Eternal flame of ‘Hong Kong’s mayor’ continues to burn at CUHK

Flora Cheong-Leen on her late father’s public service and treasure trove of papers

After a diverse and successful career as a ballerina, fashion designer and entrepreneur, Flora Cheong-Leen has pirouetted back to her roots in the past decade, giving free ballet tuition to underprivileged children in mainland China.

“This is a continuation of my dad’s belief that everyone is equal and has the right to free education,” says Flora, of her late father, former Hong Kong Urban Council chairman Hilton Cheong-Leen, who died in January last year, aged 99. He was instrumental in Hong Kong’s introduction of nine years of free compulsory education for children.

Flora’s Tian Art Foundation, established in 1999 with her father’s support, has focused increasingly in recent years on offering performing arts training to children-in-care in Sun Village in Beijing while their parents serve prison sentences. Trained herself in the Royal Ballet School in London when young, Flora grooms them to be ballet dancers or stage production workers, equipping them with skills to stand on their own feet one day and “dance for the poor”. So far, some 100 children have benefited.

Hilton Cheong-Leen (centre, in black trousers) leads the Keep Hong Kong Clean Campaign with litterbug character Lap Sap Chung in 1972 (Courtesy of Flora Cheong-Leen)

Flora says promoting education was just one of the inspirations she took from her father.

“He instilled in us (his children) the philosophy of serving the people in the world. When he was an Urban Councillor, he never took us to parties,” she says. “Instead, he brought me to visit patients in hospitals, to fund-raising activities, and to see him discussing how to house hawkers in proper marketplaces. I also followed him going door to door telling people how to dispose of their rubbish properly in the Keep Hong Kong Clean Campaign of the 1970s. He was such a selfless person.”

Last week, the Cheong-Leen family donated to the CUHK Library a trove of papers that belonged to Hilton, who was the longest-serving member of the now-defunct Urban Council.

For decades, Hilton Cheong-Leen was prominent in Hong Kong’s business and political landscape. Born in British Guiana in 1922, he came to the city with his parents when he was nine. A self-made man, he founded a trading company specialising in the importation of Swiss watches, while becoming active in efforts to improve local government. In 1954, he co-founded the Hong Kong Civic Association together with professionals from different sectors, as well as alumni from La Salle College, to offer a platform for those wishing to advance the city’s political and social development. It remains Hong Kong’s oldest civic group to this day.

Popularly elected in 1957 to the Urban Council, which oversaw municipal services in the city including leisure and cultural services and public hygiene – Hilton Cheong-Leen held the seat for the next 34 years. In 1981, he became the first Chinese person to become its chairman.

His strong leadership and devotion to public service, as reflected in his relentless pursuit of free education for all children, arts for the public and gradual democratic government reform, earned him the nickname “Hong Kong’s mayor”. He also played a key role in conveying in London moderate but progressive views on democracy to senior officials then charged with Hong Kong affairs. In the 70s and 80s he did two stints as a member of the Legislative Council (LegCo).

In compiling the collection of her father’s papers for the CUHK Library, Flora says that, with the help of the Civic Association, she gathered items scattered among family members locally and overseas. “We feel that these belong to Hong Kong society, not to us. We are so proud that the collection has found its new home in the CUHK Library.”

The collection, now preserved in the Library’s Special Collections section, comprises over 150 letters exchanged between Cheong-Leen senior and officials from the Hong Kong and British governments, the texts of 80 speeches, some 200 photos, over 20 volumes of its proceedings and Hong Kong Hansard entries, which record Legco proceedings. The collection is being digitised and is expected to be open to the public in the first quarter of next year. More items are expected to be donated.

While the late Cheong-Leen is remembered as a staunch advocate for making arts and culture accessible to all, his daughter recalls a “clash” with him in the late 1970s over the Urban Council’s plan to build a major cultural complex in Tsim Sha Tsui (the future Space Museum, Hong Kong Museum of Art and Cultural Centre) on the site of the decommissioned Kowloon-Canton Railway terminus. Flora, then in her late teens, campaigned to save the terminus from demolition.

“I believed in history and that the train terminus would be the best museum if we could keep it. I collected tens of thousands of signatures in a petition to save it,” says Flora. “My dad asked me to slow down and do some research. He did not stop me, though. Despite frequent differences of opinion, he always gave me a free hand to do what I believed in.” In the end, the terminus’ clock tower was saved from the wrecker and, today, stands near the Star Ferry piers as one of Hong Kong’s iconic landmarks.

Returning to the present, Flora, having taken up the vice-chairmanship of the Hong Kong Civic Association, plans to rejuvenate the organisation her father co-founded before she was born. “I hope to bring back the internationalism that marks Hongkongers. I will invite new members to join us and think of ways to help young people.”

By Joyce Ng
Photos by LCT


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