I HAVE played the words over and over in my mind: ‘Don’t let anyone tell you The Salvation Army isn’t in China – it is, because Hong Kong is part of China.’
That is the analysis of Lieut-Colonel Ian Swan, the Salvation Army officer in charge of Hong Kong. Strictly speaking, Hong Kong is an autonomous ‘Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China’, but the colonel is right – The Salvation Army in Hong Kong, with its churches and wide-ranging social provision, is part of China and has been since the British Government handed over the reins in 1997. The vision of The Salvation Army’s Founder, William Booth, that the Army would have a ministry in the country, is still being fulfilled 100 years after the first Army ministry took place there. Hong Kong is remarkable in so many ways – a tip of rocky outcrop on the edge of a massive
landmass, a meeting of traditional British, Chinese and the sleek, ultra-modern. For a firsttime visitor like me, it is unexpectedly beautiful, with a regular sea view or green mountains forming a contrast to endless high-rise buildings.
The built-up and the natural sit side-by-side in surprising harmony. Of course, Ian Swan knows that Hong Kong isn’t the same as mainland China. The Salvation Army engages in community work and emergency responses on the mainland, but they look different from what takes place in Hong Kong. Relationships with the Chinese Government are friendly, but there are still limits on what can happen. On the mainland, there’s no evangelism or church gatherings organised by The Salvation Army. Instead, it is a valuable partner in providing emergency and development services, demonstrating the love of God through action.
The Salvation Army has been active in Hong Kong since 1930. Today, it continues to expand and cope with the changing face of this special administrative region.
In the past decade, hundreds of high-rise apartment buildings have been constructed on Lantau Island. At the heart of the Yat Tung Estate, in Tung Chung, is The Salvation Army’s Lam Butt Chung Memorial School nestled in the heart of tall buildings, like a small child among a sea of adults.
It is a deprived area. The apartment blocks are not old, but they look tatty around the edges. The community is too far from downtown to make commuting viable, but too new to have created its own areas of employment. Many of the families who come to Hong Kong from the mainland are settled here, with a large number unable to work while their papers are processed. In many communities like this, the sense of deprivation and uncertainty translates into desperation and difficulty in the school system, but not at the school. Principal Daniel Lo – a member of The Salvation Army – beams with pride as he shows us around the school. It is not ostentatious, but it is smart and well cared for.
The children show obvious respect not only for their surroundings but also for each other and their teachers. The school has some 700 pupils, ranging in age from 6 to 12. There are some 25 children per class, allowing for a high quality of education. Entry is open for children of any faith or none and the school makes no effort to mask its Christian values and background. Throughout the school, on almost every wall and stairwell, there are illustrations from the Bible – from the story of Creation and Noah’s Ark to scenes of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Simon Wong, who has worked for The Salvation Army for many years, explains that, although less than 10 per cent of Hong Kong is Christian, almost all the top schools are run by Christian organisations. Daniel feels that the Christian underpinning brings extra responsibility to his school. ‘How can you say “Jesus loves you” if you’re not loving your student by teaching them well?’ he asks. Results are positive. The pupils achieve grades that are well above the average expected in such a low-income area. The school’s emphasis is very much on teaching the child while working with the family. Daniel shows us a selection of small rooms, barely more than cupboards, each of which is crammed with an upright piano. These are rehearsal rooms, where children learning the piano can come to practise. There is little or no chance that they would have a piano in their homes. Daniel explains that the school has a strong tradition of music, with its handbell groups receiving local and international recognition. Walking through the school, there is a clear sense of community. It’s approaching Chinese New Year, so special classes are taking place.
In the main hall, some children are learning the traditions of Chinese opera. In classrooms, others are working on ideas of how they would transform unused parking space into a facility that would be useful for elderly people. The timetable includes time for pupils to go into the community to speak with people in order to understand their needs.
In another classroom some of the youngest children are learning traditional board games while, a few steps away in the computer lab, a class is shown 3D-modelling techniques.
From the school, we are taken across the estate by Major Agatha Wong, one of the corps officers (ministers). She links the school and its children with the rest of the people in this community and works alongside The Salvation Army’s Tung Chung Family Support Centre, which operates from a modest office five minutes’ walk from the school.
At the centre, a group of women are gathered in the meeting room. The table in front of them is covered in craft materials. They are making decorations for Chinese New Year. For many of these women, says Agatha, this will be their only social interaction while their children are at school.
This goes to the heart of what the family support centre is doing – providing social links so people look after each other, even if they are no longer surrounded by their wider family.
The social workers we meet paint a bleak picture. People in Tung Chung lack external support. They are isolated because of the distance to Kowloon, where most of the jobs are located, and many people in the area are among the 150 a day from mainland China who are coming to live in Hong Kong as part of a government programme – around 55,000 a year and every year for the foreseeable future.
There are many difficulties that arise with this influx of new people. Language is one barrier, with newcomers speaking Mandarin rather than Cantonese. Some arrive as single parents with children, meaning it is difficult to form social bonds outside the home.
We learn that there is a particular problem with old men from Hong Kong seeking young marriage partners from mainland Chinese villages, some with a 50-year age gap or more. What happens when the young women have children causes a variety of issues. Sometimes the father becomes ill or even dies, leaving a young single mum in an unfamiliar location with no family support. In other instances, the young wife gets her residency papers and then leaves her elderly husband, meaning that – at an age when he struggles to look after himself – he then has to find a way to bring up their children.
In situations like this the family support centre offers practical and emotional help. Their figures show that they have reached about 1,000 families in Tung Chung – and they emphasise that they mainly work with families rather than individuals.
When they have worked successfully with people, usually after a year, the support team encourages them to become mentors, helping others in their community. One person who had computer maintenance skills now helps other families on the estate. Others receive training in hairdressing and then offer their skills in an elderly care centre.
One of the social workers explains: ‘They find strengths they never knew they had.’
The emphasis of the centre is on bringing people together and improving lives so a support network can be built across the community. Elderly people are mobilised to be part of the community, and parents are taught how to look after their children more successfully.
‘After five years,’ I am told, ‘family cohesiveness has risen by 50 per cent.’ Parent-child relationships are improving and there is better communication between the generations.
The centre receives generous support from the Jockey Club of Hong Kong and a funding organisation called The Community Chest. Some of the funding is coming to an end, leaving doubts about how much of the programme will continue. There’s no doubt that the need is great – and likely to become greater. More than 100,000 people are expected to move into the nearby area in the next few years, and that’s without considering the implications of the Pearl River Delta ‘mega-city’ planned by the Chinese Government, which will eventually be accessed by a new bridge from Hong Kong. The mega-city, made up from the urbanisation of land between five cities, has grown from a mostly rural population of 27 million in 2000 to more than 58 million people today – which is just less than the populations of the United Kingdom or Italy. Projections show that this could grow to more than 200 million in the next decade or so.
No one quite knows how the development will affect Hong Kong, but it is likely that the problems being addressed at the family centre in Tung Chung will become more common.
The Salvation Army’s Hong Kong and Macau Command is making every effort to be prepared for the changes that will come in this ‘Special’ part of China and on the mainland. In the meantime, the interaction between the school, corps (church) and family centre that I saw in Tung Chung continues to be a good model.
And, as the school’s brochure makes clear, this ministry is all motivated by the name of Jesus: ‘Our school community,’ says the school vision, ‘in sharing the love and truth of Jesus Christ, will grow in knowledge, maturity and care for others, especially those with greatest needs.’
War Cry 25 June
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