By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Running two weeklies for 37 years is daunting in this internet age. I credit my strength to… nuns.
I was raised by a village of nuns. My alma mater, Sacred Heart Canossian College (SHCC), primary and high school, in Hong Kong, was founded and run by Italian nuns since 1860.
I have a confession to make. Some of my classmates have no fond memories of the nuns. Probably, they were too strict. It’s not my experience, though. I didn’t dislike them even if I never felt close to them, except one. Instead of explaining why what we did was wrong, the nuns’ tendency was to punish hard, scold mercilessly, and induce fear. They were supposed to have been married to God, the merciful. How could we girls make them so angry at times? My classmates had never done anything to deserve to be hit! I still remember a nun slapping my former high school classmate hard after she flirted with boys from our neighboring school.
A decade ago, my attitude changed—all because of a reunion with people I had not been able to connect with for years. I was touched profoundly after visiting Sacred Heart’s old chapel, its new building, the next generation of SHCC students, and the nuns, of course.
Our former principal, a nun, who was in a wheelchair, must have been over 80 years old. Her toughness vanished, and her humanity revealed. Like a sweet child longing for affection, she told us, “Give me a kiss.” Happily, we embraced her with a kiss. It was a moment of love which I cherished. I knew then, my negative feelings towards some of the nuns melted away. Moments like these, gradually made me realize how much I owed my alma mater for my personal journey.
Since then, I have attended four reunions, including its 150th anniversary in Hong Kong and a recent trip to Toronto. Several of my former classmates have settled in Toronto. They organized a three-day reunion, filled with lavish dinners and fun programs.
Nuns were part of my childhood
There weren’t nuns at the reunion. But their presence was deeply felt. Their names were often mentioned in our conversations, especially their nicknames. The ones without nicknames were probably nice, and had no idiosyncrasies.
The nuns taught us science, Bible studies, sewing, and other subjects. I guessed when the school couldn’t find a teacher, the nuns were handy and filled in. Some became our principals who led us through storms and glories.
All died some time ago. They ascended to heaven, I presume.
We girls were often curious about the nuns’ lives. What was underneath their habit and skirt from head to toe? Did they have long hair or did they shave their heads like Buddhist nuns? What was their living quarters like (off limits to us students)? My son never understood why I was so interested in watching a movie about nuns a few years ago. He went with me anyway. He will get it after reading this article.
The nuns shaped our values, whether we girls liked it or not. Their duty was to serve with no questions asked, until the day they died, and certainly with no financial reward. They taught us to give selflessly and tirelessly for the greater good. Early in my career, I learned to earn everything not through shortcuts, but through sacrifice, hard work, conviction, and discipline. It’s not in my nature to take things for granted.
Grit was what the nuns instilled in me. Their relentlessness had taught me to keep the Northwest Asian Weekly and Seattle Chinese Post afloat so we can inform, inspire, and empower others, even though sometimes, the mission seems impossible, and the challenges are daunting.
“I am who I am because of you,” goes a Japanese saying. I am part of SHCC’s nuns’ legacy. For this, I am truly grateful.
Italian nuns different from French nuns?
In my junior year, I volunteered after school at St. Paul’s Convent Legion of Mary, run by French nuns. Each church and Catholic school had its own Legion of Mary program, a volunteer arm for youth to do charitable work, including visiting tuberculosis patients in a hospital, squatter huts (people didn’t have money, built illegal huts on a hill), and fishermen’s children, teaching them how to read. Those squatter huts have long disappeared from Hong Kong, its residents relocated to government housing.
St. Paul’s and Sacred Heart were both girls’ schools. We were not exactly rivals, but the Heartists were competitive in nature. I didn’t want to join my own school’s Legion team. It’s more convenient to join after-school activities at St. Paul’s than SHCC, as it only took 10 minutes to walk from home. My aim was to serve, as well as meeting new friends. The French nuns were more easy-going and fun-loving than Italian nuns.
I never saw any French nuns stop girls in the hallway for their uniform skirts being too short. Well, St. Paul’s girls’ skirt length would be unacceptable at SHCC.
The French nuns enjoyed talking and joking with students a lot. Never had I joked with any of SHCC’s nuns. Not that I didn’t want to, I was too scared.
One notable difference was that, we addressed St. Paul’s nuns as sisters, and Sacred Heart’s as mothers. The power of a mother over a child is immense, and Italian nuns’ expectation of obedience from the students was unwavering.
