A veteran SCMP reporter, Kevin examines the good, bad and ugly sides of life in the city. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org Every morning, by the tens of thousands they filed down unpaved hillside paths, shirts and blouses freshly ironed, faces gleaming with soap and cold water, and lit with hope and ambition. They were the schoolchildren of Hong Kong, and in the 1970s, many of them lived in squatter settlements. From the morning tram rattling through North Point I watched with awe and admiration as they emerged from the festering slums they called home. The awe was for the students; so bright, so earnest, so ambitious, so bent on doing well at school and then at whatever opportunity life presented. My admiration was for the mothers. How could they, in windowless squatter huts of tin and wood with no electricity, no water, no toilets, send their children off to school so gleaming and smartly dressed? Then, squatter villages were common. On Hong Kong Island, they stretched in a broad band of poverty and despair across the hillside flanks from the tip of Western district to Chai Wan. The only gap was the golden ghetto of Mid-Levels. In Kowloon, the tide of cardboard and tin shanties occupied every square foot of spare land and climbed the slope of Lion Rock. Every New Territories area was circled by illegal huts. In urban areas, roof tops of tenements sprouted unsightly clusters of frail shacks. In the devastated Hong Kong of 1945, there were 600,000 people. By 1960 there were 3 million, half aged under 25. The Resettlement Department (merged with other agencies in 1973 to become the Housing Department) struggled desperately to build rough public housing. It was never enough. The only option for millions was to occupy a patch of land and build an illegal hut. It was only in the 1990s that the last major squatter areas were finally cleared. Today, about 45,000 squatters remain in places such as Tsuen Wan and Lei Yue Mun. As late as 1981, there were 750,000 people living in the unsightly, unhealthy, unsafe and inconvenient squatter communities. Many died there; winter fires destroyed the flimsy huts, they tumbled down hillsides in landslides or were blown away in typhoons. Going to work every morning, I would look up at the maze of huts densely packed on the roadless heights above North Point. From these smoke-shrouded illegal slums (people had to cook on dangerous kerosene stoves) came the boys and girls, young men and women, who were going to transform the city. They marched with determination alongside open sewers to catch trams for public schools. Their fathers were toiling in factories. Back in the family shack, mum was making plastic flowers or beaded garments or wigs. The miraculous transformation that seemed almost overnight to change Hong Kong from a desperate society to a global manufacturing power was under way. Spearheading it was refugee labour from the squatter huts. Preparing to grasp the hi-tech baton of the next generation were those eager young students I saw every morning. I estimate about a third of today's population or their parents passed through squatter settlements. But how many remember? This chapter in our history seems to be fast receding into oblivion, unrecorded and forgotten. Is this because in affluent 21st-century Hong Kong, people are not anxious to remember growing up in a hillside shack or to admit their parents were penniless refugees? Legislative Council member Leung Yiu-chung, who sits on the panel for housing, looks back with an unromantic eye. 'The '50s and '60s were difficult times,' he reflects. 'So many people came from that background. It's nothing to be ashamed or proud of, either way. That's what life was like. The young generation can't grasp what it was like. Their parents or grandparents may remind them how lucky they are. But the young people simply can't understand.' Many people used to regard the chaotic squatter settlements as the shame of Hong Kong. I never agreed. True, conditions may have been shameful, but they were an inevitable result of the tidal wave of humanity that swamped the city. Few societies could have solved the problem faster than we handled it. From a city of shacks we have in 35 years become a metropolis of skyscrapers. Appalling waterfront slums have given way to new towns. From those tar-paper shanty towns marched the generation of strong backs and whipcord muscles that built our industries and scaled bamboo scaffolding to build the city. Amid the smoggy kitchen fires, the humiliating latrines and the few water standpipes, those desperate refugees raised children who had courage, pride and faith in the future. They may have been raised in the 'shame of Hong Kong', but today they are our pride, the indomitable people of Hong Kong.