By: Fred Yip 葉柏年
Having been taught by Mr. Kong for three years, beginning in Form 1 and ending in Form 7, I would feel gravely amiss if I do not put in a word or two about the English teacher that I know and deeply respect.
I first entered Wah Yan in 1966 and Mr. Kong was teaching Reading in my Form 1C class. At that time, of all teachers, he was the most feared. Like a drill sergeant in the US Army that one saw in the films, he was very strict with us. He would make anyone who misbehaved in class stand on top of the desk or slap the palm of his hand with a ruler made of either wood or steel. While he was teaching or reading a passage, nobody dared to chat. As he used to say, the place was so quiet that one could almost hear a pin drop. As an English teacher in Reading, he was most concerned about the correct pronunciation of English. I still remember vividly that he would have us drill to no end on ostensibly simple words such as ‘medicine’, ‘constable’, ‘purpose’, ‘wanted’, ‘houses’ until we got them right. Most of us did not have a clue of why he was so hung up about them. Little did we realize that we were having one of the best English teachers anywhere, let alone the fact that it was very important to have a master teacher such as Mr. Kong who could help us develop a sold grounding in English pronunciation during our formative periods.
Even at that early age, I was very impressed by the way he spoke English. He sounded different from anyone that I heard before, and he was absolutely serious about the way in which English should sound. I sensed that if I really wanted to improve my English, Mr. Kong might not be a bad teacher to go to. However, this was not to be had until five years later, when I moved into my matriculation class. At the time, Mr. Kong taught the most junior and the most senior classes, and hardly anything in between.
When I got into Form 6 Arts in 1971, Mr. Kong was my Form Master as well as my English teacher. When he first saw me and my name, he took me by surprise by asking me whether he had taught me before in Form 1, a testament to Mr. Kong’s legendary power of memory. Besides being our instructor in the Use of English, Mr. Kong was also going to teach English Literature since there was enough interest among us. For those of us who had the nerves to take it up as an A-level matriculation subject, we knew from the start that it was not going to be easy. None of us had studied English Literature before. We were, however, willing to take the risks, not only because of our personal interests but for the fact that English Literature was Mr. Kong’s first love and specialty. Indeed, even Mr. Kong admitted that we were placed at a disadvantage, lamenting the fact that Wah Yan did not provide English Literature classes earlier, say Form 4 or Form 5. Otherwise we would have a fighting chance with all those girls from DGS, Maryknoll, St. Mary’s and the like.
Under his guidance, we made a bold foray into the worlds of Shakespeare, Austen, Congreve, Fielding, Swift, Milton and Keats. I particularly enjoyed his lessons when he was doing the reading all by himself, be it a Shakespearean verse or a poem by Keats. It was during those two years in Form 6 and Form 7 that I learned most from Mr. Kong. He brought to life, with practical examples, the various aspects and subtle nuances of the English language, its structure and proper usage - from the British to the American, colloquial to the written, archaic to the new-fangled, technical to the pedestrian, and idiomatic to the proverbial. He added immensely to my understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of the English language and literature, which I have benefited to this day.
I have checked, over the years, on the things that he once taught me, whether it was English pronunciation, grammatical structure, idiomatic usage or the proper choice of words. I find that he hardly ever made any mistakes at all. In retrospect, his accomplishments were truly remarkable, considering that Mr. Kong was only in his mid-30s at the time.
It was also during that time that we got to know Mr. Kong much better, on a personal level. He was no longer the stern task master whom I knew in Form 1. Through his aisles of teaching, Mr. Kong sometimes took digressive strolls into human relationships and current affairs, opera singers and movie stars, travel experiences and personal encounters, which made his lessons all the more engaging and riveting. He was just a fascinating teller of tales, anecdotes and jokes, with a wonderful sense of humour.
Moreover, Mr. Kong was also very generous to us. I recall whenever we were on school picnics, either we stopped for lunch or afternoon tea, he invariably footed the bill for the rest of us. In our final year at Wah Yan before the matriculation examinations, he would put in extra hours for our English Literature class on Saturday mornings. And before we broke up around noon as he had to head for the racecourse, he would ask the school janitor to prepare coffee or tea for us, served with Scottish shortbread or French cookies that he had recently brought back from his overseas trips. The funny thing was that, on the way out, he sometimes had to find a circuitous route if he saw the Fathers coming his way. He never wanted to be late for the races.
At the end of my seventh year at Wah Yan, Mr. Kong had turned himself from initially the most feared into ultimately the most revered.
In the summer of 1999, after he was forced to retire, by regulation, from full-time teaching at Wah Yan, he paid us a visit in Toronto. Our alumni association here hosted a dinner party in his honour in a Japanese restaurant. Before the dinner, someone was showing a video clip with Mr. Kong reciting a poem. That was Mr. Kong doing what he loved best, and I was so gratified to be able to listen to his solo recital again after a lapse of over 26 years. His performance was simply superb. I sure wish that someone out there would still have a copy of that video.
The following day, Dr Joseph Wong and I took him to the Niagara Falls and the neighbouring areas. Throughout the day trip, he was completely frank, open and jovial. He could still roll out the names of all those who took English Literature from him in the early 1970s and how they were doing. Either some were still in contact with him or his amazing memory never failed him. Along the way, he told us so many interesting stories and cracked so many jokes that I had not laughed so hard in a long while. As Clint Eastwood would have said, he made my day.
For years, Mr. Kong had been voted the best-dressed figure at Wah Yan, and it was well known that he paid close attention to how he looked. This was further exemplified by what I saw in Toronto. When I went to his hotel to pick him up for the airport, I noticed that he was fully attired in green, with a tinge of light green on his walking shoes too. What struck me was that even his 3-piece luggage was in matching green as well. While the hotel staff at the front desk were eyeballing him from head to toe, I said to myself. “Mr. Kong, you haven’t really changed one bit since I first met you more than 30 years ago.”
That was the last time I saw Mr. Kong, and what a good time it was while he was here.
For me, Mr. Kong was much more than the Most Senior English Master at Wah Yan. Ever since I have known Mr. Kong, I have been most impressed by his supreme strength of character, manifested through his insistence on speaking and writing proper English, helping others who wanted to learn the language and in short, doing the right things. He had the whole package, inside and out. As an English teacher, he was a role model whom many a teacher could only emulate but could hardly duplicate. His life-long dedication to Wah Yan and unsparing generosity towards its students went far beyond the call of duty. As an individual, Mr. Kong was a stickler who stayed tried and true to his own beliefs throughout his career. His acute sense for minute details and self-worth showed us, without any preaching, that if we set our minds and souls to doing something really well, we can do it and nothing can stand in our way. As a member of the world-wide Wah Yan community, Mr. Kong was an icon, whose unique charisma and an uncanny appreciation and expression of the finer things in life will forever stay in our hearts.
I first got into Wah Yan in the mid-60s and met Mr. Kong, Western rock
and roll music was all the rage. One of the biggest hits at the time was
a song by the Seekers called “I’ll Never Find Another You’’. Whenever I
hear that song, I can’t help thinking of him – the one and only
Mr. Francis Kong.