The Shaping of the Life of a Young Student at the University of California at Berkeley

In the summer of 1970, after finishing five years (1965-1970) of study in engineering at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB), a young foreign student from Hong Kong [1] abandoned a bright future and returned to Hong Kong to a remote rural and backward island off of Hong Kong Island to offer free classes to local students who had finished just 6th grade, the highest public education level offered in that island. This is a short account of that story.

Sai Chung was a good and hard-working student who had finished his engineering Bachelor degree in three years and one quarter [2], which normally would have taken four years, while supporting himself with scholarships and working part-time during the school year and full-time during the summer [3]. He then continued at UCB to study for his engineering Ph.D. degree [4]. After one year and two quarters, he basically had finished all his Ph.D. course work. Due to his plans to start the new initiative discussed below, in spite of doing extremely well academically, he left UCB in the summer of 1970. Had he stayed on a little longer and completed a required project, he would have received an engineering Masters degree.

Such a bright and hard-working student obviously had a nice future and could have found an interesting and good-paying technical job in the U.S. and then eventually obtained permanent residency in the U.S. He left all of that and went to Tai O (大澳), a small fishing village on the southwestern shore of Lantau Island (大嶼山), about a 3-hour ride by ferry from Hong Kong Island. Since public education there ended at 6th grade, he went there to offer to the Tai O young students free classes at the junior high level. There was nothing there waiting for him, no place reserved for him to sleep, no school to hold his classes, and no salary to support himself or pay for the school material.

But he did have the moral and financial support of many students in the San Francisco Bay Area and in the Boston-Cambridge Area; most like him were foreign students from Hong Kong. Many would contribute $10 per month to help him start this school. In his first year back, he did not tell his parents in Hong Kong, who actually partially relied on Sai Chung to help support his younger brothers and sisters. While he was studying at Berkeley, in spite of taking a heavy course load, Sai Chung worked at various odd jobs and saved enough money so even after he went to Tai O he could still meet his commitment of each month giving his parents $100 U.S. He wrote regular letters to his family, but these letters were mailed back to his close friend at Berkeley who then mailed the letters to Hong Kong.

Besides receiving moral and financial support from his friends in the U.S., equally important was the fact that he also found some like-minded young college graduates in Hong Kong, as well as later a couple other UCB graduates, who joined him as teachers or helpers at this school. As a matter of fact, after he returned to Hong Kong and before he made the final decision to start the Tai O project, he found a friend who recently graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and was then teaching high school, and this friend told Sai Chung that he was committed to go to Tai O to start the project together. This was crucial to the project for at least two reasons. First, it doubled the number of full-time committed people. Secondly, through this person’s contacts in Hong Kong, many college students from the Chinese University of Hong Kong as well as young professionals (including doctors, engineers, and college instructors) would come to Tai O during the weekends to help out. Sometimes on weekends there were as many as 20-30 people helping out. Besides working to develop a curriculum for the school, these people would help in various kinds of community projects such as constructing a small fish reservoir, repairing roads, as well as helping them to construct their building (discussed later).

Initially the two full-time teachers would rent a small place to sleep, and borrowed facilities from various local religious organizations as their class rooms. They taught only in the evenings since these facilities were used by the religious organizations during the day. Their free school was welcomed by the locals, and quickly they had as many as 30-40 students.

After the first year, they started to build a small simple concrete building [5] where they could live, cook, and also use as their office, as well as their factory as discussed later. With very limited funds and resources, it took them about two years (to 1973) to complete this simple building. Before this building was completed, there was no running water and no bathroom. They connected a long hose from a small stream on a nearby hillside to their building. This provided them with water for cooking, drinking, bathing, and washing clothes. They took cold showers outside even during the cold winters. I remembered visiting them in the summer of 1971 and I took a cold shower from this hose. The drainage from this building was by a long hose that drained to the sea. [6]

These students, besides needing help with education, came from poor families. So Sai Chung and his colleagues decided to start a small business to assemble various electronic components for radios and other simple electronic devices. Initially they were a subcontractor for another contractor who sold the assembled products to wholesalers. Later they became a contractor and sold their products directly to the wholesalers. This provided part-time jobs for some of the students during the day, as school was only in the evening, as well as providing a small amount of income to support those students, as well as the school [7].

