Vivian Leung – the Hong Kong housewife who took on the government.
Reporter: Sandy Ho Yuen-ki
Chairperson of the Lung Fu Shan Environmental Concern Group, founder of the Hong Kong Breastfeeding Mothers’ Association, active member of a parent-teachers’ association, member of the owners’ committee of her apartment block, owner of a passion fruit farm in Guangdong – these are just some of the many roles of Vivian Leung Tai Yuet-kam.
Leung, aged 48, is not the scion of any leading Hong Kong family, nor a high-powered professional or learned academic. In fact, she left school in Guangdong and came to Hong Kong at the age of 14. After the birth of her two children, her primary role was full-time mother and homemaker.
But it is her most recent role as an activist working to protect the environment of Lung Fu Shan that has attracted the most attention. Lung Fu Shan is an urban oasis on the slope at the back of the University of Hong Kong. Along with its surrounding area, it was designated as Hong Kong’s smallest and newest country park in 1998.
Leung was one of the many walkers who enjoyed the area’s peace and tranquillity. Then, in 2007, she noticed the historic granite surface along Pik Shan Path on Lung Fu Shan had been covered by a concrete road.
Leung saw this as an urban encroachment but the district council claimed the work had been done to solve minor flooding during heavy rain. Leung found this explanation unacceptable. She believed water-logging problems could be solved with improved pipes instead of a concrete layer on top of an historic path.
Leung drew up a petition and on October 14, 2007, she set off for Pik Shan Path on her own. There she asked walkers to sign her petition and a campaign was born.
It has been an uphill struggle. More and more construction projects kept being unveiled, including the erection of unsightly railings and fences along Old Peak Road and Hatton Road.
Leung sees the railings as more than eyesores that damage the environment; she sees them as an intrusion on freedom in Hong Kong. “They build railings alongside almost everything. They block the grass, the trees and even the benches,” says Leung. “Also, the railings constructed by the government are standardized and ugly; they simply do not match the environment and spoil nature.”
Eventually, Leung and others who agreed with her cause set up the Lung Fu Shan Environmental Concern Group. They organised seven petitions and sent numerous letters to the government. They worked long and hard to protect the natural beauty of the area – and their efforts paid off. Some construction projects were called off and they even succeeded in getting some of the railings removed.
Leung’s persistence played a crucial part in the fight. Some of those who were involved in the petition campaign early on backed out because they were too busy, others did not think they would get anywhere fighting with the government. Some told her to give up, but for Leung, giving up was never an option.
“If I hadn’t insisted on the conservation of Lung Fu Shan, the place would have been spoiled completely,” she says.
Leung’s determination can be traced to her life experience. “My dad died when I was 14, so I left Guangdong to live with my mum who was in Hong Kong at the time,” says Leung.
The family was poor, so Leung did not go to school after she arrived in Hong Kong. Her relatives advised her to learn a trade. First, she followed a cousin into the rag trade to work as a seamstress in a factory. But Leung knew she wanted to study, so she found a job as a receptionist so she could attend night school.
“At the time, I thought the most important thing to do in Hong Kong was to learn English. Not knowing English would be like being illiterate. So that was the only thing I studied.”
For three and a half years, Leung worked by day and studied English in the evenings. She managed to get a Hong Kong Certificate of Education in English and got a promotion at work. She stayed with the company until she left for Canada in 1990 to accompany her husband while he studied for a post-graduate degree.
Although Leung’s situation did not allow her to receive a mainstream education, her forthright and open character has led her to be educated in different ways. Leung says she learned a great deal through being involved in different organisations and meeting people from various professional backgrounds.
In the Lung Fu Shan Environmental Concern Group, 90 per cent of the members speak English. One of the people who helped her in the campaign is a professor from the University of Hong Kong. This professor taught her how to deal with the government and helped her sort out her documents.
“My situation didn’t allow me to study, but learning opportunities are actually everywhere,” says Leung enthusiastically. “I often have to think about which group to spend more time on. I have too many interests.”
One of those interests is the promotion of breastfeeding in Hong Kong. Leung’s two sons, who are now 19 and 17, were born in Canada, where the family lived for five years. In Hong Kong, before her children were born, Leung had assumed formula provided the best nutrition for newborns and infants. But at a pre-natal talk she attended in Canada, Leung learned about the benefits of breastfeeding for a baby’s health and development, as well as its bonding with its mother.
But when she came back to Hong Kong, Leung realised not many mothers breastfed their babies. So in 1996, she set up the Hong Kong Breastfeeding Mothers’ Association (HKBMA).
“I wanted to let people know that breastfeeding is not as troublesome as people think it is.” Leung says people have the misconception that formula is more convenient but she believes, “it is formula that is inconvenient. If you go out with baby you have to look for water, mix the powder, and you don’t know if the water is the right temperature, if it is the right amount.”
However, despite the benefits of breastfeeding, Leung also knows how hard it can be. She remembers waking up every two hours or so every night to feed her baby. “I got weak and tired,” says Leung, “but, being a mother, you will be willing to make sacrifices for the good of your baby.”
Leung recalls being despondent as a new mother in Canada because the family was poor and she did not have many material things for her baby. “I suddenly felt sorry for my baby, for not giving him material comfort.”
Leung says she was in tears when she told a visiting nurse that she was not a good mother. But she says the nurse told her, “Actually baby does not need anything [material] now. It just needs your milk. That is to say babies do not need beautiful clothes, they just need their mother’s milk and their mother’s love.”
However, it was not easy to advocate for breastfeeding in Hong Kong. Leung enlisted the help of doctors, nurses and midwives. With the help of friends who shared her concerns and vision, Leung eventually set up a hotline to answer queries from mothers and to support them.
Connie Chiu Siu-wai, a close friend of Leung who is involved in both the Lung Fu Shan Environmental Concern Group and the HKBMA, says she admires Leung’s persistence in fighting for the things she believes in.
Chiu became aware that Leung could be outspoken when they were involved in HKBMA, but it was not until they started the fight for Lung Fu Shan that Chiu really felt Leung’s strong character.
“For instance, it [the conservation of Lung Fu Shan] is a long hard process, but it reflects how persistent she [Leung] is in fighting for the walkers’ interests,” says Chiu. “She dares to speak up and ask for things. I have learnt from her that you can only have the things you want when you dare to ask for them. She can make the impossible possible.”
Although Leung has a strong personality, Chiu says that does not mean she is bossy. “When you talk to her, you can feel the passion she has for the things she is fighting for, and that makes you want to help her.”
Chiu thinks Leung draws people into noticing an issue through her genuine and passionate personality, rather than by forcing them to listen and brainwashing them.
Some have told Leung she has what it takes to become a politician with her strong character and her concern over the things happening around her, but Leung only wants to identify herself as a housewife who dares to speak out and fight for her interests.
“A lot of times, we see things that are wrong or unacceptable but not many people actually speak out and take action,” says Leung. “For me, I don’t mind taking some time out to fight for our interests. When you see there is something wrong, don’t just accept the existing situation and wait for someone else to take care of it.”