THE past can be a springboard to the future. The phenomenal growth of Hong Kong under a colonial legacy should encourage the new generation to perpetuate the trend. This was the message Professor Charles Kao Kuen, vice chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, recently brought to students of Queen's College at its annual Speech Day. ''The growth of Hong Kong continues to intrigue me,'' said Professor Kao, who discovered a very different Hong Kong when he first arrived here from China in 1948. ''Over the years, it has developed into a place distinguished by its extremely adaptable people.'' He appreciates students' ability to see their mission in life early and become focused on the right education for their career. ''Hong Kong people are also very global in their thinking. The industrial sector knows it has to understand the wants and needs of people worldwide, and in the last 50 years, Hong Kong has leapt from a small trading nation to the world's 10th largest exporter.'' ''All this happened under a colonial rule that allowed people to do what they are best at.'' Professor Kao remembered how Hong Kong was forced to industrialise and expand its trade internationally during the 1940s and 1950s when China experienced internal turmoil. Between 1953 and 1970, Professor Kao pursued his Electrical Engineering study and career in Britain. Upon his return, he saw a ''much-changed'' Hong Kong. He described Hong Kong as ''a true metropolis'' which marched on in the 1970s when the world was in an economic down-pull. ''From an entrepot, it has now developed into a financial, service and manufacturing centre. This is very impressive indeed.'' Having reminded students of this legacy, Professor stirred them with these words: ''You'll be taking Hong Kong beyond 1997. Continue our traditions of being adaptive, hardworking, focused and disciplined.'' This will enable the territory to provide services that helped to sustain the entire globe, he said. ''Young people, I counsel you to work the same way we, your forebears, have been working in the past 40 years.'' Among this year's prize-winners was last year's top Hong Kong secondary student, HKCEE 10 A1-scorer Lam Hei-ning, who received seven awards and scholarships.