To start a business, even a small business, requires capital, e.g., to buy the electronic components. No bank would lend you the money without some collateral. Fortunately, the father of another Berkeley student [8] from Hong Kong was willing to provide the collateral. Shortly after starting their business in 1973, the world-wide recession hit Hong Kong near the end of 1973 and lasted for about a year and a half. For a while, they had borrowed a lot of money but there was not enough demand for their products, and they owed a lot of money. So they stopped their business for about half a year. Fortunately, the economy in Hong Kong improved, and they were able to pay off their debts after two-to-three years.

They continued with their school until the latter part of that decade, when Tai O announced that they planned to add a public high school providing junior high and senior high education, thus removing the original motivation for starting their school in Tai O, and led to a phasing out of their school.. As the economy in Hong Kong continued to improve, many Tai O youths were able to find jobs in Hong Kong, thus removing their original motivation for starting their business in Tai O, and led to a phasing out of their business near the end of the 1970 decade.

Besides facing financial issues, they also had to face several other issues. For example, initially there was a lot of suspicion, from both the left and the right of the political spectrum, on what they were doing and why. They had to earn the confidence of their students and parents. They also kept running into problems with the Hong Kong Education Department with respect to required certifications, which led to pressure from the government on the religious organizations that provided facility for their school. So they had to move from the building of a Protestant church to the building of a Catholic church, and then to the building of a Buddhist temple. And at the end, classes were held in the pig-raising facility of the house of one of the students. Although their school was not certified, the education received by the students was still useful to the students.

What motivated Sai Chung and others to do this project? I am sure that they did not do a detailed plan identifying all the problems they might face, and the risks that they might encounter, and work out a mitigation plan. I am also sure that they did not prepare a business plan for their business. They just had a feeling that deep in their hearts they wanted to do something to contribute to the world, and that what they wanted to do was not the traditional career path. They knew that they would encounter a lot of problems, expected and unexpected. They didn’t know how those problems would be solved, but they had the courage and the confidence that when those problems arise, they would rise up to the challenge of solving those problems.

To understand that kind of mentality, we have to go back to that period in history and the environment they were in. Sai Chung attended UCB from 1965 to 1970. This was the period immediately after the Free Speech Movement of 1964-1965, and in the middle of the Anti-Vietnam War Movement and the Third World Movement that occurred in the second half of the 1960 decade. A common denominator of these movements was that students should not live in ivory towers, but should be involved and contribute to improving the welfare of the community and the outside world at large. At the same time, the Cultural Revolution in China began in 1966. Although with hindsight, the Cultural Revolution was not as idealistic as it might have appeared. But based on the information the students had at that time, many of the students believed that they should try new ways of doing things, and they should not just follow the traditional way of their parents and grandparents.

Also, Sai Chung and many of his friends lived in Berkeley’s Chinese Center, an inexpensive residence house that housed about a dozen foreign students from Hong Kong [9]. These students formed a very close relationship [10], and they willingly helped each other. For example, if one of the students did not have enough money to pay for next quarter’s tuition, one of the more well-off students would give him some money. When one of the residents received a package of goodies from home, the whole group would share in the goodies. This type of comradeship and willingness to pool financial resources was actually critical at Tai O. Some of the teachers with no or very little income still had to support their families. Some of the teachers also taught at Tai O’s public school and they would contribute their salary to the pool to help run the school and the business. If it weren’t for that environment that they were immersed in during several of their formative years, the Tai O project would have never taken place, and definitely would not have sustained for that many years.

