SCMP Saturday, September 15, 2001

'I failed maths and think I graduated because I cheated'


I spent most of my school days on the mainland. When World War II broke out I was a young boy and my family fled Hong Kong.
We lived in different villages in Guangxi, moving almost every six months. The schools were very much like the ones you see in rural areas of China these days and there were dozens of children of different ages in each class.
Living conditions were also poor. I didn't even have shoes. We lacked warm clothes, and during playtime we ran for sunny areas where we stood trying to get warm. We snacked on raw chilli with salt, which also warmed us up.
I was a happy and outgoing child and it was easy for me to get along with others, which helped as I was able to pick up different dialects rather quickly.
Despite the poverty, children had a lot of fun. My friends, brothers and I often created our own games. We caught prawns while swimming and ate them like sashimi. We also smoked out bees so that we could eat the larvae in their nests.
I am the third of four brothers, and I was the naughtiest. One night I suggested that we catch fireflies and smear our faces with their fluorescence. We had great fun chasing and terrifying the village dogs with our ghostly appearances.
At school we studied maths and Chinese. I was appalling at maths, usually scoring zero in tests. I was not good at anything that required logical thinking. Writing compositions was my forte - far easier for me because I could create freely. I was alright in arts as well.
There were a few teachers whom I admired a lot but what actually impressed me the most was their ability to tell interesting white lies.
We were so easily fooled and one teacher once told us a riveting story about the benefit of eating vegetables: a patient dying from tuberculosis was healed after he ate a lot of greens because the vegetable filled the holes in his lungs.
Apart from school and play we also had tasks around the house such as sewing, cooking, growing our own food and rearing cows.
After the war we moved to Guangzhou for a couple of years.
My family was still poor, but I had some wealthy classmates. There was one rich boy who loved to tease me. One day, while we were on our way to a sports lesson, he kept throwing a ball at my head. After warning him a few times, I became angry and threw the ball on to the road.
Instead of retrieving it, he told the teacher. Despite listening to my explanation, the teacher insisted I pay for a new ball. I was also excluded from that sports class. That was when I realised there was a class difference, and how unfair it was.
My self-esteem had taken a knock, and I decided then that I would never be the one to hurt anyone. But this incident also made me more introverted.
In 1947 my family moved back to Hong Kong and I went to a small private school in Shamshuipo. It was in an old building and classes were overcrowded. Every time a school inspector arrived we had to hide.
As usual I failed maths, and Istill do not know how I graduated. Maybe it was because I had cheated. My younger brother and I were in the same class. If, during a maths test, we sat together, my marks were inevitably good.
After Secondary Three my brothers and I started work as there was no money for us to continue our studies. Some of them returned to school later but I did not.
Instead, every day after work, I painted.
Artist Yim Yee-King - known as Ah Chung ("The Worm") - was talking to Sophia Yow. He has an exhibition at Commercial Press Star House Book Centre, Star House, Tsim Sha Tsui, until September 23 and will be there to meet the public today, tomorrow and next Saturday, from 3pm to 5pm.