A 38-year-old man with a shaved head walks onto the stage with a guitar and a bicycle. He opens his talk by strumming and singing lines from John Lennon’s Imagine,
“Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world.”
In December, the freelance teacher, veteran activist and now “local hero”, was invited to give a talk by Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED), the American non-profit group that organises talks by inspirational people around the world under the slogan “ideas worth spreading”.
The invitation was just one manifestation of the recognition Pong Yat-ming has received since he launched his civic action, “A Year without Patronising the Business of the Conglomerates.”
Pong began his campaign in October 2010, seeking to show it is possible to break the domination of Hong Kong’s developer conglomerates. Since then he has boycotted chain-stores and transport companies run by property developers and stopped using products and services owned or operated by big corporations.
Pong’s home is a unit in an industrial building in Fo Tan. A big curtain divides a large open space. On one side of the curtain, Pong has a compact living space that he shares with his two cats. On the other side there is a work and exhibition space Pong shares with a friend. The walls are lined with paintings and foreign handicrafts. His bicycle, which he rides to jobs and to visit the small shops and restaurants in his local community, is parked outside.
Pong’s independent personality was shaped early in his childhood. His parents divorced when Pong was young and the boy was sent to live with his grandparents. The young Pong learnt to make his own decisions and be responsible for his own life from an early age.
There were never any discussions about what kinds of extra-curricular activities he should join and he did not have to ask permission before going out. He remembers when he was in Primary Three, he informed his grandparents he was going camping just the day before he went. When it was time to go to secondary school, he applied for the schools he wanted on his own and without his parents’ input.
Pong sees positives in how he was raised. He says he was allowed to follow his heart, rather than his parents’ expectations. He believes every person’s life story is written through the individual decisions they make. “Otherwise, everyone would just look the same, our faces would be blurred. So I strongly think we should follow our own desires.”
In Pong’s case, the great passion has been for education. He began tutoring younger children when he was still a secondary student himself. In one case, a parent asked him to teach her child how to be a good person rather than any particular academic subject. So Pong took the child on local visits and to join community activities.
Since graduating in cinema and television studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, Pong has had a succession of freelance teaching jobs. He has taught classes in every district in Hong Kong in everything from painting to drama, to English and general education in schools, community centres and churches. He refuses to be tied down to a full-time job.
Back in the 1990s, Pong started helping new immigrants from the mainland. He has also worked with various non-profit organisations, such as Breakthrough, which mainly focuses on youth services, and joined local civic movements.
He has taken part in protests against the demolition of the Star Ferry Pier in Central and the campaign to save Choi Yuen Chuen, the village that was demolished to make way for the Hong Kong Express Rail Link to the mainland.