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by Albert KingFan Ng (YWC 1977)
It was 24 Jan 2023 (Tu), two days before Australia Day. I finally located Mr Rex King, Principal of Ying Wa College 1972-1978. A blessing, we have crossed paths with each other for 5 years as I was a Ying Wa boy 1972-1977. When I called him on the phone, the voice on the other end sounded a bit hesitant as if he was talking to a “stranger” who was one of his tens of thousands of students from decades gone by. But once the ice was broken, we had a decent 3-minute talk on the phone and arranged the rendezvous with “the Godfather of Hong Kong public exams” I later jokingly referred to him as.
His residence is basically a home for senior retirees with independent living: he has his own apartment on the ground floor with a lounge, a kitchen, a bedroom and a washroom. There are staff on duty round-the-clock catering to the needs of the residents. Meals are provided and the seniors mingle and enjoy communal living. He purchased this current residence over a decade ago. This was financed by a property he purchased when he first moved to Adelaide at the age of 60. That first property he bought had a seaview from the balcony and the house was freestanding on a block of land. The value of that house tripled over a decade when he sold it. When he was in Hong Kong, he owned an apartment in Kwun Tong in Kowloon; then he moved to Hong Kong Island. The value of the property hiked when he left Hong Kong. With the proceeds, he purchased the posh house in Adelaide upon resettlement.
Once I stepped into his apartment, I spotted a stack of photos on the coffee table in the lounge. My photo with my name printed on it was on the top page. How meticulously prepared was this old man who lost very little of his drive to perfection!
As we sat down and briefly introduced ourselves, we started touching on the many anecdotes of our days in YWC, and a few names were mentioned. But what I really wanted to find out on this mission was the howabouts and lwhereabouts of this man, an almost god-like figure in my 5 years with him, before he entered YWC and after he left YWC. That is the gap I was eager to fill.
He revealed that he once had an elder sister two years his senior but she fell off the horse that got frightened by a piece of falling paper and an oncoming car. Riding bareback, she was thrown off the horse and died. Mr King was barely twelve and from then on, he was never on horseback. That obviously left a traumatic dent on everyone in the family and he became the only child in the house.
He lived on a sheep farm and used to do all sorts of farmwork including milking the cow. He also perfected the skill of delivering a lamb single-handedly. With one foot on the sheep’s neck and the other on its behind to immobilise the mother, he pulled the lamb out from the sheep’s womb with both hands, sometimes putting his hands into the sheep to deliver the baby lamb. The lambs were sold on the market: that was the major source of income. Another source of income was from sheep shearing.
His father worked at an abattoir, mainly in the office, not a worker slaughtering the animals. He was into heavy smoking and alcohol. He died of a heart attack in his 40s. That is why Mr King touched neither in his whole life. His dad also missed joining the New Zealand Army in the World War because he had crossed toes and it was his deep regret when his mates all went to war. His dad also bought a large acreage for farming and a Ford model T2 which was left behind for them. Mr King learnt his driving using the T2 which he had to wind a handle to start the car (like lighting the spark plug in a modern car). After his father died, his mother took over the chores of the farm. After he entered university, he would still return to the farm to help out during holiday breaks.
He was a 100% country boy as he used to live half an hour from the nearest town, Invercargill, the southernmost city of New Zealand. People often say if you take one more step you’ll fall off the world. It frosts in the morning about 20 days a year. So Mr King went to school with frost all over his legs as shorts were worn for the school uniform. He started off wanting to major in Maths but found himself not coping at a higher level. He dropped Maths and majored in English instead. He earned two degrees, one from the University of Otago in Dunedin and the other from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch.
In New Zealand, he served a mandatory 6-month conscription as bugle boy. But whenever he played the bugle at home, the dogs would keep barking. He learnt to use all sorts of firearms but missed serving in the Korean War (which happened too early for his age) and the Vietnam War (which started too late).
His coming to Hong Kong was in fact his own choice. He studied Hong Kong from many editions of the Hong Kong Yearbook before the journey (again a tell-tale sign of his meticulous personality). He came as a missionary teacher with the United Church of Christ (UCC) which merged the Congregational and Presbyterian Churches. He arrived in 1963 and spent 2 years as an English teacher in Ho Fook Tong College near Castle Peak which was still a small fishing village then. He then accepted the offer of principalship at Ming Yin College in Shek Kip Mei in Kowloon. He was actually involved from its construction to its opening and then its operation as a school. He had fond memories of Ming Yin College, the youngest school then that he pioneered. He also treasured his time in YWC as it is the oldest school. We also discussed the dispute on the oldest school reputation of YWC, the Malacca phase of YWC and Morrison, etc.
He remembered visiting 3 Hong Kong Governors in their house through his connection with a Hong Kong high ranking official whose name he evaded. He couldn’t quite recall which Governors but upon prompting, he named Edward Youde, David Wilson and one other. I mentioned Murray MacLehose but he didn’t concur. He said it was not David Trench. It’s most likely Christopher Patten but he couldn’t name him. But he remembered on one occasion David Trench picked up an English textbook in his school and criticised the standard. When I asked who his most favourite Hong Kong Governor was during his 33 years in Hong Kong, he said it’s between Edward Youde and David Wilson, but definitely not Murray MacLehose.
