On Utopia — On the occasion of the High Table Dinner of Lady Ho Tung Hall at Lok Yew Hall, 30 September 2015
Thank you Students’ Association, for inviting me.
Warden, Tutors, Hotungnians, Hallmates and Friends,
I am a Hotungnian. Have you ever wondered what this name means? For those who are not acquainted with HKU’s hall culture, a Hotungnian would probably mean any girl who lives or has lived in Lady Ho Tung Hall. For us who are present here know better: In order for any Ho Tung Girl to become a Hotungnian, she has to undergo a certain process, a certain “ritual”, she has to pass a certain “trial”, the details of which are to be kept a secret from the non-Hotungnians – despite the fact that it’s pretty much an open secret anyway. There are other distinctions, but they are only technical ones.
To me, a Hotungnian is qualitative. In fact, the name Hotungnian has never meant quite the same things throughout the history of its usage: the Hotungnian has undergone as many changes as did hall culture itself. A few years ago, I joined a few graduates in a project called “The Storium” – the hall history corner now located on the first floor of our hall. While organizing the scattered old documents, I was very shocked to find some photographs, taken around the 80s, of a bunch of very sweet Hotungnians with flowing long hair, wearing yellow mini skirts with yellow pom poms in their hands. So that was when I realized that the image of the Hotungnian is never the same, but actually manifests in many different forms.
I became a Hotungnian in 2001. The same year in which the “new” building of Lady Ho Tung Hall was inaugurated, 4 years after the old building was torn down in 1997. I think you all know about the story and the film “City of Glass” made by our 大仙 Mabel Cheung. I was among the first 404 girls who moved into the brand new Lady Ho Tung Hall – the very same one standing now on 91A Pokfulam Road which you are now the residents and owners. If I remember correctly, in that year, there were about 240 Hotungnians – around 60% of the entire population of Lady Ho Tung Hall – whereas during the old hall period, it was 99%. Basically every Ho Tung Girl was a Hotungnian back then. So when this happened – when some of us were called Hotungnians and some of us were not – we began to ask that question we had never asked ourselves before: What is a Hotungnian?
In that following spring, together with 11 同年仙, I became a committee member of the Lady Ho Tung Hall Students’ Association. We asked ourselves that question, and very soon we came up with three descriptions: 團結、搏盡、tough and strong. The first two, 團結 and 搏盡, could be found in the core values of almost every hall. But the last one, tough and strong, was probably the most distinguishable image of the Hotungnian. We worked so hard to promote this image that we somehow succeeded in making everybody believe that the Hotungnian has always been a tomboy who scares men away with her strength. We designed the hall based on our vision of an ideal hall life led by the ideal Hotungnian. We amended the constitution, built new systems and created new policies to accommodate the reality of the new Lady Ho Tung Hall, in order that our hall spirit and traditions could live on in the new millennium.
So that was our image of the ideal Hotungnian, a girl who is physically and spiritually tough and strong, who never gives up, and is a very passionate and supportive member of the hall. Composed of such Hotungnians, the hall as we envisioned it, is a place where there is in every member, a faith in one’s unlimited potentials as long as one has the will to achieve; the uncompromising, relentless yet always honest pursuit of one’s ideals, regardless of obstacles, even when failure is at hand, that the greatest fear is not to fail, but never having tried one’s best, that one’s ultimate fulfillment has to be won by sweat and tears. Between each member, an intimate friendship and bonding founded upon reciprocal and selfless support. Toward the hall, a passionate devotion and a strong sense of responsibility and honour. In short, it was a vision of a utopia on earth, where its members live to their full potential in the best possible manner in relation to one another.
In 3 years, from a very timid and physically weak young girl who cared only about herself, I went through a rapid transformation into a totally different person who was ready to take up responsibilities and support my fellow hallmates, and the stronger my body became through the many early morning practices, the tougher my spirit grew against all kinds of challenges. I won many friends, I was confident and happy, because I believed in this vision of the utopia we created together. But we also made many mistakes, and gradually I came to realize the problems in our utopia. A lot of questions and doubts rose to my mind, which haunted me for a long time. It was painful, but after so many years, I realize that this is actually part of my trial as a Hotungnian. It is through these mistakes, that we reflect on the significance of our own actions and their impact on others and the community, and learn to become a stronger and wiser person.
