I’m at a charity ball in Hong Kong, seated among a hundred guests in a bright room. After the main course, the MC introduces Leo Lu, chairman of the Hong Kong Christian Council’s ‘Rebuilding Collapsing Schools’ Working Group. Lu, with a rounded face and beard tending towards grey, announces, “Ladies and gentlemen,…”
He ploughs through a speech about the hardships faced by schools in China’s mountainous rural regions. Only as he closes does Lu look up. “Thanks to all who have supported us through generous donations.”
Lu’s reading gives no inkling of how strangers – especially children – readily relate to him. Perhaps it’s modesty that prevents the 63-year-old retired Hong Kong schoolmaster from mentioning that he’s helped get many kids from poor-as-churchmice families in China back into the school system, and to rebuild over 243 of their schools and teaching centres.
This article first appeared in the Chinese edition of Reader’s Digest, Nov 2003. Reader’s Digest holds copyright in the text.
Mountain Dog’s Mission of Hope
He’s achieved it by journeying to some of the poorest parts of the nation in search of children in need. Returning to Hong Kong with reports and photos, he encourages sponsors ranging from family members to companies to give generously. At last count RMB $36,400,000 has been raised for the project, and Lu gained a reputation for philanthropy that’s the admiration of peers. “Lu is full of love and compassion,” says the Christian Council’s general-secretary Reverend Eric So.
At the Hong Kong ball, Lu doesn’t mention the tears he’s cried, the ruined schools he’s seen, the ragamuffin kids he’s encountered who have no schooling and few prospects. Nor does he talk about the time he’s dedicated to the project, or how he’s used a big chunk of his own money to help children in the mountains.
To learn of such things, we must travel back to 1993.
It should have been a happy trip. Lu, then headmaster of a Hong Kong primary school, was organising a kids’ baseball competition in the territory and visited Lanzhou in China’s northwest to meet a team he planned to invite. Lanzhou was ringed by barren mountains. Keen to know what life was like for residents up there, Lu asked local officials if he could visit some mountain schools.
They agreed. While driving up an earth road to a village, Lu saw no crops in the dusty fields, and wondered how people survived. At the village, Lu noticed many children playing outdoors, dressed in rags. “Why aren’t you in school?” Lu asked one boy.
“My family can’t afford it.” The child said.
Siblings have to pay school fees
Under China’s One-Child Policy, the firstborn of each family is entitled to schooling, but siblings have to pay fees. In this area, where parents reared children to help with farm work, many kids were outside the school system.
As Lu thought of the children denied schooling, tears flowed down his face. Right then, he resolved to do what he could to change things. He would try to raise money – to help the children.
Lu was born in Kowloon, Hong Kong. His accountant father worked to support his mother, two brothers and six sisters. As the eldest boy, Lu felt responsible for helping his family. So at age 12, he left school to become the family cook.
One day, when Lu had been out of school for about half an academic year, he was sitting idly on steps near his home when a former teacher walked by and asked why he wasn’t attending classes. “Come tomorrow,” said the teacher. “You’ll catch up easily.”
Lu soon became a star pupil, completing his secondary education in four years instead of five. He applied to and was accepted by Sir Robert Black College of Education. After being a teacher for a primary school and a secondary school respectively, he was appointed head of a school in the poor Kowloon district of Wong Tai Sin.
The Yellow Plateau Project
In 1995, with the support of Reverend Eric So, Lu founded the Yellow Plateau Project (renamed ‘Collapsing Schools’ Working Group in 1997 and have since expanded services to the southwest and northwest areas of mainland China), which aim was to fund kids in the mountains who’d been forced out of school through poverty. The project sounded grand, but was effectively a one-man-band operation as no other human resources could be spared for the project at its early stage. In school holidays, Lu headed alone to northwest China on his mercy missions, seeking children who needed financial help. Sometimes he handed out his own money.
He would spend time visiting China during school holidays until he retired as a headmaster in 2001. Since then he’s given HK$500,000 of his retirement money to the “collapsing schools” project. In 2002 alone, he made over ten China trips. Though the outbreak of SARS thwarted some of his plans in 2003, he already made 4 trips to China by August and a couple more are planned for the year.
Tough trips: Mountain Dog
His journeys usually last about 9 days. All involve bone-jarring rides through backcountry. With journeys often proving exhausting, he began to feel he was working like a dog. He nicknamed himself “Mountain Dog,” and the name stuck.
It’s a sunny afternoon in November 2002. Lu is in Guizhou province in southwest China, en route to remote Hezhang County accompanied by three local staff from the Amity Foundation, an independent Chinese Christian charity. Their car halts at a village which boasts a new school, built with funds raised by Lu’s project. Officials escort him to the school grounds. Children swirl round him.
One small boy cries from shyness when Lu bends down to shake his hand. But others laugh as he pulls faces during a short speech. Checking out classrooms, he nods his approval; he can make a positive report on this school.
Lu points to a red banner hanging from a balcony thanking him for his help. “I don’t want this next time,” he says. “It’s a team effort.” Most of the Yellow Plateau Project team remain in Hong Kong, working on publicity and fund-raising; only Lu and one or two other members make inspection trips.
Morning sees Lu back in the car, en route to another school. Lu finds a reception committee waiting by village houses. He is introduced to officials, then the whole band heads for three school buildings on a hilltop.
Lu is dismayed. The two-storey structure’s upper floor has all but collapsed. Part of the roof has fallen in. The other two single-storey buildings’ walls are collapsing round glassless windows.
“Which buildings are in use?” asks Lu. The headmaster tells him that classes are held in all of them. In heavy rain, they have to cancel school.
These premises are the equal-worst of any Lu has seen. But he vows to do his best to produce the 200,000 renminbi needed for a new building. Lu never says he won’t try, never says there’s no hope.
Inspecting another new school, Lu wanders the playground. A girl of a minority group follows him. “How old is she?” he asks. Someone says she’s ten. She can’t go to school because her family is too poor.
Lu is distressed. “Could you get me a list of all the kids who can’t go to school?” he asks the headmaster. He’ll take it back to Hong Kong and hand it to the organiser of the back-to-school project. If there are enough funds, all these children will soon be in classes.
Maybe my heart is in the highlands
With so many schools, Lu rarely gets to know individual mountain children. But he does support two sisters whom he decided were special cases.
Lu learned of the girls five years ago when he was on holiday. A restaurant owner in Long Sheng County, Guangxi province, told him about a family whose mother had died, leaving daughters who would have to leave school if they couldn’t get help. “Their father’s a farmer and can’t afford to support them,” the restaurateur explained.
Lu met one of the girls, Pan Yan Sha, then aged 15. She was downcast. “I know your situation,” Lu said gently. “Do you want to continue your studies?”
“Yes,” Pan replied.
“I’ll support you if you study well, and I’ll support your sister too,” said Lu.
Lu has returned to Long Sheng a few times, and the girls are making good progress with their studies.
Lu confesses he is driven by a desire to get as many children into school as possible. “I often think of myself as a boy, and that teacher who picked me up,” he says. “That was my turning point in life. What about these kids? Do they have a turning point? Is there one kid like me? Can we provide them with a chance for a better life?”
Lu is now expanding his projects so that children supported by the Hong Kong Christian Council who fare well in primary school will have funds to attend secondary school as well. To raise more money, he has devised a “Christmas Stockings for Mountain Kids” scheme during Christmas time, 2003: all Hong Kong primary school children will be given paper stockings in which they can place donations to the mountain kids.
“Maybe my heart is in the highlands,” Lu says.
Written for Reader’s Digest.
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