Editor’s note: Hilton Cheong-Leen died on January 4, 2022 at the age of 99. This story was originally published in 2017.
Hong Kong didn’t really exist until after World War II. That’s not true in a literal sense, of course – on the eve of the Japanese invasion, the city was home to more than 1.6 million people. It was a thriving port, albeit less significant than Shanghai or Singapore. But it was ultimately just another outpost of the British Empire in a world that had many such places.
The Hong Kong we know today — a society defined by a passion for the Cantonese language, by the contrast between verdant country parks and skyscraping neighbourhoods, by a distinctive, cosmopolitan culture that sets it apart from the countries around it — came into being after the war, when the world’s geopolitical landscape shifted and Hong Kong found itself no longer a colonial backwater but a city in the midst of radical change.
The way Hong Kong coped with that change was through a dialogue between the colonial government and a band of passionate civic activists that constantly prodded it to do more and do better. Activists like Hilton Cheong-Leen, who served on the Urban Council for 34 years, where he pushed for compulsory education for all Hongkongers. “I felt it was my duty to represent ordinary people,” he says.
Cheong-Leen was born in Georgetown, British Guyana in 1922, the son of a Chinese immigrant father and a third-generation Chinese mother. He still has fond memories of those early years. Every morning, he and his sister collected a chicken from beneath their stilt house for their mother to cook for breakfast. Indian neighbours would come by to share roti with Cheong-Leen’s family. In his free time, the young boy went swimming in the Demerara River.
The family left Guyana for Hong Kong when Cheong-Leen was nine. He enrolled at the prestigious LaSalle College when it opened in 1932 and started working at a bank immediately after he graduated. His career in finance didn’t last long. In December 1941, Japan invaded Hong Kong and swiftly defeated the Allied forces defending the territory. Cheong-Leen and his family fled to Guilin, where he worked with the US consulate. “I was a stenographer and a jack of all trades,” he says.
That was when a friend introduced him to Pauline Chow, a soprano singer from Beijing. Cheong-Leen thought about becoming a baritone to impress her, but it wasn’t necessary: the two fell in love and married soon after meeting. When Guilin fell to the Japanese in 1944, they fled to Kunming and finally returned to Hong Kong when the war ended in 1945.
Cheong-Leen found work as a stringer for overseas media, which led the South China Morning Post to offer him a reporter job with a HK$600 per month salary – a good wage at the time. But his family insisted he go into business, so he turned down the offer and started importing high-end wristwatches instead.
Several years later, he bumped into Ma Man-fai, the scion of the Sincere Department Store family, whom he had met when they were both exiled in Kunming. Ma introduced him to the Junior Chamber, an international NGO that promotes civic awareness, and Cheong-Leen travelled to one of the group’s conferences in San Francisco. “That trip is what made me interested in service to humanity,” he says. “I just wanted to make life better for ordinary people.”
In 1946, Hong Kong governor Mark Young laid out a plan to make Hong Kong a representative democracy, but it was scuttled by his more conservative successor, Alexander Grantham. In response, lawyer Brook Bernacchi established a progressive political party, the Reform Club of Hong Kong, that advocated for full democracy, public housing and more social services.
Cheong-Leen was also interested in democracy and social welfare, but he was more conservative by nature, so when he returned from San Francisco he helped launch a centre-right alternative to the Reform Club, the Hong Kong Civic Association. Two years later, in 1956, he ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Urban Council, Hong Kong’s partially elected city council. Undaunted, he ran again the following year and won. He held onto his seat for the next 34 years.
Those were tumultuous times in Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were pouring into Hong Kong from mainland China, escaping civil war in the 1940s and famine in the 1950s. “Living conditions were horrible because so many of them were in tin shacks on the hillsides,” recalls Cheong-Leen. He remembers visiting the first public housing estates when they were built in the 1950s. “There were schools on the rooftop and I was interested to see how the kids were doing there,” he says. “It was terrible during the summer months because there were tin [shelters] and it was so hot. But the kids were always enthusiastic and the teachers were motivated.”
It reminded Cheong-Leen of Joseph Clement Luck, the Guyanese-Chinese founder of the Central High School, his old school in Georgetown. “We had some great days together – we studied English and Latin,” he says. Cheong-Leen kept in touch with Luck after moving to Hong Kong. “Last I heard from him, he was a salesman in Canada,” he says. He was saddened to hear that such a talented educator had left the field.
Many Hong Kong children didn’t have access to such a memorable education. Education was not subsidised by the government and many families couldn’t afford school fees, while others saw a diploma as less valuable than a helping hand in the family business. In 1973, when Governor Sir Murray MacLehose appointed Cheong-Leen as an unofficial member of the Legislative Council, he made compulsory education the focus of his first speech. “I used every opportunity to harp on the need for nine years of compulsory education,” he says. The government listened: in 1978, it began funding nine years of mandatory education.
The process was an example of how Cheong-Leen liked to work. Whereas Brook Bernacchi was an unabashed and vociferous critic of Hong Kong’s political establishment, Cheong-Leen preferred a less confrontational approach. “Things moved slowly but surely at that time,” he says. “Each governor had his own style. I got on with all of them. You have to respect their position and he has to respect yours.”
Both the Reform Club and the Civic Association have been supplanted by other political parties. But Cheong-Leen, now 94 years old, still takes an active interest in Hong Kong’s livelihood issues – especially education. He is dismayed to see so many children being pushed into associate degree programmes that offer a pseudo-university education that is “neither here nor there,” when many vocational professions are hungry for workers. “Education is not just sending your child to university,” he says. “Young people should be given encouragement in whatever they like to do.”
One thing that makes Cheong-Leen happy is the recent surge of civic participation by young people. “I’ve noticed that young people are taking interest in the districts where they live – they try to create something that will make their community better,” he says. He may not always agree with their politics, but he can understand their motivation: they want to make Hong Kong a better place – just like the generation of civic activists that came many years before them.
Video – Courtesy of British Pathé
Hilton Cheong Leen was profiled in Those Who Inspired Hong Kong