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From romance to politics, the 1970s was a politically charged decade in Hong Kong. Au Yee-cheung entered CUHK’s History Department in 1972. He recalls that the o’camp of the day was less concerned with the internal affairs of student life on campus and reflected more of the social concerns, and especially mainland affairs, of the day. There was also a strong sense of common purpose, with students doing early morning exercises together and planting trees on campus.

By the 1980s, the focus was on Hong Kong’s political future. Britain and China were negotiating what would become 1984’s Joint Declaration.

Allan Au Ka-lun joined the New Asia College o’camp of CUHK in 1986. Recalling his o’camp experience does not arouse strong feelings for Au, who treasured the development of independent thinking over group identity during his university years. He tries to jog his memory by looking at his old diary.

The camp book of New Asia College o'camp of CUHK in 1986.

He remembers a part of the o’camp where freshmen had to go into the community to interview people like social workers, professors and politicians. After the interview, they gathered together for discussion and mainly talked about how a university student should contribute to society.

The activity chimes with the spirit of the times. In the 1980s, many people were worried about the return of Hong Kong to China. Students were among the first group of people who came out in support of the return of Hong Kong and oppose colonialism.

During Au’s time, the government was drafting the Basic Law. Students felt they should be contributing to the debate on social policy and politics.

Although Au was critical of the emphasis on collective thinking and the group impulse behind o’camp, he still thinks the team identity and spirit was weaker in his time than now.

Group leaders were just group leaders, they were never called Jo ma (group mum) and Jo ba (group dad) as they are now. It was a person’s individual choice whether or not to listen to their group leader. The authority of the group leaders was not so strong.

Neither was there any competition between departments or colleges. Au believes the battles in the recent o’camps which create a common enemy are a fast way to unite a group.

“Somehow o’camps can gather individuals and build collective consciousness, which can also be transferred to the next ‘generation’ of freshmen,” says Au.

The Swire Hall o'camp in 1981.

At Hong Kong University in the 1980s, however, the emphasis was also on character-building.

Kirindi Chan Man-kuen was on the Organizing Committee of Swire Hall o’camp in 1982. She says the o’camps were meant to shock the freshmen out of any sense of complacency or preconceived notions of their superiority.

“You might be top in your secondary school. But when you come to a place where everyone is talented…you are made to feel the difference in a short time,” Chan says.

The freshmen were supposed to undergo “socialization” in the university and to this end they organized adventurous activities, such as hiking at night, taking down bus stop signs, sneaking into laboratories to get hold of a certain live specimens. The aim was to force them to step out of their comfort zone.

The difference in the pecking order between freshmen and senior students was also emphasized. Freshmen had to do what seniors required.