Your school grades don’t have to determine your success in life after you graduate

Professor Tsui Lap-chee, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, shares his journey from struggle to success

Nicola Chan |

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You probably wouldn’t expect the Vice-Chancellor of a top university to have skipped kindergarten and gotten a D in Chinese in his public examination.

But Professor Tsui Lap-chee, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong and current President of The Academy of Sciences of Hong Kong, is proof that early failures aren’t life sentences.

Tsui is the latest guest speaker at the Hong Kong Youth Hostels Association’s “Celebrity Speaker Sharing Session”, in which public figures share their stories of overcoming adversity to achieve success. It is part of The Hong Kong Jockey Club Community Project Grant: Mei Ho House Hong Kong Spirit Learning Project.

Speaking to Secondary Four and Five students from C.N.E.C. Lau Wing Sang Secondary School, Tsui shared his journey from growing up in Tai Hom Squatter Village and his struggles at school to finding success through his love of biology and his natural inquisitiveness.

(L-R) Krystal Tam Ka-ki, Meko Lai Wing-ying, and Beth Kong Lok-yiu of C.N.E.C. Lau Wing Sang Secondary School never knew the former Vice Chancellor and Principal of HKU had poor academic results!
Photo: Nicola Chan/SCMP

“The first school I went to was a ‘three-in-one school’: Primary One to Three students attended the same class together”, said Tsui, who attended four different primary schools.

At another primary school, he had no choice but to skip a grade because his class had too many students.

Despite being curious about the world around him as a child, Tsui didn’t know this would lead to a degree in biology.

“I thought my interests were design and architecture, “ he explained, “but I have always enjoyed doing experiments, especially near the streams in Tai Hom Squatter Village where I used to live.”

Once, Tsui burnt his hand after plugging self-made motors and light bulbs into wall sockets without knowing the level of voltage. However, rather than discouraging him, the electric shock only fueled his interest as he next turned his attention the lead fuse wire which had melted and saved his life.

While Tsui was more passionate about these areas of study than his classmates, he often failed subjects such as Chinese due to the rigid methods of teaching.

“If you asked me to share with you my academic transcripts, I’d definitely say no. My transcripts are full of colours, especially red,” he laughed.

“But it wasn’t because I wasn’t hard-working enough. I was just not interested in rote learning”, explained Tsui, who received international recognition in 1989 for identifying the defective gene that causes cystic fibrosis. Clearly, science offered Tsui a form of empirical learning which other subjects did not.

Professor Tsui Lap-chee shared the story of his difficult childhood.
Photo: Hong Kong Youth Hostels Association

Because of his D grade in Chinese in the Hong Kong Chinese School Certificate Examination, his A grade in biology didn’t result in much interest from universities. Only one, the Biology department of New Asia College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, invited him to attend an interview, and as it was on the second day of interviews, Tsui didn’t think his chances of being admitted looked promising.

‘So I decided to take a risk and visit the Department on the first day,” sai Tsui.

This risk paid off; while looking for the admissions office, Tsui bumped into the Biology Department Chairman, Professor Yen Kwo-yung. He bit the bullet and introduced himself, explaining that although he didn’t have the highest exam results, he had a keen interest in biology.

The chairman took his name, then said he could return the next day. Only after Tsui got accepted did he find out that he actually ranked first in Biology in the public examination that year.

As Tsui puts it, “heaven helps those who help themselves.”

For S4 Student Meko Lam Wing-ying, Tsui’s life experience is “proof that our academic results don’t determine what we will achieve in the future.”

Asked whether a degree is necessary for non-academic fields such as sport, Tsui replied that it’s much better to follow whichever path best advances your talent.

For Krystal Tam Ka-ki, Tsui’s answer was inspiring: “Not going through university to achieve what I want in life is something that I have never thought of before” she said.

Tsui maintained, however, that university provides an environment for self and world exploration.

About 40 Secondary Four students attended Professor Tsui Lap-chee's talk.
Photo: Nicole Chan/SCMP

“University is a very good place for you to know yourself better, learn about life, meet people from different backgrounds and explore different subject matters.”

Tsui also advised against choosing a subject based on its career prospects.

“By the time you enter the job market, those fields might not be in demand anymore.”

“It is safest”, he suggested, “to pick the subjects of your interests.”

Tsui’s final piece of advice for the students was to seize all available learning opportunities, just as he had done.

“Opportunities are like moving windows. If you don’t jump into or walk out of one in time, it will be gone.”

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge