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.