Published in the South China Morning Post January 2007
Taking the road less travelled calls for courage, strength and the total belief in one self. Sometimes we are lucky to have the support of family and friends, other times we need to persevere in spite of well-meaning opposition from the ones we love. Here are four people who listened to their hearts, pursued their passion and found that it made a difference in their lives.
At around the time that Leung Koon Ting, 27, completed his bachelors degree in history, he found himself facing a personal crisis of faith.
He was upset by the growing religious fundamentalism in his church and was searching for a way to reconcile the religious doubts and tensions that this had raised and, at the same time, renew his faith.
Mr Leung found his answer in the intellectual pursuit of religion and instead of continuing with a postgraduate degree in history, signed up for a Master of Arts programme in religious studies at his alma mater, the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“Religion is way of life for me. But I am not the type of religious person who blindly imitate or follow a set of dogmas,” he says. “I recognise the diversity of religious experiences and the different ways of religious expression.”
Brought up a free thinker, Mr Leung converted to Christianity when he was 18 and still in Form Five. “I want to be a Christian. Being a Christian is to endeavour to love all people and a religious person sees not only his own needs but also those of others in both the material and spiritual spheres,” he explains.
As a child, Mr Leung tended to be an introvert, preferring to read alone rather than play with friends. When he became a Christian, he attended church every Saturday and Sunday and religious activities occupied most of his time.
“I think faith has provided me with some passion,” he says. But while passion is, for him, an important element in life, it is not the sole driver of what he does.
“Life is not merely for self-interest. It can’t be driven by passion without considering one’s responsibilities within the community that one belongs to,” he explains, adding that if doing a degree means that he cannot fulfill his responsibility to his family, then he will immediately abandon his degree.
Mr Leung is currently completing his articulated MPhil-PhD thesis at the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies in the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His thesis is focussed on the Chinese Students Christian Association of North America during the Republican period of 1911-1949, and their religious activities in the US.
It is a situation that is worth studying, he says, because the historical case is similar to the current situation in China. With the “overseas study fever” once again in full force among Chinese students, many Chinese students returning from the US nowadays convert to Christianity.
“And their faith maybe is not compatible with the real life situation in China,” he explains.
Mr Leung’s study of religion has not always been fully understood by his parents. While they have always respected his decisions, they sometimes wondered if he would end up as a pastor or a preacher in the church after his graduation from his MA program.
“I explained to them several times that the course does not serve for training the church workers but it seemed that they still couldn’t get the point,” he chuckles. “Of course, when they found out that it was not the case after my graduation, they stopped having queries.”
As a PhD student deeply immersed in research, Mr Leung makes it a point to involve himself in the activities of the Divinity School. “Doing research can’t be really enjoyable if I am walking alone on this path,” he says.
He enjoys basketball games, chit-chats and other daily interactions with fellow divinity students. “All those religious activities also remind me that I am in a faith community and not working alone in the office,” he says.
Before she did her Masters degree, 38-year old Ho Ka Lai was already a sports celebrity in Hong Kong.
She had been a member of the Hong Kong Fencing Team for 11 years and had helped the women’s epee squad pull ahead in a deciding match, to earn the bronze medal for Hong Kong at the 14th Asian Games in Busan in 2002.
Having retired from competitive fencing shortly after the Busan Games, Ms Ho decided to go back to school part-time for her masters. It was a move that received full support from her husband and her other family members.
“My family congratulated me at once when I made the announcement. My mother even served me with soup that I liked most, at that time,” recalls Ms Ho.
She feels lucky to have gotten her family’s support and encouragement. “For example, they did not blame me for not attending family gatherings so that I could concentrate on my studies,” she says.
Family support was critical also to her success in fencing. At 18, she joined a beginner’s summer fencing course that had been organised for school students by the Education Department.
“I knew nothing about fencing at the time. I just had the perception that it was two people wearing white. They look quite smart, have swords and fight with each other,” she chuckles.
While watching the 1984 Olympic Games on TV, the image of a woman fencer from China winning the gold medal made a profound impression in her mind. That spurred her on in her quest to learn fencing when the opportunity presented itself.
After 13 lessons, Ms Ho’s talent in the sport was recognised when she won a beginners competition. Her coach invited her to join a long term, systematic training regime, which led to her representing Hong Kong five years later.
To Ms Ho, passion is an important ingredient in whatever we do in life. “If you have passion, if you love what you do, then it is easier for you and you are more willing to overcome the difficulties that you may come across,” she says.
Her masters degree is a measure of her determination and fortitude. Just as with her fencing career, she pursued the masters course on a part-time basis, reporting to the Hong Kong Baptist University for classes in the evenings after she was done with her job as a secondary school teacher.
Ms Ho completed the Master of Social Sciences in Sport and Leisure Management, which included taught modules focussing on the different aspects of sports and leisure management, in two and a half years.
As part of the course, she also wrote a dissertation about how retired athletes in Hong Kong transition to a normal life. As a retired athlete herself at the time, she had a special interest in studying the experiences of other retired athletes in Hong Kong.
Sports may be very much a part of her life, but Ms Ho today teaches Integrated Science and Maths up to Form three level. Although she did a Bachelor of Education degree in physical education and sports science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, she prefers to steer clear of PE at school, favouring the indoor rather than the outdoor environment.
To Ms Ho, the masters degree represents a bigger choice of career opportunities and more prospects for moving into other areas of work. While money is important, she says, it is not the most important element in one’s life.
“To me, self-satisfaction provides me with a sense of happiness. By making a commitment to study, you can nourish yourself mentally and intellectually, which is valuable to everyone,” she says.
For Ivan Woo, 28, life is about more than making money. As a medical social worker, he has seen his fair share of rich but miserable individuals, and many more less well-off but happy people.
“No one on their death bed has told me that they hope they can make one million more dollars before they breathe their last breath,” says Mr Woo. “Many people hope that they can have more quality time with their loved ones.”
“I also learnt from dying patients that money earned becomes useless when one dies and it is no point killing oneself just to make money,” he adds.
Mr Woo’s down-to-earth attitude towards money gives him the freedom to pursue what he loves doing, which is medical social work. “I always believe that I can make enough money to support my family and pursue my passion concurrently. The key is to focus on possibilities, not limitations,” he says.
Mr Woo, who is from Singapore, worked for two years in the republic’s Tan Tock Seng Hospital as a medical social worker before he decided that what he was doing was indeed his calling in life.
On the recommendation of his honours degree supervisor at the National University of Singapore, he came to Hong Kong to advance his knowledge with the Masters of Philosophy degree under Prof Cecilia Chan at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Social Work and Social Administration.
For his masters thesis, Mr Woo is studying the self-perception of growth among Chinese widowers after conjugal loss. “There is so little we know about Chinese widowers. Existing research has found that they are at the highest risk of suicide and most experience poor physical and mental health,” he explains.
Mr Woo hopes to make a contribution in this area by assisting formal service providers with the insights that he gains from those Chinese widowers who have adjusted well and who have grown from the experience, following the death of their spouse.
Since he was a child, Mr Woo has not been one to follow the beaten track. He attributes his current academic success to knowledge and skills, in particular a win-win attitude, gained from extra-curricular activities rather than from textbook learning.
In spite of being a playful child who spent a lot of time on non-academic activities to the detriment of his schoolwork, he managed to scrape through his A levels and just made the grade for university.
He surprised family members when he was accepted for the MPhil course in HKU and astounded them even more when he received a postgraduate studentship worth HK$12,500 every month, for the course. Only his ever-supportive mother was not surprised, he recalls.
Passion for what he does has been an important factor in Mr Woo’s success. He says that passion gives him the courage, drive and determination to take the road less travelled.
“It can be trying taking the road that I have taken, within an environment that places great emphasis on academic achievement and on one’s ability to secure a job with a huge income,” he explains.
“The journey can be lonely at times and the passion for what I do can decrease to a flicker. However, as long as the passion continues to burn, I believe we will overcome the obstacles in the way and become better people at the end of the day,” Mr Woo adds.
Mr Woo has no firm plans for the time when he completes his masters degree. Right now he is enjoying himself being a full-time student.
Chan Sze Rok
MPhil in Music Composition
University of Hong Kong
Not everyone is as focussed or as lucky as 26-year old Chan Sze Rok, who knew from the time she was a child that she wanted to compose music. No other profession came close for her.
Like many of her peers, she started piano lessons at the tender age of four. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she went on to learn the flute, trumpet and trombone, then pursued a bachelor’s degree in music in the University of Hong Kong and is now completing her masters degree in music composition at the same university.
Her mother is a piano teacher, so is her grandmother, while her great grandfather was a music composer. Coming from this long lineage of musicians, it is little wonder that Sze Rok was certain that music would be her path in life.
School held no real interest for her. “It was not that bad – I just did it. Music and sports were the only things that I liked. I was actually not good at the other subjects,” she recalls.
But with her family’s understanding and support behind her, instead of agonising over academic shortcomings, Ms Chan built on her strength and excelled in her passion.
In May 2005, she won the first prize at the International Music competition Jeunesses Musicales Bucharest for her composition Arias and Ostinatos of Celestial Ocean written for the flute and amplified piano; and was also awarded Best Composition at the New Generation 2005 concert, an annual event organised by the Hong Kong Composers’ Guild and RTHK for her piece Elegy to the Victims of Andaman Sea, written for soprano, clarinet, cello and guitar.
She also composed Prelude to the Forbidden Land for the orchestra, which was commissioned by the Hong Kong Sinfonietta for its Project Viva Sinfonietta celebrating the group’s 15th anniversary in October 2005.
Passion is a very important ingredient in Ms Chan’s success. “It is the only driving force in times of distress and failure. It helps us get through these times and move on,” she explains.
This is especially true in the field of arts where very few people can do it, she adds. “My teacher used to say that artists are like the ashes in a war, because often we have nothing left. The only thing that remains is passion and the art.”
“In music composition we can learn techniques from the teacher, but not passion. I remember the first time that I met my teacher, he questioned me about my passion to be a composer,” she says.
“He wanted to know if I really wanted to write music or if I wanted to be a composer simply because it was cool. He wanted to make sure that I had the passion,” she adds.
Ms Chan has been composing music for the last three to four years, writing mainly contemporary music that follows the lines of serious classical music, but with a modern slant.
Now she also wants to try her hand at electronic music, installation or multi-media music like video and film music, and even pop songs.
Several of her compositions are fusions of Western music inspired by Hinduism. “I want to explore new forms of music expression integrating different cultures,” Ms Chan states. Her MPhil thesis topic Inspired by the Hindu Tradition: Compositions and Reflections reflects her interests in religion, history and cultures from different parts of the world and, of course, music.
For the time being, Ms Chan plans to put her studies aside and compose full-time, gaining more experience both as a composer and “as a person”. “I want to refine my composing skills and polish my writing skills,” she says.