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Seven years of plenty was but a curtain-raiser to seven lean years

 

The taming of the unruly ground snuggled between Kowloon Tong and Kowloon City began in 1931 and, before the year was out, a grandiose-looking structure featuring a domed entrance had advanced sufficiently for classes to begin on December 3, with eight classrooms and a staff of five brothers and four lay teachers.

Preparing the land was not an enviable job in the days before heavy earth-moving equipment, as a hill had to be removed and, because the geomancy (fung shui) of the site, it was ideal for a cemetery, and the Tung Wah Hospital Authority had to be contracted to remove the hundreds of graves at a cost on £1.00 each.

However, foundation student, Jack Lao, remembers hundreds of earthenware jars stacked around the soccer ground, which he said the Chinese boys stayed well away from, but the westerners liked to break and play with the bones.

Nevertheless, by January 1932, the school, with an enrollment of 540, about half of whom were of Portuguese descent, was ready to begin in earnest, and with Brother Aimar as first director, eight brothers and 30 borders took up residence and on January 12, Bishop Enrico Valtorta blessed the building and celebrated the first Mass in the school hall.

The early days laboured under the pressure of continuing construction on the still partially finished structure, leaving a permanent layer of granite dust on the floors that held the prints of hundreds of feet that transferred the grime to every classroom floor.

Blackboards had not yet arrived and both brothers and students had to improvise until the usual equipment could be finished and installed.

Science laboratories were also still on the drawing board, but by August, at least some were in working order thanks the diligence of Brother Cassian, who was later to be principal of the college.

However, maybe one of the greatest first-year achievements was the success of a matriculation class, whose graduates qualified for entry into Hong Kong University.

Much of the credit is given to 24-year-old Irish Brother Michael Curtain, who managed to teach subjects as diverse as mathematics, English, geography, literature and history.

However, as much as the opening of an educational institute of great note, the grandiose nature of the building attracted widespread attention around the colony.

Bishop Valtorta wrote, “When the brothers informed me of their plans for a college, I expected a beautiful building. But what has materialised has gone beyond anything I dared to expect.”

He added, “Many regard it as the most beautiful in Hong Kong, but others claim it is the most beautiful in East Asia.”

In congratulating the bothers, he went on, “And if today there is a flourishing Christian community in Hong Kong, it is thanks to the education that the youth have received from the brothers.”

A local newspaper wrote, “Crowned by an impressive dome, the main building presents a sight, aesthetically pleasing. Much of the exterior facing is done in Shanghai plaster, hardly distinguishable from the adjoining granite blocks.”

The newspaper waxed eloquent over the new chapel saying that although it was still incomplete on the day of its official blessing, which Bishop Valtorta accomplished in a few minutes with a swish of holy water, “Little imagination, however, is required to give one an impression of its finished appearance. The window above the altar, so beautifully patterned, is a most effective and impressive piece of work.”

The chapel was a great addition to the school as, by the end of the year, the student body had grown to 590 with over half Catholic, and, the school chronicle notes, 15 baptisms were recorded during the year.

The reputation of the school grew far and wide, with the roll showing boarders from far flung places like Indo-China, the Dutch Indies, Java, The Philippines (especially mixed blood boys), Siam, Singapore, Malaya and India, as well as Russia, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela.

The college continued to develop during the 1930s and by the end 1936 had pipped the Jesuit-run Wah Yan College in Wan Chai as the largest in Hong Kong with 945 pupils.

It had changed the dates of its academic year to coincide with the university and had also become a cosmopolitan, interfaith, educational institution of note.

In an age where such gestures were rare from a Catholic institution, the school was floodlit, and the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish students came together to mark the ascension of George VI to the throne of England in 1936 and pray for God’s blessing on his reign.

Of course, no brother’s school is complete without sporting achievements and success in the pool, as well as on the cricket, hockey and football fields has been a feature of life at La Salle.

A display of trophies in the college foyer saw the Governor’s Shield for Athletics living happily beside the Bishop’s Cup for Religious Instruction.

A scout group was added in 1937 with the promotion of music and drama, and as the enrollment continued to climb with its academic achievement, the school hunkered down to face the upcoming reality of war.

Prize giving day 1938 became memorable as the end of seven years of plenty, which are now remembered as but a curtain-raiser to seven lean years.

The worst began on 8 December 1941 when at 8.00am, with Japanese planes flying overhead and bombs falling, the bothers gathered the entire school into a covered area to inform them that it was game over, examinations would be cancelled and everyone was being sent home.