When he graduated from Queen’s College, Szeto embarked on what was to become a vocation – teaching.
One of his proudest achievements is the establishment of the Hong Kong Professional Teacher’s Union. In fact, it was his work with the union in the 1970s that propelled him into social activism. But what few may know is that teaching was only his second best career choice.
“When I was young, I wanted to be a sailor. I hoped to widen my scope of life and enrich my exposure. Life on a boat is quiet and therefore I thought it was a good place to read and write on my own,” says Szeto.
Szeto fell into teaching almost by chance. He had applied to study wireless transmission but he could not afford the high tuition and the two years it would have taken. Teacher training college was free. When he enrolled, he was offered the chance to study for two years in the English stream, or one year in the Chinese stream. He told the interviewer he wanted to graduate as soon as possible and chose the Chinese option.
“And he immediately said I was too eager to focus on short-term gains,” Szeto recalls, laughing.
Szeto worked in education for 40 years, nine years as a teacher and 31 years as a headmaster. Although he gives the impression of being a serious and stern headmaster, he clearly enjoys the respect of and an affectionate rapport with his students.
“My old students treat me very well. The naughtier the student was in the old days, the closer the relationship we have now.” Szeto laughs as he recalls that one of his students likened their relationship to the one between the monk Tang Sanzang and the Monkey King in the classic Chinese epic novel Journey to the West.
Apart from his work in education, Szeto has been a mainstay in politics. He entered the Legislative Council in 1985 and was appointed to take part in drafting the Hong Kong Basic Law in the same year. Szeto left the drafting committee after the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and established the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, of which he is chairman.
“The road to Chinese democracy is rugged, winding and long. The more we persist, the closer we are to the goal of vindicating June 4, and building a democratic China,” he says. “Vindicating June 4 is only the first step for China to move towards democracy.
The Chinese government needs to admit their fault and correct their mistakes before they arrive at true democracy.”
He adds that young people need to continue learning and know their goal if they are to continue building the path towards democracy. “The most important thing teenagers should do is to learn, either by reading books or by trying and practising. Both ways require careful thinking or you will end up with nothing.” He also urges them to set life goals, build their own characters and form their own world views.
Szeto has spent his life struggling for democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law. He may not have achieved all his goals but he is happy with his life. For him happiness consists of three things: “Doing meaningful things; Getting results, seeing progress in the things you have done; Making many friends who share your ideals.”
Szeto Wah is not a man for regrets, but looking back on his life, there is one thing he says he regrets.
“I used to study in an English language school, but after I graduated, I did not read any English books or speak English. That is why I have nearly forgotten all the English I have learnt,” he says.
Szeto says he will fight his illness with his “usual composure” and positive attitude.
On the wall of his sitting room hangs a framed Chinese calligraphy work with eight characters that sum up his attitude towards life: “Accept all and be great; be selfless and be indomitable.”