With her ‘higher and truer values’, Elsie Tu’s life truly was one worth living, and an example to us all
Alice Wu says this remarkable woman, who died last week at the age of 102, didn’t just talk of a meaningful life but actually lived one – continually serving the poor and downtrodden of Hong Kong
We have the privilege of celebrating the life of a remarkable woman – Elsie Tu. And what a life she had, from missionary bride to the “real spirit of Hong Kong”. That spirit will live on.
When we hear that middle-class parents are putting a price tag of up to HK$7 million on getting a child “ready” for the future (that future being, according to 70 per cent of 500 polled parents, landing a university degree, a high-paying job and owning a property) then, if we try hard enough, we can actually hear Tu’s 1977 New Territories Rotary Club speech. In that speech, she asked whether the wish to “get rich would really solve all our problems, or if it wouldn’t rather create new problems”.
Tu believed that good education was the best preparation for the future, but she also believed that education was more than a means to a high-paying job and property ownership. She founded Mu Kuang English School with the mission to provide underprivileged students with “the opportunity to learn higher and truer values”, not just opportunities to get ahead.
And, in a speech to the Parent Teacher Association of King George V School, in 1974, Tu defined what she thought was “a life worth living”. “Life is worth living if one can be useful to others,” she said, and saw serving the community as “the key to happiness and even health”. That made life, “in spite of the difficulties”, worth living.
We can certainly see that in all she devoted her life to. Her sense of service – that we “cannot always help, but at least try [to] … offer sympathy and advice, share in victims’ burden” – is one of those “higher and truer values” that government officials, legislators, district councillors, community leaders, public servants and ordinary citizens, rich or poor, must learn.
In October, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor admitted it was an “uphill battle” to tackle poverty with our “extremely fast-ageing” population. With one in three elderly Hongkongers living in poverty, there is much for the government to do. And with the upcoming policy address and budget, we must demand that the government allot more resources to address the silver tsunami, instead of the annual ritual of seeing “what’s in it for me”.
As with ageing, poverty is a global issue. It cannot be eradicated overnight, and it takes more than government intervention. Economic development alone will not pull people out of poverty, nor will education alone. It is going to take a critical mass of ordinary people adopting Tu’s life philosophies.
For those of us not in government, when was the last time we helped a total stranger? We’ve passed by old ladies and men pushing their trolleys filled with cardboard boxes. To “help” is a habit. Remember Tu’s words, that helping “sometimes [makes one] fed up, exhausted, but always refuse to give up”.
While we may be busy making our lives better for our loved ones, it is often too convenient and just easier not to do anything, or not to care. Tu didn’t live a privileged life, but she found purpose, happiness, “and even health” in living among, fighting for and serving the poor and downtrodden. What was in it for her? Simply, a life worth living.
As we prepare for the Christmas season, I wish you all longevity. According to Tu, the secret of longevity is “never again to eat so much at Christmas”. We don’t need as much as we think we do. We all have the power to share, and give. I wish Hong Kong an abundance of “higher and truer values”, where a generous heart means infinitely more than high-paying jobs and home ownership.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA