Hilton Cheong-leen

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 July, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 July, 2003, 12:00am

The former chairman of the Urban Council and Legislative Councillor founded the Hong Kong Civic Association in 1954. It is Hong Kong's oldest political entity and he is still its chairman. Hilton Cheong-leen, 81, was instrumental in pushing for the nine years of compulsory schooling, which is taken for granted today. The father of well known ballerina and designer Flora Cheong-leen speaks to Virginia Maher about the formation of early political groupings in Hong Kong, and some of what they achieved over the past half century.

Sir Roger Lobo and A. de O. Sonny Sales and I were founder members of the Hong Kong Civic Association, which we established in 1954. Our first meeting was held in a bar on the mezzanine floor of Jimmy's Kitchen in Theatre Lane, Central. The first thing we did was to try to break the government's rice monopoly. They had stores of rice and that kept the price artificially high. We arranged to distribute rice from a certain organisation - I forget now which one - and that helped bring the prices down and also helped us to get to know people in the community.

The first time we put up members for election to the Urban Council was in 1956. I ran, but didn't get in. I was elected the following year and remained with the Urban Council until 1991. I was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1973 and was indirectly elected to Legco in 1985.

Among those who ran for the Urban Council in those early days was [Sir] Oswald Cheung [later, a senior unofficial member of the Legislative Council and member of the Executive Council]. He did not get in, but was appointed later. We also had Peter Vine, the solicitor. Elsie Elliott [now Tu] came in 1960 and we had Solomon Rafeek on our ticket.

We were a very Anglo-Chinese sort of political group and our main interest at the time was to represent the interests of the sandwich class. In those days, when we ran for elections we had to go all over the New Territories because there was only one constituency. That was how I learnt what the ordinary people at the grass roots level and the refugees who came over the border needed. We went up the housing estates, level by level, all the way up to the roof where the rooftop schools were. That was how my interest in education was developed.

In my first term in Legco, I made a major speech advocating nine years of free, compulsory education, which was eventually introduced. It did have an impact because it was followed up all the way to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It was one of the things that made me feel it was worthwhile to be involved in community work.

When the housing estates were built, the Urban Council became responsible for hygiene and health services. We had to make sure the markets and hawker stalls were clean enough to serve the residents. So that's how we came in daily contact with the residents of the estates.

Remember, Urban Councillors were the only people in Hong Kong who were elected. All the members of the Legislative Council were appointed. The interesting thing about the Urban Council was that its responsibilities were limited - basically to public health matters, but as elected members we could write directly to the Colonial Secretary.

One of our responsibilities was rubbish collection. That's how we started off with [litterbug character] Lap Sap Chung. All the kids loved him and they went home and forced their parents to keep things cleaner. We built all the cultural centres. In terms of development of culture, the government didn't pay much attention; it was left mainly to the Urban Council, so we were able to support the arts, the Chinese orchestra and Chinese drama.

Hong Kong is my home, even though I was not born here. I was born in Georgetown, British Guyana, in 1922 and came to Hong Kong when I was about nine. My mother was third-generation Chinese in Guyana. My father came through Hong Kong from China to join an uncle in Guyana.

During the war we went into China, to Kunming. After the war I was offered a job with the Morning Post, but members of the family wanted me to go into commerce, which I did.

Pauline and I were married in 1945. She was a soprano singer, known as 'the nightingale of China'. She died in 1979. We had two boys and two girls. Flora was our third child. Pauline was the girlfriend of a friend of mine when I met her in Guilin and I even fancied becoming a base baritone, but luckily that wasn't necessary to win her.