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Devoted professor, Chow Po-chung shares, his views on teaching

Reporter: Ben Lam

On a Friday afternoon, Chow Po-chung returns to his office after back-to-back meetings. His desk is stacked high with books and papers. Unread emails await him in his inbox. Yet the busy 38-year-old assistant professor puts his work aside for two hours to talk to Varsity.

You might wonder why Chow is so busy. He teaches just a couple of courses, one of them being political philosophy in the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). Unlike many academics, he does not prioritise his time to win research grants, write academic papers and try to get published in the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals. Instead, he puts teaching first and foremost.

That means he spends most of his time teaching the students who are enrolled on his wildly popular courses. For Chow, teaching and learning does not just take place in the classroom. He plays music, shows movies and takes students hiking. He believes the best way to learn is to experience the world using all senses.

This is something Chow did himself from a young age. The teenage Chow enjoyed a lot of freedom as his new immigrant parents were preoccupied with work. He started to backpack around the Mainland with friends when he was just a Form Two student.

These travels influenced him deeply. He met people from different parts of the country and saw how others lived. “From this experience, I learnt what China really is. It is not an abstract concept. It is the concrete situation of how people live,” he says. “If you understand their situation, you will not make fun of them so easily.”

It is this sense of empathy that Chow wants to inculcate in his students, and which landed him in hot water at the height of the heated debate about mainlanders in Hong Kong last month.

In early February, anti-mainlander sentiment reached boiling point when some netizens published a newspaper advert comparing the behaviour of some mainlanders in Hong Kong to locusts. It followed inflammatory remarks by a mainland professor who described Hongkongers as “dogs”.

Chow posted a status update on Facebook in defence of mainlanders. He urged the public to stay rational, a view shared among many scholars. The response was immediate and some of it was vitriolic, the post was shared more than 400 times overnight.

He was accused of being a “traitor to Hong Kong”; some of his students even said they were ashamed of being his students. “He is swinging between two sides: speaking for mainlanders when in Hong Kong, speaking for Hongkongers when in the Mainland. These kinds of people who get benefits from both sides are the most hateful,” a student commented.

Chow is still surprised by the strength of the response and disappointed with other scholars who may share his views but dare not speak out. He, on the other hand, is not one to be cowed by negativity or to shy away from controversial issues.

Chow is not afraid to stand up for what is right. He also hopes his students will speak out for what they believe in. To encourage student participation in his course, political philosophy, Chow opened a Gmail group which serves as a discussion forum for students. Discussion topics are not confined to course materials, but can be on any topic students are interested in. Chow tries to reply to as many posts as possible.

The group occupies a great deal of his time, but he treasures it as a platform for discussion. He shows Varsity a book he published that records the discussions in the group in the first year he taught the course.

The discussions do not end once a student completes the course. Chow has set up another online forum group which allows all his students to join in. Leung Ho-yiu, a second-year journalism and communication student at CUHK took Chow’s course last year, and is a member of the second Gmail group. He still reads the posts on the forum sometimes.
Leung says Chow does not only care about his course, he truly cares about his students. “The thoughtful design of the course is not only for the course alone. It is a whole package to enlighten students,” he says.

Chow has his own education philosophy. He opposes the knowledge-based education system in Hong Kong. “We only have knowledge and technique-based teaching in our university. However, to lead a good life, the education of feeling is very important. I don’t want our students to be trained to become competitors who are antagonistic to society. I hope they can retain a sense of empathy and a little innocence.”

Chan, a second-year business student who preferred not to give his full name, is taking Chow’s course this semester. He says it is the best course he has taken so far. “He is a teacher with a heart,” he says.

Chan says the things Chow teaches run counter to the training he receives in the business faculty, where he learns about profit maximisation and market control. Chan has always been interested in social and political issues, and in Chow’s class he can freely express his views on issues like justice and monopolies.

“Chow is not like other professors,” says Chan. “He really listens to students’ opinions and comments seriously.”
Not many business students take Chow’s course. “A lot of things that he does are regarded by business students as a waste of time and rubbish. He organises many non-commercial and artistic activities,” explains Chan, adding that he admires Chow’s courage to do what he believes is just and right.

Chow’s persistence in his beliefs stems from his childhood. Born in a poor village in western Guangdong, he moved to Hong Kong with his family at the age of 11.

“It was really difficult in my first few years in Hong Kong. The change was too great. I felt like I was abandoned in a completely new place, with no friends around and a poor living environment,” he recalls.

As a new immigrant, Chow was an outsider at school and in society. He could not fit in with the locals; he could not find his personal identity. He was confronted with questions about who he was and what he wanted to be.

Chow overcame his initial difficulties and became a top student in high school. Everyone expected him to study business like other elite students. His family hoped he could lift them out of poverty. Chow found it hard to resist the pressure, so he studied business rather than his own choice of Chinese language and literature.

But he soon figured out he was not the business type. It was 1991, two politically charged years after the June 4 crackdown on the pro-democracy movement on the Mainland, Chow had joined the Chinese University Student Press and now, he found himself constantly discussing social and political issues with his friends there. It was a totally different world from the business faculty.

When he later took a philosophy course, Chow realised that was where his heart was. He longed to transfer to the Philosophy Department but met stiff opposition from his family. “I did everything to transfer, while my family did everything to stop me,” Chow says.

After two years of struggles, he finally transferred to philosophy without his family’s consent in his third year. With that, he waved goodbye to a future governed by the “Central values” that push people to chase after money and social status.

Just as he broke away from the pressure to conform to mainstream expectation, Chow hopes his students can also be freed from pressure. “So, you are going to stay in the cave and do what the society tells you to do? No, you don’t! You are a human being, you do not like to live in the ‘Matrix’, you want to live in reality!”

It was this desire to change society by influencing others that drew him back to Hong Kong to teach at his alma mater after obtaining a PhD from the London School of Economics. “China and Hong Kong are now in a great era. Lots of things are worth doing,” he says. “For me, I would use my knowledge in political philosophy to do something. In a broader sense, it is to push the development of the society.”

Chow has been teaching at CUHK for 10 years now. He believes he can contribute to society by nurturing a generation of democratic citizens. He is proud of the rise of social movements in recent years, many of which involve or were mobilised by his former students.

Chow used to spend most of his time and attention on teaching, but family has become a big part of his life since the birth of his daughter last year. His face lights up when he talks about his baby girl. Everything has become clear in his life. She is “a sharp focus” for him.

“After my daughter’s birth, I feel a true happiness which I have never experienced in my entire life,” he says. “When I carry her, she beams at me and I beam at her, the intimate feeling is very amazing.”

Chow is happy for what he has in life. But he does not think a happy life is necessarily a good life. Pain is sometimes an unavoidable part of life. “Just think about it, why are some great literature and movies so touching? Because they touch upon the complexity and depth of human beings; they reveal life which is not superficial.”

Chow concludes that the key to a good life is to understand ourselves. The most important and fundamental questions in life are “how I should live?” and “how we should live together?”. He hopes to stay innocent and idealistic into old age and he hopes to keep infecting students with his uncompromising passion for changing society.