Tragedy, triumph: a mirror of society

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 September, 2007, 12:00am

Had they been consulted, Chinese astrologers would surely not have deemed September 19, 1967, an auspicious date for a school opening. Tension pervaded every part of the city that summer, with violent riots and water supplies rationed to four hours every four days.

Amid the stress and uncertainty, Island School opened its doors to 237 students and 12 teachers. As the school celebrates its first four decades on Wednesday, having endured typhoons, political transformation and even the brutal murders of two students, one of its longest-serving teachers has dived into the yearbooks to record the school's evolution.

From its origins as a stopping-off point for the sons and daughters of the British elite, Island School has become home to children from 37 countries. It is a place where students of Asian and Eurasian heritage now dominate the roll call.

If anyone was to write a book celebrating the Borrett Road school, Chris Forse was the obvious author.

Arriving as a 26-year-old history teacher in 1974 for what was supposed to be a two-year stint, the school would consume three decades of his life and educate his own three children.

Mr Forse recounts the tales in No Ordinary School, which includes a forward written by arguably the school's most famous parent, Hong Kong's last governor, Chris Patten.

Mr Forse stressed that the book was a collection of his personal memories, rather than a definitive history, but his colourful reflections sketch a vivid portrait of a school coming of age during one of Hong Kong's most momentous periods.

Originally the school was to be built at Wong Nai Chung, where the French International School is now located. But before those plans could be realised, the government asked the school to open temporarily in the British military hospital in Borrett Road to deal with the increasing demand for English education. Former wards were converted to classrooms, with the exception of the hospital mortuary, which was believed to be haunted by ghosts.

The original plans never did resurface, and in 1973 the school moved to what would become its permanent home on the old army barracks site across the road.

In its earlier incarnations, the school was largely a product of colonial times. While there were a few Malay, Singaporean and Taiwanese Chinese children, Mr Forse remembers how difficult it was for local Chinese to join the school.

'Island School has changed from being fundamentally a school for rich, expatriate children to being about one-third Chinese,' he said.

In the 1960s and 1970s, 'Island School was this cloistered, elite place. Now it's much more embedded in the community'.

Describing the school as risk-taking and unorthodox, Mr Forse is clearly the school's number one fan. But he does not pretend the past 40 years have all been smooth sailing. As he states in the book's introduction: 'Island School's history, like most, is one of triumph and tragedy. It is one of success and failure; we have not always been at our best and I do not intend to gloss over the difficulties we have encountered.'

His recollections of the school's first 40 years hold a mirror to Hong Kong's modern history. The school's locale in a city perched on China's edge has seen it bear its fair share of natural disasters and witness intriguing political and social struggles.

Mother nature was to blame when the first day of the 1983-84 school year was cancelled as Hong Kong was pounded by Typhoon Ellen, a Number 10 storm that caused havoc across the city.

Nature's forces were again at play when Hong Kong was soaked in drenching rain on May 8, 1992. In a chapter entitled 'The Day the Rains Came', Mr Forse recalls how one of the school's students, Michael Bill, was among those who died in the natural disaster.

In 1985, it was a man-made tragedy that sent the school into shock and mourning. Students Kenneth McBride and Nicola Myers were brutally murdered on Braemar Hill, a crime Mr Forse describes as the 'most traumatic event in the history of the school'.

In his moving recollection of the tragedy, he poignantly conveys the stunned reactions and pointless loss felt by staff and students alike.

Then, of course, there was the political drama. Mr Forse details how the Tiananmen Square crackdown was keenly felt by those at Island School. Students donned black armbands to remember the fallen and took part in a day of action.

From devastating typhoons to the uncertainty surrounding the 1997 handover when former student Alice Patten sailed home with her family, Mr Forse says these historical events have 'all impacted on the school in some way'.

Principal Michelle Hughes said while people expected the school to change after 1997, it was really Sars that made a lasting impact.

Many expatriate families left, creating school places for local children.

This school year has seen the introduction of the International Baccalaureate Diploma and the ESF Advanced Diploma, which offers more vocational options.

Ms Hughes said it was vital the school catered for all of its 1,200 students.

One of the biggest changes in recent years has been the explosion in the number of nationalities at the school. While its multicultural nature is much celebrated, Mr Forse contends that the range of nationalities is not without its challenges.

While the teaching staff is still primarily British, about 60 per cent of students come from an East Asian or Eurasian background. A growing number are 'returnees', Chinese students who have spent part of their childhood abroad and may not speak their parents' native tongue.

Mr Forse captures the myriad cultural possibilities in his description of one student, Cheryl Ngao, a Japanese-American born in the Philippines, who wore an Italian football shirt to an English school in Hong Kong. It can be difficult for 'third-culture' children to jump between cultures, and 'Confucian home values do not always sit comfortably with the liberal and free-wheeling spirit of the school', he said.

It is a challenge Ms Hughes is well aware of.

When she arrived as deputy principal in 1999, there was a rule that forbade children from speaking any other language but English in the classrooms and the playground. The rule was dropped the following year.

'We all realised we were going about things completely in the wrong way,' she said.

Ms Hughes emphasises the 'very big voice' students have in the running of the school.

In fact, it's partly thanks to them that she became the school's first permanent female principal in 2005. Several students were on the principal selection committee. Ms Hughes said it was the only job interview where she had had to explain herself to students.

Asked why she put her hand up for the top job, Ms Hughes said:

'After six years as deputy this place did to me what it does to everyone else. It gets completely into your soul. You cannot escape from the real passion that you feel for the place.'

With former principal David James immensely popular with staff, students and parents, he was always going to be a tough act to follow. Ms Hughes said they shared similar educational philosophies, such as not wanting the school to become selective.

'I had a wonderful mentorship under David James. I really admired how he led the school,' she said.

Ms Hughes said the house system, which influences all parts of school life and gives younger students older mentors, made the school different from any other she had taught in.

The enduring friendships created in the playground is what one of the school's earliest pupils, Civic Exchange chief executive Christine Loh Kung-wai, remembers most from her three years there. 'When you first went there you could see the facilities weren't really very good but the spirit was great,' she said.

Ms Loh said she enjoyed the intimate, informal nature of the school. 'The advantage of the early years was you literally knew everybody. It was a completely new community for me and the one thing that reminds me how much I must have enjoyed it is how many people I'm still great friends with,' she said.

Ms Hughes said the future of the school lay in its redevelopment.

'In 40 years this school will look completely different,' she said.

Three ideas are on the table; two include redeveloping the current site while another proposes a land swap. A decision will be made this academic year. Ms Hughes said while the redevelopment would cause some sadness, the school was too small and needed to provide a more modern environment for students.

'This environment is not a 21st century learning environment, it's just not designed for the way we need to teach these days.'

For Chris Forse, it was the students' love of the school and the community spirit that convinced him to remain at Borrett Road for 32 years.

'I think anyone associated with the school recognises it's an extremely vibrant, caring, child-centred place,' he said. 'It's frenetic, chaotic. We certainly have our rows, but I think that's borne of the passion people feel for the place.'

Fittingly, No Ordinary School marks the final chapter in Mr Forse's education career. After spending the past couple of years at ESF headquarters, he will retire later this year and return to Britain.

The 224-page tome, which includes the names of all past students and teachers, will no doubt take pride of place on a bookshelf in his new home.

No Ordinary School will be launched at the school at 6pm on Wednesday and costs $300. Proceeds from a gala ball on September 20 will go to the Island School Trust, which will provide scholarships to help students afford university and extra-curricular activities.