Members of the faculty, distinguished guests, proud parents, and graduates:
I am most reluctant in giving graduation addresses because the given audience is usually the worst kind–before you open your mouth, they wish you were already done, and whatever you say, they are determined that they won’t remember a thing once they are out of the hall.
Under these tough circumstances, I still have to say that it’s not only an honor and pleasure for me to be here with you today; it’s also a calculated pre-emptive measure because sooner or later, one way or another, I am going to fall into your hands. And when our paths do cross, I naturally would hope that you are not only professionally excellent but also socially committed and compassionate.
Today is the graduation ceremony for your Study Phase I, medicine, and it’s also the inauguration ceremony for your Study Phase II, the study of life. So I’d like to share with you some of my own notes about life.
I grew up in a port city in southern Taiwan called Kaohsiung. In 1961, when I was in the 2nd grade, something happened to my class. A girl vomited so violently that she had to be taken to the hospital. Very soon we were told to go home; all schools were shut down indefinitely. When we came back to the classroom some days later, several seats were empty. That was the first time I heard of the disease called “cholera.” Of course I didn’t know that our neighboring “village,” Hong Kong, was hit by the same epidemic that year and 15 people died from it. We are much more connected than we know.
I was a child of the so-called “third world.” Imagine these snapshots in black and white: young mothers spent all day piecing together plastic flowers and cheap Christmas lights in the crammed living rooms while their children ran around with T-shirts sewn together from sacks in which milk powder had been transported as American aid; printed over the chest of a child might happen to be the picture of two masculine hands engaged in a shake, with the caption, “China-US Cooperation,” or “net weight 20 pounds.” One of the major surprises I had when I arrived in the US for my graduate studies in 1975 was to discover that the milk people were drinking was not made from dried powder. In my class of 1961, nearly every girl had head lice in her hair—the tiny white eggs of the lice sticking to the hair look like dandruff, and oftentimes you would see a schoolteacher holing up a can of DDT, a synthetic insecticide, spraying at the head a crouched girl.
Hong Kong people of my generation have very similar memories of their past. Milk powder and cheap Christmas lights, cholera and head lice were all footprints of poverty. And if we go one or two generations further back, the pictures would be even bleaker. A Western missionary who arrived in China in 1895 described what she saw on the streets: “Everywhere are people whose skin have festering sores, people whose thyroid gland was so overblown that they couldn’t walk straight; everywhere are the deformed, the blind and beggars of incredible shapes and forms.”
A Japanese writer called Ohashi Otowa visited Hong Kong in 1900. By chance he stepped into a hospital and caught sight of a sickroom: “I peeped into an ill-lit room and saw a lowly Chinaman lying on a bare board wriggling like a maggot. It was so filthy and the stench so penetrating that we took immediate flight.”
But why am I telling you this? Why am I telling you this on this particular day, for this particular occasion, at this particular place?
I have my reasons.
You are the centenary graduates of the University of Hong Kong, which was built on the foundation of the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese established in 1887. Keep in mind that in 1887, post-mortem examination was still considered by most Chinese as a sacrilege, an offense, if not a crime; keep in mind that in 1897 when Lu Xun’s father was fatally ill, the local doctor’s prescription for him was to find a pair of crickets, which must be “yuan pei” (元配)—a pair from first mating. Only in this historical context you come to realize that the founding of the Hong Kong College of Medicine 124 years ago was a ground-breaking, epoch-making milestone and the people who made it possible must have been people with a tremendous sense of commitment and, above all, with the power of vision. It’s people like Ho Kai and Patrick Manson who paved the way for you to arrive in this hall today.
On October 1, 1887, the inauguration ceremony for the Hong Kong College of Medicine took place and its first Dean, Dr. Patrick Manson, who is still revered today as the founder of the tropical medicine field, gave the address. This medical college, he predicted, will offer an opportunity for Hong Kong “to become a center and distributor, not for merchandise only, but also for science.” Looking at the freshmen amongst the audience, he added, “The old Greek cities used to boast of their great men, and claim them with jealous care. Let us hope that in the new and greater China of the future, when the learned dispute of their great men, not a few may be claimed for Hong Kong and for the school today inaugurated.”
Among the 30 some students inaugurated in 1887, only 2 graduated, in 1892. One became a country doctor in Malaysia, and the other, thinking that “healing men” is not as important as “curing the country,” gave up the medical profession for something else.
Originally, when Sun Yat Sen was still a student in Hong Kong, he had in mind only a very modest project. So impressed by the modern management of this colony, he intended to carve out a Hong Kong “on small scale” out of his hometown, Heungshan. The young man began to build a road with shovel and pickax, hoping that it would connect his own village with the next. Only when this small project failed due to local corruption, he turned to something bigger—he overthrew the Chinese empire.