After graduating from HKU and leaving Lady Ho Tung Hall, I went to London for a Master degree. I experienced an immense cultural shock when everything I learnt here could not be applied to the student flat I lived in. Nobody knew or cared about any other person, burglars broke in and nobody did anything except for making sure their own doors were safely locked. There was no concept of sharing – in my flat there were 5 of us, and in our kitchen there were 5 separate sets of cooking utensils, and of course we ate separately. The common areas were always dirty. The student flat was only a temporary residence; people came and went, and remained strangers who shared nothing in common. It was under this stark contrast and loneliness that I began writing my book, as a tribute to the wonderful days I experienced in Lady Ho Tung Hall and which I realized did not exist in the outside world.
I recall one morning, when the cleaning lady knocked on my door. I forgot what was the issue, but at the end she smiled and said to me, “You are so clean! I never have to do much with your room.” That was the first time I ever saw her smile, she usually looked rather grumpy, and I can understand why. Now I think of it, I should have told her that I keep my room clean because I live there, and that I care about the place I live in. That I believe that the kind of place you live reflects what you are as a person. That you shape a place as much as it shapes you.
Last year, on 28 September 2014, I was in Fukuoka, conducting a small research project. I remember myself sitting inside my neat little bedroom, propped against the small desk facing the screen of my laptop. My Facebook News Feed overflowed with images and videos of crowds of people, and all of a sudden, smoke appeared on the screen and people were running and screaming. I remember myself shaking with anger, tears filled my eyes, despite being many miles away from the tear gas.
Some people compare the Umbrella Movement to a utopia. Young people, most of them students, tried to realize a new world order on the streets of Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok in the short span of 79 days. A utopia where political indifference is replaced by initiation and self-sacrifice; law, justice; violence, compassion; fear and ignorance, bravery and wisdom. Looking at them, I was reminded of my days in Lady Ho Tung Hall, trying to realize a utopia of our own. And I thought, the world has changed so much. Back then we had no Facebook, no Instagram, no Whatsapp, no smartphone, no Gmail, not even WiFi. Many new residential halls have since been built, our hall is no longer off-campus but faces a cyber campus with promises of a new future. There is a now a MTR station connecting our secluded haven to the world. Those ancient trees on Bonham Road which greeted me every time I took bus no.23 are no longer there. But it is today’s news which makes me wonder if HKU is still the HKU I used to know.
But we did experience 911, we experienced SARS and the first demonstration of 1 July in 2003. Within HKU, there were the controversies of 鍾庭耀事件, 和風閣事件 and the appointment of President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Lap-Chee Tsui. Perhaps the world has always been the same, and that is why we need a utopia.
14 years have passed since I became a Hotungnian. Throughout these 14 years I kept asking myself this question: What does it mean to be a Hotungnian in the world today? What does hall culture matter?
But this is for you – the current Ho Tung Girls – to find out. These years in the university are for you to ask these questions and formulate your own ideas. The hall is the place where you can freely experiment your ideas of the best possible human community without fear or reserve. Ask yourself: What kind of person do you want to become? What kind of community do you want to live in? Build your own utopia. You may make many mistakes, you may fail miserably, you may get hurt and be disappointed, but do not give up that quest for the ideal. By the end of 4 years, other than precious friendships and memories, you will also gain a secret knowledge only available to those of you who have tried, a knowledge that will make you a better Hotungnian, and a better person for our world today.
Now if you ask me what a Hotungnian is, that would be a girl who never gives up to become the best she can be. Hall culture would be where generations of students continue to pursue their own versions of the utopia on earth.
Thank you, and may the Ho Tung Spirit lead you all through a successful year.