Eric Yuon Fuk-lung gave up his lucrative university professorship to teach the least academically successful Band 3 students in Tai O. Every day for 13 years, he wakes up at 5am and spends two and a half hours travelling from Fo Tan to Tai O. What motivates a person to make such a sacrifice? According to Principal Yuon of the Buddhist Fat Ho Memorial College, there is only one simple answer: love.

Band 3 students can excel

63-year-old Principal Yuon is a former university professor who taught sociology and humanities at the City University of Hong Kong (CityU), the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and other higher education institutions for more than 20 years. In 2009, he made the unconventional decision of leaving his high-paying job to become the principal of the Buddhist Fat Ho Memorial College (BFHMC). “Initially, I took a two-year sabbatical leave to work as a principal here. Fortunately, my wife did not mind the reduced salary at all. 13 years have passed in a blink of an eye, and I am still here,” he shares. The BFHMC is committed to its mission of true inclusivity, rejecting the idea of screening out student applicants who may be considered academically challenged or deviant just to achieve good grades or move to a higher banding. Principal Yuon strives to create an environment where even the outcasts of the education system can thrive: “I want to show students in Hong Kong that success is not just about winning at the starting line, but about when to work hard. With motivation, any student can have tremendous growth in a year or two.”

Described by Principal Yuon as a school of deviants, the BFHMC is a Band 3 Direct Subsidy Scheme (DDS) school in Tai O. With a student population of 260, children in each form are divided into three classes. Remarkably, non-Chinese speaking students make up 60% of the student population, representing over 10 nationalities such as the Philippines, Pakistan, Nepal and Russia. The majority of students live in Yat Tung Estate in Tung Chung, while others are scattered across Lantau Island in Mui Wo, Pui O, Shui Hau and more. Most are children of grassroots families and recipients of the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) Scheme. Despite having a relatively small number of students, the BFHMC has hired more than 30 teachers – creating one of the lowest teacher-student ratios among all secondary schools in Hong Kong. On average, each teacher is responsible for seven to eight students. Teaching at the BFHMC is particularly challenging due to the high proportion of problematic students, as Principal Yuon openly admits. Nevertheless, he has remained steadfast in his goal of equal education opportunities for the past 13 years: “Most of these students will not get into a university because of their poor grades. However, the least I could do is to shape them into responsible, motivated individuals.”

Despite the common perception that Band 3 students can only barely make it as Form Six graduates, students at the BFHMC have shattered this stereotype by proving themselves to be capable albeit sometimes disobedient. For eight years, they have won the Multi-faceted Excellence Scholarship (MES) from the Home Affairs Department, of which only 24 applicants are awarded annually. For six years, they have won the Student of the Year Awards from the South China Morning Post. Last year, nine BFHMC students successfully got into university through the HKDSE examination, including admission to the well sought-after Department of Civil Engineering at HKU, the CUHK School of Architecture and the Department of Land Surveying and Geo-Informatics at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). Such outstanding academic achievements are very rare in a local Band 3 school. While the students attributed their success to Principal Yuon, he humbly told them, “Your achievements belong to you. I simply believe in you.” Principal Yuon points out that many people do not believe Band 3 students can excel: “These students are often perceived as ex-convicts, recipients of the CSSA Scheme or children of broken families. At the BFHMC, we believe in each and every student in our school, and they have proven themselves to be successful individuals. This is what makes our school unique.”

The BFHMC has taken in two stray dogs into its care: Panda, a black and white border collie, and Big Ben, a majestic Bernese Mountain dog. Principal Yuon, who treats them as his sons, made it clear to his students that any derogatory behaviour towards the dogs would not be tolerated.

Once a father, always a father

With a remarkable 80% popularity rating at school, Principal Yuon proudly states, “All my students call me Dad. My job is easy because my students know I care for them deeply. I maintain a clear boundary with them as a school principal without resorting to scolding, confrontation or insults. I love my students, and they all know it.” To underscore his commitment to his students, Principal Yuon has made his spacious office an inviting space that is always open to them. “Students at other schools may have never had the chance to enter the principal’s office. Meanwhile, I share a close bond with all my students.” Principal Yuon’s fatherly love extends beyond the school campus to the alumni and even his students that are now serving time: “I visit my students in prison regularly. I recently received a call from the parents of an alumnus, who had driven to Tai O on vacation and bought a can of soda on the way. Frustrated that the soda had lost its fizz, he wanted to throw the can out of the car window, but accidentally hit an electric pole with his car, causing a power outage in Tai O. In desperation, he resorted to drug trafficking to pay for the HK$100,000 fine for damaging public property and was eventually arrested. When I visited him in prison, he questioned why I was there. I asked him, ‘What do you call me?’ He answered, ‘Dad.’ I reassured him that our ‘father-son relationship’ would never be shattered, which is why I visited him. He burst into tears upon hearing my words.” Rather than raising his students’ university admission rate, Principal Yuon believes that his greatest achievement as the principal of the BFHMC is letting his students know that there are people in the world who love and cherish them, aside from their parents, so they will not give up on themselves. He says, “I hope our approach can touch the public’s hearts, so that these children will receive more love and attention.”

