Yew Chung International School girls take recycling project from HK to Sichuan to Shanghai - and they're not stopping there

A project to create useful items from old school uniforms won four friends a place at a competition in Shanghai

Ariel Conant |

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Big ideas can start small. That’s what four Year 12 students from Yew Chung International School learned when they entered Harvard University’s “China Thinks Big” competition, which encourages secondary students across the region to tackle global issues.

“Last year, we participated in the competition but we failed pretty hard,” admits Alice Wang Yan-qiu, 17. The team attempted to tackle the issue of poverty in Hong Kong by raising awareness through paintings and song.

“It didn’t really go very well,” says Alice. “I think last year the main problem was with the topic [we chose] – it was way too broad. So this year we chose to focus on something really specific and really [achieve something concrete] instead of just raising awareness.”

So Alice, along with Olina Zhu Qiu-yu and Kelly Zeng Shang-shang, both 17, and Lora Liu Nuo-wa, 18, started the Uniformity project, which Young Post covered back in February. The project involved collecting second-hand uniforms from schools across Hong Kong and the mainland, and using the materials to create new items such as pencil cases and bags. The girls collected more than 3,000 uniforms, and sold the recycled items to raise funds for the Daliang Mountain Primary School in Liangshan, Sichuan province (四川). The girls visited the school in March, donating 600 sterilised uniforms, 560 pencil cases filled with new stationery sets, and 100 soccer uniforms.

The quartet’s efforts helped them stand out among the 400 teams vying for the 60 spots in the semi-finals. The next step was to fly to Shanghai to present their project in front of a panel of judges on March 19.

First came the Innovation Fair, where each of the 60 teams was given a small table and had to explain their project to the judges who roamed the hall. Then it was onto the presentation itself: a three-minute summary followed by questions from a panel of 15 judges.

After a gruelling day with little sleep, the girls were eager for some rest. “The semi-final ended at 6pm, so we went for dinner and kind of relaxed,” says Alice. “We went to sleep at 9pm.”

“But we woke up at midnight,” says Olina.

“Yeah, we woke up at midnight because we got the call from the committee saying we had got into the finals,” says Alice. “At midnight. And finals were the next day.”

For the finals, the girls had to prepare a presentation along with an extended five-minute speech, and be prepared for a longer session of questions from a larger panel. “So we worked until 3am,” says Alice. “And woke up at 7am to join the finals.”

This time, the girls faced 20 judges. They also got to hear presentations from the other 14 teams that had made it to the final round. “The other teams were amazing,” says Alice. “Originally, I thought the scale of Uniformity was big enough to get a good place at the competition.” But the scope of the other projects made the girls realise how much more their project could grow.

Out of 400 teams, 60 made it to the semi-finals in Shanghai. Out of those 60 teams, only 15, including Uniformity, made it through to the finals. “We were hoping to get into the semi-finals,” says Olina. “After that, we were so busy we weren’t really hoping for anything more.”

At the end of the competition, the Uniformity project was awarded the Outstanding Project Execution Award.

But the girls aren’t resting after their success; the Uniformity project means more to them than just the one competition. “We’re preparing for our second phase,” says Alice. “We’re continuing to manufacture pencil cases using the uniforms we’ve collected – there are still 2,000-something that haven’t been used. And maybe we’ll collect uniforms again in late June from final year graduates.”

The girls are determined to see Uniformity carry on.