From Manson’s inauguration address of 1887 to this graduation speech of 2011, our lives—yours and mine–have been changed by many extraordinary people. Some men of vision transformed education; some men of action started a revolution and founded a new nation; some men and women with perseverance and intelligence created vaccines or provided cure–small pox and rinderpest are eradicated, malaria is largely eliminated, cholera is under control, and most school girls of Taiwan and Hong Kong today do not know what head lice are. 124 years down the road, this medical college of the University of Hong Kong, which began with the daring dream of a handful of people, is turning out some of the best scientists and professionals shaping the future of the global community.
And you are part and parcel of this heritage. However, if so much has been accomplished by your “village elders” like Patrick Manson and Sun Yat Sen, is there anything left for your generation, for you, to dream, to dare, to devote yourselves to?
I think yes, there is.
Before the 43-year-old Dr. Manson decided to help found the Hong Kong School of Medicine, he had studied his place and time. The place was Hong Kong, where health care for the local population was in a miserable state. The time was late Ching, when old structures had begun to crumble and new values had not been formed. Sun Yat Sen was 26 when he graduated from this college but decided to make the country his patient. He studied medicine, he walked the streets of this colony, and he pondered upon the maladies of the nation, looking for remedies.
So what is your place and time? First let us look at who you are. About 20% of you, the medical students of HKU, come from families with both parents or one of the parents being healthcare professionals– doctors, nurses, CM practitioners. Close to 60% of you come from families with a post-secondary education. It is pretty safe to say that you are, or will be, the elite of the society.
But exactly what kind of society do you find yourselves in?
There is something very “unique” about this “village” you belong to. In a city of 7 million people with an average per capita income of nearly US$30,000, 1.2 million people live below the poverty line. If that sounds abstract, try stand on a corner of Bonham Street and count the children who walk by–one, two, three, four–one out of every four children in this glamorous city live in poverty.
And have you ever paid attention to those elderly women who are pushing heavily loaded trolleys up the steep hills in Central? In this society, nearly 40% of the elderly fall below the poverty line. When visitors arrive at the airport, they immediately see an attractive slogan: “World City of Asia.” What’s not spelled out in that slogan is that income equality of this city is the worst in Asia, worse than India or Mainland China, and the wealth gap here ranks the biggest among all developed economies in the world.
This society that you and I have membership of is probably the easiest place in the world for a photographer to find a spot on any street and he can catch the moment when a Rolls Royce or a Bentley happens to be driving by an elderly man who is scavenging a garbage bin.
I am not suggesting that you should follow Lu Xun and turn to radical writing, or emulate Sun Yat Sen and engage in politics or become social workers. Life offers too many interesting as well as surprising possibilities. But as centenary graduates of this institution of such important heritage, you might consider spending more thoughts on where you have come from and where you may choose to go. The first stone of the road was laid down 124 years ago with the hope to connect to the next village, which is where you are today. Patrick Manson fought against ignorance and insisted on learning; Sun Yat Sen fought against corruption and insisted on good governance; as the torch relay continues, what will you fight against, and what will you insist on?
I hope you don’t have ready answers for me, because if you do, I would be suspicious. What one fights against and what one insists on, taken in its totality, are called personal beliefs. Personal beliefs are not declared. They are practiced in the minute details of life. They are revealed in the smallest decisions of daily routine.
Patrick Manson later worked as advisor to the Colonial Office in London and his main job was to examine recruits and select those who are physically fit for jobs in the tropics. An unexpected problem arose, that is, he discovered that more than 90% of the applicants for subordinate positions such as railroad workers had bad teeth, which by regulation should disqualify them. He had to make a decision what to do.
Manson wrote to the Colonial Office: “To reject these would amount to almost wholesale rejection of all men of their class.” He therefore suggested that the government provide dental care for those who couldn’t afford it. Some professionals would see decayed teeth just as decayed teeth, but some others, people like Manson, would see things on the existential level–he sees human plight. And it’s small, banal decisions such as this that make us what we truly are.
My family moved to a fishing village when I was 14. We were so poor that, when the children got sick, my mother would not dare to go to a clinic. One day, my youngest brother had a fever so high and coughed so badly that my mother was forced to go to the village doctor. We all went–four children of different age and height stood face to face with this very quiet man. He hardly spoke, and when he did speak, with a very soft voice, it was either Japanese or the Fukien dialect, which we could not understand a word of. He checked the little boy, pressed the medicine into my mother’s hand, coached her in the unintelligible language how to care for the young, and refused to accept fees. And thereafter, throughout our childhood, he declined any fees from us.
That was my very first memory of a doctor’s visit. The room was barely furnished but extremely clean and outside the room was a small courtyard, glittering with afternoon sunshine, and I could smell the scent of the summer jasmine in full bloom.
I wish you success and happiness, and thank you all.