This week: The not-so-good old days I once did a stint as a radio presenter for RTHK, a regular segment in Cantonese that answered listeners' questions about their pets. The segment turned out to be quite popular - not because of the questions I answered, but because of the way I answered them. When I returned to Hong Kong 11 years ago, after living for 18 years of my youth in Melbourne, I was as Aussie as they come, with a passion for cricket, meat pies, Crowded House and Australian rules football. My English was fluent, but my Cantonese could best be described as my second language. It has improved somewhat since then, but it's certainly not eloquent. At first, I could speak hardly a word. After a few months, it was crude and basic, good for ordering at a fast-food chain, and in time it got good enough to communicate with clients, but certainly not radio presenter material. On the radio segment I would use the wrong words to describe things. It was easy enough to understand and I usually got my point across with the help of the real DJ, but using the wrong adjective or verb can sometimes have funny results. I was often put on the spot and would say things that should not go on air. The feedback from the audience was quite positive, which was surprising, given how fickle Hong Kong audiences are. The listeners found that I got my point across using simple language they understood and my poor Cantonese made the topic less dry and sometimes funny for those who were just listening in. With kids back at school, it's now the quietest time of the year for vets. This means I have more time to chat with my nurses during the day. The topic the other day was our school days. Most of my nurses are young, under 28. I was interested in what school was like for them. In summary, they all thought the system lacked the ability to stimulate young imaginations and put too much emphasis on memorising. My stories of schooling in Hong Kong had them dazed. They all thought my schooling was exclusively in Australia, but I was born in Hong Kong and went to school here until Primary Two. I can't quite believe I am old enough to tell stories of the good old days, but here it goes: It was a different time back when I was in primary school. Hong Kong wasn't as grand as it is now. The Hong Kong Island skyline was dominated by Jardine House, with its little round windows, and it was the tallest building in Hong Kong. My father and mother still regularly took us back to our ancestral village in Punyu in nearby Guangdong province. We would catch the steam train from the Tsim Sha Tsui terminal, where only the clock stands now. I can still vividly remember the old, black steam train puffing like a Monet painting. A packet of prawn crackers was just 30 cents. It was the late 1970s and early 1980s. I went to school in Kwun Tong. It wasn't an affluent suburb and my family and I lived barely above the poverty line. We sublet our flat with six other strangers to make ends meet. I went to a very strict public Catholic school. From questioning friends of a similar age, it was probably one of the last schools with corporal punishment. It was a very archaic place and time. The classes back then were huge, with more than 40 kids. I was a bright student and came fifth in the class quite consistently (it is sad that they rank kids that young and made the rankings public, and it is sadder that they still do!). The only flaw was that I never finished my homework and I was routinely called to the front of the class with my empty homework page on display against the blackboard and told to lift up the palm of my hand. The teachers had learned long ago that using a single plastic ruler resulted in little pain and lots of broken rulers, so they would tape up several rulers to make a good bludgeon. Wham! I would go home with a bruised palm. The physical punishment wasn't just for not doing homework. Every morning, we had to line up in our forms on the basketball courts. It was important that we didn't slouch as there were teachers walking up and down the lines with table tennis bats, and if you were caught slouching or overarching your back ... Wham! I would go home with a bruised back. Once I was caught hiding a classmate's pencil case. The teacher accused me of stealing, and my punishment was to sit in an invisible chair position outside in the middle of the playground until I was exhausted and collapsed. It didn't take very long to collapse, since it was the middle of day in summer and I quite literally blacked out before I was told to quit. It is good that they don't punish kids like this now. I still wonder how they got away with it back then. Society and its attitudes must have been very different.