He also remembered quite clearly the 1967 riot when he was principal of Ming Yin College. Xenophobia prevailed and anti-Western slogans were written all over the walls of Shek Kip Mei. But his school remained open during the whole riot. There was even one student who went to school on foot all the way from Tsuen Wan to Shek Kip Mei at that time, he recalled.
He also recalled getting a friend from New Zealand to teach in Ming Yin College. This New Zealander later became the first principal of Ming Kei College in Tai Kok Tsui in Kowloon, using Ming Yin College as its campus before the construction of its own premises. This gentleman is J K Walls.
After he left YWC in February 1978 (the same year I left YWC), he joined the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA). To enhance his knowledge, he pursued a master degree in education/exam in HKU under the mentorship of Alan Brimer (HKU Dean of Education then), the leading figure in school examinations in the world. Mr King was promoted to Deputy Secretary General (1992–1996) in HKEAA. He was very proud of that as he knew how important he was in that position since public examinations is THE thing in Hong Kong.
During his 19-year tenure in HKEEA, two interesting events stood out from the rest. In the early days of his tenure, the English Examination Paper, after it was finalised, had to be shipped overseas for printing and shipped back to Hong Kong before the exam. While unloading at the wharf, the cargo carrying the exam papers fell off and broke. The papers were scattered all over. The disaster was irreparable. Mr King and his team had to prepare the exam paper anew on Saturday and hand-print it on Sunday. Just in time to be distributed for the exam. The whole event was kept secret from the public. After this accident, the exam paper was printed locally. Then came the next event. One year a part-time worker in the printing room intended to smuggle out an English Exam Paper but was caught red-handed by Mr King.
He also mentioned how crazy Hong Kong parents could be. Students would be coached by private tutors and they worked on sample exam papers. Mr King made every effort to collect the sample papers from these private tutors and made sure that the actual exam paper was set as differently as possible from the sample papers. What a smart gweilo!
He revealed that while working at HKEAA, he missed frontline teaching a lot which is his greatest passion. In his spare time, he offered volunteer work as English teacher two evenings a week at St. Andrew’s Church in Tsimshatsui. He also initiated the Summer with a Purpose (SWAP) program, a 4-week English camp for secondary school students during the summer holiday. There was a quota of 30+ and he allocated half of it to Ying Wa boys. My niece’s husband, Daniel YiuKwok To (YWC 1998) was one of the participants in the SWAP program. We visited Mr King together in this Adelaide trip. After relocating to Adelaide, he was still active in volunteer teaching in the local community, mainly teaching Chinese migrant students for some 12 years before complete retirement. He is definitely a teacher at heart through and through.
I also commented on his accent or rather lack of KIWI accent during our chat. To my understanding, he came to Hong Kong in his 20s, an age most would retain their accent. His answer was that his accent was mid-Pacific which is a hybrid of New Zealand, Hong Kong and Australia.
Regarding his ancestry, he remarked that his surname came from someone who played the role of KING in a medieval pageant in the 14th to 15th century. Mr King was a 4th generation New Zealander who migrated from Australia. He reconfirmed that he was not of convict stock!
When I asked him about his choice of retiring in Adelaide instead of New Zealand, his answer was that he preferred a place not as busy as Hong Kong but more vibrant than New Zealand, kind of the middle of the road. These days, he does morning walks in the neighbourhood as exercise and plays snooker with his friends in the residence. In fact someone called him for a game during our visit but he turned him down. He usually spends an hour daily playing snooker. He is good enough to have a break of 20s, a skill that requires sinking at least 3 colour balls.
When asked to recommend a novel or an author to us (since he majored in English), he said he couldn’t. He spends most of his time on the internet these days. He used to play cricket at a young age. These days he watches sports on TV instead, but he’s not fanatic. He usually goes to bed at 10-11pm. Before going to bed, he watches TV, mostly on recorded news and documentaries.
Regarding his health, I deliberately left it to the end as I wasn’t sure if he wanted to discuss that. I bought him some cakes and fresh fruits. His immediate comment was 2/10 for cakes and 10/10 for fruits because he is type 2 diabetic. But he did eat a cheesecake in quite high spirits. He was adamant that physically he’s still in top shape. Just his memory at times gets the better of him. He also revealed that he successfully fought off 2 bouts of cancers, bowel cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Both have been in remission for a long time.
I think it’s important to put some notes on my meeting with this 85-yr-old, a man I once found formidable. He is a living testimony of “West meets East” in the last century particularly for his contribution to HK. There is so much he wants to get off his chest, maybe before his memory starts to twindle. I have tried my best to cross-check some of the facts, especially names and times, on the internet. I have also omitted some stories which are either contradictory in timing or irrelevant to most of us. It’s still possible that some of his recollections could be slightly inaccurate. He told me that if he were to write his biography, it would be in 3 sections: 26 years in New Zealand, 33 years in Hong Kong, and the 26+ years in Adelaide. I feel obliged to at least accomplish part of that in writing before it’s too late.
We had a second meeting, dinner in a Chinese restaurant, on 27 Jan 2023. When I dropped him off after dinner in his residence, I farewelled him at the gate and told him that we would see each other next time I visit Adelaide. He replied, “Could be in my cemetery.” My heart sank and this old man slowly disappeared in the distance.