In Retrospect: The Conference Program

By James Tong (WYHK '58, WYK '65) Chair, 2000 International Program Committee

I often wonder what people would say or do first when they reconnect after thirty years. At least for Joseph Wong (Toronto chapter) and I, he did not introduce his family to me. We did not exchange business cards, or looked for a place to sit or headed for the bar. I don't remember what we said aside from the mutual compliment, uttered in honest amazement -- "You haven't changed in all these years!" Some unrecorded time later, we were joined by Gus Yeung, and the subject drifted to the days when we were sitting next to each other in P. 6B, in the classroom above the ping-pong tables and underneath the cafetaria. The subject changed again when we spotted Lee Sai-kin, who just arrived with his daughter from Burgos, Spain, where he taught Comparative Literature. Then flashbacks to those days and nights before our last promotion, our current job interview, getting citizenship and permanent residence, even before marriage and childbirths, college graduation, the send-off at Kai Tak, and the more memorable farewell at the Ocean Terminal, amidst the parting siren at midnight, and the tearful singing of "Auld Lang Syne".

"Winter will be cold without warm memories,' quibbled Gary Grant in "An Affair to Remember". I am sure that some alumni came for, and almost all went back with memories that would keep them cozy through many winters. But the Conference Program Committee was given a less sentimental task. Our job was not to be tourist guides to the memory lane, but to pack all the business agenda in the two-day program. Like all previous conferences, the school principals and supervisors, of course, need to deliver their respective reports, as did the International Convener. We also need to know what local chapters were doing, and to give the two student ambassadors their turns. Then we need to select the host of the next conference.

But we wanted to do more for the millenium conference, and we set for ourselves four additional goals. Our first order of business, after deciding on the conference venue, was to invite former teachers and Fathers to attend. Unlike us students, most of whom spent 5-7 years in Wah Yan, our teachers had spent almost their entire professional lives in our schools. They were witnesses, coaches, and cheer-leaders in our transformation from pre-teens to young adults. In our conference, we were fortunate to have the company of Frs. Anthony Farren, Joseph Foley, George Zee, former Vice Principals Raymond Yu and Anthony Ho, as well as former teachers Lai Ping-cheung, Wilson Hsueh, Francis Kong, Mui Ken-koon, Lawrence Tam, and Wong Chin-wah. We missed the presence of Mrs. Helena Lee and Ms. Winnie Ting, who had to cancel their attendance due to family obligations and the Untied Airlines strike. We were touched by the magnanimous generosity of Mr. Lai, who not only put up "Close" signs in his two San Francisco restaurants, but made a substantial scholarship donation to Wah Yan, Kowloon. Those of us who attended the dinner at the Queen Mary's were blessed with indelible memories of the moving speeches of Mr. Tam and Mr. Mui, and the spontaneous, "Sunday Night Live" performances of Messr. Wong Chin-wah, Francis Kong, and Wilson Hsueh. To our regret, we realize only after the dinner that Fr. Foley was ready to sing the Cantonese theme song in "Foon Lok Kam Siu"

Second, we wanted to recognize and introduce some prominent alumni to the conference. Our initial attempt to invite distinguished alumni (Donald Tsang, Martin Lee, Gordon Wu, Wayne Wang, Michael Suen, John C.C. Chan) to be conference keynote speakers did not meet with much success, as prior engagements and more pressing priorities precluded their attendance. We were more successful with three other initiatives. We were able to persuade Larry Yip from Vancouver to do his Elvis' numbers, a highlight of the Gala dinner on Saturday. We invited alumni from well-known businesses in Hong Kong (Stephen Ng of Wharf Cable), San Francisco (Patrick Lo of Netgear), and Los Angeles (Dunson Cheng of Cathay Bank), to speak on what they learnt and did not learn from Wah Yan. For each of the four formal conference sessions, we asked a leading alumnus with community-visibility from different chapters to chair the session (Cheng Lap-yan from New York, Sunny Sie from Toronto, Joseph Hui from Vancouver, Philip Ching from Hong Kong).

Third, to add visual impact, we incorporated multi-media presentations in the program. We asked the principals of both Wah Yan campuses to present part of their school reports in video format. The two student ambassadors also prepared their side shows. We asked the prominent alumni who could not give keynote addresses to send us their video-taped messages, to which Gordon Wu and Martin Lee obliged, as did Fr. Deignan. These were shown in the Gala Dinner, where our visual feast also included a documentary history of Wah Yan, so artistically produced by Nicholas Tsui. Like gratuitously stumbling into a long-lost family photo-album, the instantaneous exclamations of recognition from the audience were clearly audible, as images of Hong Kong Wah Yan's fish pond or the young Frs. Farren and Foley flashed on the screen.

