait about in the corridors,' Dr Ho Tung (who later became Irene Cheng) remembered. 'Even in the classroom it was something of an ordeal to be the only girl in a class of some 60 men.' The first female students felt particularly anxious not to show favouritism or give cause for scandal. 'They felt that as they had been admitted more or less as an experiment, they must not in any circumstance endanger the chances of others who might want to follow after . . . If they went to have tea with Mr A at the Union one day, they could not gracefully refuse if Mr B or Mr C invited them on subsequent days.' Today there is no more skulking in the library and corridors: women make up 56 per cent of the undergraduate student body and 43 per cent of postgraduate and diploma students. Student movements have traditionally accompanied revolution this century. But the HKU student body has remained relatively conservative, despite its proximity to the mainland and visitors such as Sir George Bernard Shaw who gave an infamous speech in 1933. 'Steep yourself in all the revolutionary books,' he urged in an address which he said he hoped would make the vice-chancellor regret having invited him. 'Go up to your neck in communism because if you don't begin to be a revolutionist at the age of 20 then at 50 you will be a most impossible old fossil. If you are a red revolutionary at the age of 20 you have some chance of being up to date when you are 40.' HKU would remain the colony's only university for a long time. The Chinese University was the second in 1963, and now there are seven SAR universities.