Sustainable Future, Hong Kong Tales
Lai Kwong-yip: An unsettled generation in a safe settlement

Lai Kwong-yip, the young and fine son of Lai Shui-kee, feels at home in the aging community of Sham Shui Po. Since he’d arrived in Hong Kong from Macau in Primary Four, he never needed to leave this place for going to school, home, or the church. Even as he’s now a grown up man, he teaches in his alma mater here, and this is also where his in-law’s home is. In a blink of an eye passed two decades of his childhood steeped in local sensibility, quite unlike the indifference common in the sensationally overloaded modern society.

Lai’s nickname “Dark Hog” was what his classmates and sports teammates baptized him with when he first got into the secondary school, also in Sham Shui Po. “I was stout and not very tall, with a tan, so the taller guys made fun of me by calling me names. It has a rhythm in it once everyone called me by the name, so people stick to it till now.”Just as the name suggests,The “Dark Hog” in school was unruly and mischievous. “I got into fights and gambled. I stole snacks from the cafeteria.”

The black sheep which gave the teachers so much headache didn’t get back to the same school after the public exam in Form 5, so he transferred to United Christian College for high school in the same district, where he, to the appreciation of teachers, became the monitor, house captain and head student, even representing the school for sport races. The teachers in the new school never put students into pigeonholes, favoring the good ones at the expense of the difficult bunch. As the Dark Hog was fully transformed into the agile hare, Lai also realized the meaning of education. “A teacher can change lives.” He worked hard to get into college and became a teacher himself, returning to his old school as a Physical Education teacher, a job he has held for six years.

For going to the school and returning home, every day he walks on these streets which feel like a secondhome for him, occasionally taking a lunch break at the fish stall his father owns for grabbing the lunch prepared by his grandmother for his father and uncles. It takes only half an hour for getting prepared in the morning for school, which is on the same street as his home on Nam Cheong Street. “It takes just a bit longer sometimes because of all the traffic lights alongthe street where you got to stop to wait, and that’s where some of your students always happen to be,” says Lai with a chuckle as he explains how familiar he is with all the roads, alleys and pathways of Sham Shui Po, a place he knows inside out as  not even how long a green light holds there goes under his radar. “But it doesn’t matter if you bump into a few students when you’re hanging out with only a vest and slippers on. It’s even fine asking them if they want to grab some food together!”

Of course he’s no stranger to the “social problems” in Sham Shui Po, being a rather old community in need of much repair, as cockroaches and mice fester in the dark alleys while the busy traffic brings in the noise and the unpleasant air. But it’s the closely knitted communal ties girdling over the place which makes keeping open doors perfectly natural, the hybrid layout with small stores and old tong laau dotting the area alongside private apartment houses and public estates, that give Sham Shui Po the one-of-a-kind flavor so endeared by Lai. “We’ll be much less free without all these small stalls and vendors.” Rather than feeling at home in Sham Shui Po, Lai makes Sham Shui Po his own home where he genuinely feels secure and supported.

The homely feel comes directly from daily life, giving a sentimental touch to living in a particular place. The physical education teacher would bring his students to Shek Kip Mei Park to train, and on the way he might come across his father riding on a bicycle or dragging his trolley for delivery to the teahouse. The works of the father and the son are laced together. Lai’s students are often found in the small shopping complex downstairs of his own home for cram courses. Even late at night, bumping into some of them who just finished their part-time jobs is no rare occurrence, giving him a glimpse into their hardiness outside the classroom. 

But everything is slowly melting just as his father’s fish stall is coming on the redevelopment agenda. “Even though they were far from prospering,there were more opportunities in businesses and factories for the people in the same generation as my father in the 70’s and 80’s, at least enough for them to make a humble living, strike out on their own, and bring kids up under a roof. But now most of the people around me are working without a clear career path nor a space for business start-ups even if that’s what my friends want. Owning a home is tough too.”

After a pause, Lai switches to the various challenges of education, which he is bound to experience despite being wholly dedicated in the trade. “I’m not keen on politics, but I keep myself abreast of the news. Social conflicts are on the rise, so are inequalities and injustice. The elites abuse their privileges, and we’re losing our moral compass in the postmodern world. Parents used to work with teachers to bring discipline to students, but now parents file complaints all the time, so teachers are reduced to pandering PR managers to please them. And there’s more to a child’s growth than the school – there’re still the influence from the family and the peers. Even the Internet can be addictive. The children are at a loss for what values to uphold.”

Lai admires the down-to-earth diligence and aspiration for a better future found in his paternal example, all the more incredible given the meager material conditions of the last two generations. But equally he is apprehensive of an ever-changing society where reliable guidance for the generation to come to hold onto is scanty. “Back then education was as simple as when the father brought us up into grown-ups. But as the economy is improved and the basics are taken care of, there are even more challenges ahead in society. I guess for parents teaching how a child should live is all they can do,” worries the father-to-be in Lai, for the next generation.

Issue: #024 - 23 January 2016
[ - ]