Fourth, we did not want the conference to be merely a venue for nostalgia or a routine annual general meeting. We wanted not only to review what Wah Yan had done for us, but also to ask what we can do for Wah Yan. In that spirit, we invited local chapters to present proposals to support Wah Yan in the last formal session. Among the proposals were those for a Jesuit retirement fund, a program to support Wah Yan students to attend international chess tournaments, and scholarships to attend colleges abroad. We are happy to report that these proposals did not end when the conference adjourned. Both the San Francisco and the U.S. Eastern Chapters are making progress on their respective scholarship programs after the conference.

I have to admit that in executing these tasks, our implementation sometimes fell short of our lofty goals. We did not design a program for the student ambassadors until they arrived. Several chapters sent in contributions for full-page advertisements in the program book but only got half-page credits. Some attendees were quoted room rates higher than the conference rates. We did not anticipate the close contest to host the next conference and did not deliberate on voting procedures ahead of time, with the result that the well-organized and well-prepared Vancouver Chapter narrowly lost the bid. As conference program chair, I want to apologize to our alumni for these and other omissions for which I bear primary responsibility.

There is a long list of people to thank. Fr. Deignan made numerous calls to solicit participation of prominent alumni. The many KB of emails that I received from Principals Tam and So testify to their arduous efforts to prepare for the conference. Veteran alumnus Philip Ching offered invaluable advice and nipped crises in the bud. Former Vice Principals Ho and Yu contacted the retired teachers to attend and persuaded the recalcitrants. To be explicit, one such recalcitrant was Mr. Francis Kong, who cancelled his non-refundable vacation package and postponed his Tokyo holiday with a young lady to spend time with his former students. He should blame Larry Yip, Vancouver Super Cop, who must have deployed excessive force on the Tokyo sakuza to track down the unlisted phone number of Mr. Kong's vacation condo. For many other alumni, I have to attribute to their generosity, not my or Larry's threat to use force, to secure agreement of their participation as speakers and moderators of conference sessions.

Within our chapter but outside the Board of Directors, Paul L.S. Lee, Dunson Cheng, Peter Sien, Peter Fan, Paul Fan, Thomas Chan, James Tam, Patrick Lam, Alfred Wong provided sponsorship of teachers and Fathers; Wilfred Lam and Paul H. Lee accepted the burden to be the Masters of Ceremonies of the Gala Dinner, Dominic Chu served as its musical director, whipping the hastily assembled directors' choir into unison. As count-down began, board directors attended the monthly, then biweekly, then weekly, then multiple meetings a week for conference planning. Several did more. As chapter secretary, John Chiu was the conference historian, keeping detailed records; Eric Yew handled raffle tickets and coordinated airport pick-up, while Gavin Lam directed traffic to and from local chapters in the information highway. Robert Lee was the resident artist and program book editor, Raymond Chan was his internet counterpart and the conference Webmaster, while Franky Low served as the impresario for the multi-media production. On the conference site, Peter Leung was the house-keeper and conference manager, assisted by Robert Chow who served as floor manager. Matthew Lau and alta ego Bay Cheung supervised conference registration, David Yuen provided the decor, while Bill Mak and Kathy Young planned the shopping spree for the spouses. Pius Lee managed the myriads of details for the Gala Dinner, from choosing the menu to providing entertainment. It was Pius who decided to screen the explosive clip showing our President Albert Young being sexually harassed by an attractive female magician though he showed no sign of physical or psychological duress. In his spare time as victim, Albert teamed up with Past President William Ying as Co-chairs of the Conference.

"Education is what remains after you have forgotten everything!" Fr. Patrick Toner used to say. Most of us, indeed, have forgotten many of the chemical formulae, historical minutiae, or Longfellow's sonnets in Fr. Toner's poetry class. Nonetheless, memories of our first day of school, cafetaria meals and class picnics linger on. And at least for those who attended the 7th International Conference, we were also reminded of those days when we first heard of Newton and Pascal, recited Blake and So Tung Bo, scaled the driveway or ascended the steps to attend the midnight Mass. Along the way, many teachers had corrected our misspellings, priests pointed the way, and classmates lent their willing ears and helping hands. I am still in amazement how a high school reunion can retrieve so vividly and effortlessly the sights and sounds archived so deep in the recesses of our memory files and folders.

Until the next International Conference, we are ready for the winters.