The Tai O project started with a vision: to help educate the poor children of Tai O whose education normally ended at 6th grade. Sai Chung and his collaborators sacrificed a few years of their normally most productive years to achieve this vision. To a large extent they succeeded. They offered free classes at the junior high level to the Tai O students, and continued doing so until Tai O established a public high school. They also established a small business that provided part-time jobs to some of the students and helped to provide some financial support to these students’ families. Even though they “lost” many of their most productive years, all the people who worked on this project had successful careers post Tai O.

In 1976 Sai Chung married one of the local Tai O girls. In 1978 Sai Chung collaborated with several young professionals in Hong Kong as co-founders of a new electronics manufacturing company, and served as the General Manager of this company as he had practical experience working in manufacturing. For a while, he worked at this company in Hong Kong during weekdays, and went back to Tai O during weekends to do work for the school and the business. This electronics manufacturing company became a very successful company, and Sai Chung hired some of his former Tai O students, as well as additional Tai O youths, to work at this company, thus continuing to help the Tai O youths financially.

———————–
[1] This person wants to remain anonymous, but agrees that we can refer to him by his nickname “Sai Chung.”
[2] UCB changed from a semester system to a quarter system during the period (1965-1970) when Sai Chung was there.
[3] At that time, it was legal for a foreign student to work during the summer as well as during the school year. His family provided him only enough money to pay for the tuition of Sai Chung’s first semester at UCB.
[4] It is possible to go directly from a Bachelor degree to a Ph.D. without first getting a Masters degree.
[5] At that time in Tai O it was actually cheaper for them to build a concrete building than a wooden building, especially when they could mix rocks found on the hillsides with cement.
[6] It was legal in Tai O at that time to connect the drainage pipe for a small building like theirs to the sea.
[7] For those oversea students who agreed to financially support this project, Sai Chung requested a commitment for only one year. So after a couple of years, Sai Chung and his co-workers were basically on their own financially.
[8] This student, after finishing at UCB, also went to Tai O and worked there for 3-4 years.
[9] The Chinese Center was established by a Protestant church, although most of the students residing there were non-religious.
[10] The close relationship that was established during those years at Berkeley carried over to the next 40+ years. They have remained among each other’s best friends all this time.

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8 Responses to “The Shaping of the Life of a Young Student at the University of California at Berkeley”

  1. David Chai says:

    Don,
    Great story and my admiration for Sai Chung. I like to see a second edition of this story as to what happened to the students that he taught, and the business that he was able to start.

    Thanks for sharing,
    David

  2. sai wong says:

    A heartfelt success story indeed. I wondered what happen to Sai Chung now and how his success trasfer to countless others who followed his footsteps and those who benefit from his generous help.

  3. Ann Santee says:

    Don, such dedication to the community. Sai Chung is a typical example of someone who is willing to give expertise and time to the Chinese youth.

    Those of us who were raised in Hong Kong from the fifties onward know the hardship of Tai O. The idea of providing education/training is the best gift one can give to a poor community. I salute Sai Chung.

  4. JK says:

    Very well written story, I knew bits and pieces of the story but this essay connects all the dots together. I’m anchored by the values and morale behind the story. Proud of this “young foreign student”!

  5. HJ says:

    Thanks for the detailed story, Don. Sai Chung was a good friend of mine at Berkeley, but we have lost contact all these years since he went back to HK. Glad to know that he was doing successfully in business. Can you update us on what and how he is doing now?

  6. Faruk says:

    A real hero. I salute him. I am very much enthusiastic to know the remaining part of this story.

  7. Lorinda Hom says:

    Don,

    Sai Chung is a very special and respectable individual because of his loving heart and sacrifice to the poor Tai O youngsters. He is also a very diligent and hardworking man. It really takes a lot to be such a role model educator and caregiver; and, a successful business builder!

    Lorinda

  8. LC says:

    Don,

    A very moving story. It’s hard to believe anyone would make such a sacrifice, even in that time. God bless him! Even given the background at his time, there must be other factors involved in first motivating him and then sustaining his work in that island.

    Very interesting read!

    LC

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