I was ready for a change after my high school graduation. I wanted to transfer to St. Paul’s for my pre-college education (called Lower Six in Hong Kong). At the time, St. Paul’s principal, and also adviser for Legion of Mary, had verbally accepted before I even applied for the school.
But my mother objected, “What’s wrong with Sacred Heart?” There was nothing wrong. I was accepted in a class representing the best and brightest of SHCC graduates, majoring in liberal arts. I should be in heaven, but…What could I do with a liberal arts degree besides teaching? Many wanted to get in, but were rejected.
However, everything was wrong with me, I wanted to tell my mom, but lacked the courage to challenge her. In Chinese culture, as well as nuns’ culture, we were raised not to talk back to elders and superiors. I call it the “Good Girl” syndrome, not rocking any boats. I hated the hour-long bus ride to commute to SHCC before and after school, not to mention I had to transfer two buses one way. My heart left SHCC that year, and my soul was in turmoil. I didn’t want the same old SHCC routine—constantly studying and stressing over exams like my high school years. I needed a new environment to help me think through what I wanted to do with my life. How could I make my own footprint? Should I get a job or go to college? My parents had not made the commitment to support me through college. I was lost, lonely, restless, and frustrated. Looking back, what I needed was counseling and guidance, and a break from school to sort through things. But in Hong Kong, school counselors were unheard of, and teachers were too busy with a huge workload.
My mother’s objection ended my desire for change and dream for a new school. The silver lining was, I had created a dream for another fellow student instead. Virginia Ma, whose face was burnt and scarred from a fire years ago, was rejected by SHCC.
With regret, I told St. Paul’s sister that I wouldn’t be attending their school.
But would she be open to having another Sacred Heartist, Ma, who had a disfigured face and was fingerless on parts of both hands? Without even meeting Ma, sister said yes instantly. I had lost touch with Ma, for four decades, since leaving for America.
At the SHCC reunion in 2009, former classmate Rosena Lee said, “Remember Virginia Ma?”
“How could I not?” I was overjoyed to hear Virginia’s name.
“Virginia told me the whole story, of how you helped her,” Lee said. Ma and I were reunited in 2015. Ma graduated from college and became a teacher.
At the recent reunion, Lee took my photo so she could send it to Ma. It reminded me that Ma’s story in overcoming adversity is just as enlightening and inspiring as other alumni’s success story. She might not make as much money as a doctor, lawyer, banker, and not even in a high-profile job like SHCC’s most prominent alum Anson Chan, Chief Secretary in both the British colonial government of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government under the Chinese sovereignty. But her steely will to survive and succeed in completing her education, is incredible. While we normally use a thumb and four fingers to hold a pen, she has only two. Yet, her Chinese penmanship is gorgeous and she writes fast. Her optimism is contagious.
There was a surprise at the last reunion. A former teacher, Miss Vivian Wong, showed up at the dinner. She was our English literature teacher, who had retired in Toronto. Though petite, she still looks wonderful at 79. In our days, she was one of the few teachers who was well-respected, and also many students’ favorite teacher, including my late classmate Diana Wong.
“I am Assunta Ng,” as I went to say hi. “Can I have your speech?” And her writing was beautiful.
What Miss Wong said was not only amazing, but endearing to my heart. “I had taught two Assuntas, one is Assunta Ng and the other, Assumpta Koo.“
She remembered me, among the hundreds of students she taught! I was a mediocre student in her class, my last year at SHCC, a lackluster academic period. The only consolation was, I bonded with 12 remarkable classmates, who have supported me in good and bad times ever since.
There was pain and joy in the room. A couple of classmates had passed away.
Some classmates’ spouses had just died. Tears were streaming down one classmate’s cheeks.
What dominated the room was mostly laughter, smiles, and lots of photo snapping. SHCC might be a girls’ school, but 15 gentlemen came nevertheless. By marriage, they had become die-hard SHCC fans.
As we bid farewell to one another, we look forward to seeing each other soon in Hong Kong for the big 50. I am sure some of the nuns would join us. But they won’t be the ones who raised us, and they won’t be Italian. These younger and mostly Chinese nuns are now the face of SHCC, since China has reclaimed Hong Kong from the British in 1997.
When I meet these nuns later this year, I will thank them for being role models and mentors, and most importantly, developing young women to be leaders to make a difference in society.
Long live Sacred Heart.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.