SCMP Saturday, September 22, 2001

City children learn survival in a wild world


They come from different worlds, speak different languages and lead lives seemingly poles apart, yet they have enough in common to bridge the gaps between them.
When 15 Hong Kong children came face to face with their rural Chinese counterparts in the spectacular rolling hills of Liannan Yao Ethnic Autonomous County recently, it was natural curiosity on both sides that removed all barriers.
Taking part in an experience programme organised by non-profit organisation the China Literacy Foundation (CLF), which provides educational opportunities for children in rural China, many of the visitors, aged eight to 18, received more than they bargained for in the northern Guangdong district.
Even routine daily chores expected of local children proved a challenge for their city counterparts. While weeding a small vegetable plot with seven-year-old local girl Deng Siumei, 15-year-old Patricia Law Oi-yee and brother Matthew Law Ka-ki, 13, confessed they could not tell the intruders from the vegetables. Despite initial frustrations and language obstacles, the siblings were soon laden with fresh produce - which their hosts later cooked for them.
Liannan sustains about 150,000 people, 52 per cent of whom are Yao. Poor soil covers more than half of the area, leaving logging as the major economic activity. Most families survive on subsistence farming and earn an average income of about 900 yuan (HK$850) a year, local people told their visitors.
Lack of funds has had serious consequences on education, as the Hong Kong children, who learned about Yao culture and survival, discovered. The poorly equipped Liulian Primary School, where Siumei studies, consists of six rooms, some used as classrooms and some as threadbare dormitories housing up to 30 pupils; others have to serve both functions.
Half a basketball court and two homemade ping-pong tables are the only recreational facilities.
Eighty pupils from six villages attend the school, some walking up to six hours daily to reach the basic facility, where blackboards are painted on walls and access to anything but the simplest equipment is impossible.
But for these children, school life is about to change thanks to CLF, which donated 250,000 yuan last year. With another 150,000 yuan from the local education bureau, pupils are due to be studying and living in a new complex at the end of this month.
Since it was founded in September 1999, CLF has raised more than $1.6 million, including more than $900,000 from a charity concert at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts last autumn.
Money raised in Hong Kong stretches a long way on the mainland, where building and equipping a village school for up to 300 students costs between 200,000 and 300,000 yuan, according to Sandra Fung Wai-yin, CLF chief executive officer. The foundation, managed by volunteers, has already spent 700,000 yuan building six schools and has helped renovate another five in Guangdong, Anhui, Guizhou and Shaanxi provinces.
Ms Fung said it was important to help affluent Hong Kong students understand the realities of rural Chinese life. "The most important thing in life is not what they have, but their attitude to life itself." Many children on the recent visit were deeply moved by their experiences in the Liannan villages, she said.
Patricia Law could not help comparing what she described as her own "picky and wasteful" ways to the lack of opportunities the Liannan children faced. "I have never thought of people living without proper lights. I didn't know how lucky I was. When I saw poor people on TV I could not relate to them," she said.
A CLF fund-raising concert, featuring the Correa & Stroup Piano Duo, will be held at City Hall on October 7, 8pm. Tickets are available at City Hall from this week. Parents and groups interested in mainland student trips should call Ms Fung on 9189 2297 or visit