Principal Yuon’s empathy is another reason behind his strong rapport with his students. “A student once insulted me using foul language in front of the vice principal. I asked her to meet with me privately, apologised for any discomfort I might have caused her and let her go. When she asked me why I did not punish her, I told her that her hatred towards the principal is not a violation of school regulations.Yet, since foul language is not appropriate on campus, I advised her to avoid such language in front of the vice principal in the future. Before she left my office, I offered her some candies and asked if there was anything I could do to ease her hatred. When she asked why I wanted to know, I answered, ‘You are my daughter, of course I want you to like me.’ Ever since then, she greeted me every morning until her Form Six graduation. Perhaps she did not resent me, but rather my title. It is possible that she had been punished by other principals in the past, and I was simply a scapegoat for her resentment. I respected her feelings when she insulted me – perhaps she had had a huge fight with her boyfriend or her family the night before. There are often many reasons behind students’ misbehaviour, which is why I never punish them.”

BFHMC “Fat Ho Knights” cycling team assembled!

Cultivating the “walker” spirit in students

Over the course of his 13-year tenure, Principal Yuon has founded the “Fat Ho Walker” and “Fat Ho Knights”, and led his students in the Oxfam Trailwalker for 13 consecutive years. In 2019, he led the “Fat Ho Knights” on a 2,800-kilometre cycling journey from Hong Kong to Beijing. The 31-day adventure broke new ground in the academic field. Principal Yuon admits that these physical challenges are merely a means to an end. Building students’ confidence and willpower is the ultimate goal. “I actually hate hiking. As a former university professor, I enjoy quiet activities such as listening to music and reading books at home. However, to teach at the BFHMC, I must find activities that my students and I can do together.” When Principal Yuon first took office 13 years ago, he struggled to find the best activities for his students. He tried having the entire school memorise English vocabulary every day, but the students quickly forgot them. Eventually, he realised that muscle memory was the key to longterm retention, which is why he began hiking with his students. Starting with a modest one-kilometre walk each day, he and his students have since pushed themselves to be “better than they were yesterday”. He recalls, “When I was told that the Oxfam Trailwalker was the toughest physical challenge, I decided to give it a go during my second year at the BFHMC. That year, I participated with the vice principal and two teachers, and we challenged ourselves to walk 100 kilometres within 48 hours. We barely completed the journey after 47 hours and 43 minutes of gruelling exertion. My feet were so blistered that the teachers begged me to quit in tears, but I persevered. I originally thought I would only participate in the Oxfam Trailwalker for a year or two, yet I have been doing it every year.”

Grateful to be an instrument of God

Principal Yuon sets a new goal for his students every year. This year’s slogan is GROW, with each letter representing gratitude, respect, optimism and willpower. Out of these four values, Principal Yuon believes gratitude is paramount. In fact, his gratitude towards God is what led him to become the principal of the BFHMC. “I deny others’ compliments towards my intelligence not because I am trying to be modest, but because I feel fortunate to have received so much help from other people. I am not a successful principal, but a hard-working one,” he shares. As a devoted Christian, he sees himself as an instrument of God. Grateful for his two intelligent and reliable children, he feels responsible to give back to society by helping other students. “Not only do I treat my students as if they were my children, but I use the same teaching methods at school and at home too. Rather than aiming for success or wealth, I simply ask my children to become useful members of society. Now, my kids have gone on to become a doctor and a lawyer. My son said our family is doing well not because we make a good salary, but because all our professions can help people and contribute to society. I hope my students will share my son’s values.”

Principal Yuon may have done the most home visits among all principals in Hong Kong. “I have never had a failed home visit. My power is 10 times that of a teacher,” he boasts. One particularly challenging case involved a student who had been absent from school for three years, spending his days at home playing video games. Not only were social workers turned away when they visited him, but he also fled his home when his teacher visited. However, when Principal Yuon intervened, the student could not refuse to open the door. “When I entered the house, I saw my unkempt student and stacks of instant noodle bowls reaching up to the ceiling. On my third home visit, he finally agreed to go out for a bowl of noodles with me. Yet, he still refused to go to school. I continued to visit him for six months until one day he suddenly returned to school. When I asked him why, he admitted that he had wanted to go back to school after the first few visits but did not know how to take the first step. Even when the student ran late, I refrained from scolding or punishing him. Surprisingly, he became one of the students who participated in the Oxfam Trailwalker with me. Cases like this have given me the greatest sense of satisfaction in my teaching career.”