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Uphill Battles for Dream Seekers

"Few people are going to take the difficult path, if not I, then who? If not now, then when?"


Professor Hon-ming Lam gave a speech on the Speech Day of his alma mater Queen Elizabeth School (QES), a prestigious public secondary school in Hong Kong. on November 30, 2018. It is a highly memorable event for me. He thanked his wife Winnie for editing his speech, and more importantly, for her unyielding support in all his uphill battles. Script lightly edited for clarity.


Dear Principal Chan, Teachers, Parents, Distinguished Guests, and Students,

As a member of the 78FA , I graduated about 40 years ago. (Editor's note: When reaching Form 5 under the old HKCEE system, students were considered graduated, since only less than half of the class could enter matriculation class, a Form Association (FA) would be established then.)

40 years! Wow! So fast! After all these years, I am really glad to have been invited back to my alma mater and take part in such a joyous occasion.

Graduating students, congratulations – on your successful completion of the secondary education. But most importantly, I am congratulating you for you have been groomed and equipped with capabilities to make something of yourselves. Many of you have just taken the stage and received recognition for your achievements, and I am sure, well deserved. You are certainly on the head start to be making something of yourselves. For those who did not get to come up here for the prizes, you are going to have your chances. Today, I am offering you my experience and I dare you, every one of you, to find your calling, to pursue your dreams, and eventually make something of yourself. Frankly, during my years in QES, I was such an under-achiever – I never once thought I could stand up here one day as the guest of honor in our Speech Day. But, here I am. You have no idea how happy I am! And yes, it’s possible. It is possible to pursue your dream and make your alma mater proud. Allow me to take this opportunity to share with you some stories that could give you hope and strength in your endeavors ahead.


Those Were the Days before QES

Being the first-born in a grassroots family growing up in the old Tsz Wan Shan Estate (Editor's note: a demolished resettlement area, where residents only had access to communal restrooms and kitchens. ), I was told early on that I might have to be an apprentice instead of going to secondary school to relieve the family’s financial burden. You know, at that time, we did not have free, compulsory secondary education yet. My parents agreed to let me continue schooling on the condition that the tuition fees would not be too unaffordable. That was the first time when I felt I needed to fight for my future.

Our stories are bound to be different, but we all have our share of uphill battles.

I went to my primary school teachers and asked for some exercise books, used or unused. I got up every day before dawn to drill myself for the Secondary School Entrance Exam. That was 1973. In a recent 78FA reunion, a fellow student shared with me a news clipping, reporting that, of all the primary school students sitting for the exam in 1973, the topmost 141 received the Government Scholarship, having tuition fees waived for the entire 5-year secondary school period. All the names of the recipients were listed and I was one of them! My name appeared in a newspaper! I was admitted to QES, a dream school for almost all my primary school schoolmates. This was my first turn-around.

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Those Were the Days in QES

Mind you, I drilled myself for the exam by brute force. My English was in fact not quite up to the standard. As most of the classes in QES were taught in English, I was devastated. The language barrier caused me to do poorly in class. Besides, you’ve got to know, of the 141 Government Scholarship recipients in 1973, almost 30 were admitted to QES! My form-mates were all very intelligent.

When I got to the fourth form, things got worse for me. I failed nearly all the major subjects. When my class teacher handed the report card to my mother, it was like a surgeon telling the anxiously waiting family outside the operation room that the patient was beyond help, and the family should prepare for the worst. Those were the days, my friends. I thought they’d never end…

If somehow, I have been able to make something of myself, it has to be because I dare to dream, and I dare to fight the uphill battles to actualize my dream.

Walking home behind my mother, looking at her back, I knew I need to put myself together and re-prioritize. My HKCEE results earned me a place in the matriculation class in QES, quite surprisingly, if I may, to me and mostly to many of my form-mates. (Editor's note: the HKCEE Examination was a standardised examination between 1974 and 2011 after most local students' five-year secondary education) So, my second turn-around. Unfortunately, my A-Levels scores were not good enough to get me a place in any tertiary institutions. I spent a year soul-searching and eventually got myself into The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Every time I walk up the slope of QES to enter our school, I cannot help but think back to those days when I fought one uphill battle after another, for survival and for my future. As Scottish writer Samuel Smiles once said: “The battle of life is, in most cases, fought uphill…” Our stories are bound to be different, but we all have our share of uphill battles.


Uphill Battles by Choice

While life presents us with many inevitable uphill battles, we sometimes take on challenges by choice. Some of my choices of uphill battles have shaped me into who I am today and possibly contributed to bringing me in front of you today.

For the last 20 years, I am a scientist working primarily on soybeans. Soybeans are very good stuff. Unlike most plants, they can replenish the nutrients in the soil through its nitrogen-fixing characteristic, thus reducing the need for environment contaminating fertilizers. So, you grow soybeans, reap the harvest, and your soil becomes better. What a great deal!

Let me tell you this, China has 22% of the world’s population, but only 7% of the world’s arable land. China is huge, but also heavily populated. Urbanization of the recent decades has been eating into the farmlands. In addition, some areas are so dry, with little rainfall for plants to grow. Some are plagued by excessive salt. You can’t grow much on these marginal lands that are stressed by drought and salinity.

My research aims at finding cultivars of soybeans that are tolerant to drought and salinity, so we can increase agricultural productivity and enrich the soil of marginal lands, to help farmers improve their living and to contribute to climate-smart agriculture.

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I think my work is quite important. Don’t you agree? The world population grows incessantly, but our Earth does not. To feed the world, we need more arable land. Reclaiming marginal lands is one way I hope my research will help to relieve the imminent crisis. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. Many people in Hong Kong regarding agricultural research as inferior to medical or health-related studies. It’s just not sexy enough. When I began my independent research on soybean 20 years ago, some well-meaning colleagues kindly reminded me that it would be very hard for me to get funding support for agricultural studies in Hong Kong. Indeed, in the beginning, I had to pay out of my own pocket for my fieldwork. There was a time when I had to let go of a few well-trained members of my research team simply because I did not have enough money to keep them.

I admit, my research output came along quite slowly. After all, soybeans take time to grow. Sometimes, adding insult to injury, my soybeans on the fields got eaten by animals! My research often took me to places where “even birds would not lay eggs”, that is practically in the middle of nowhere. I usually had to travel hours on bumpy dirt roads to get there. On many occasions, I have asked myself: why did I take this tortuous and bumpy road? Why didn’t I choose an easier path?

True, I could have chosen an easier path. But if the path is easy, there will be no shortage of people to take it. Few people are going to take the difficult path, if not I, then who? If not now, then when?

My Calling /My Dream

Because of my grassroots upbringing, I have always wanted to do something for the underprivileged who have few resources and limited options in life. One day during my undergraduate study, I attended a seminar. The speaker talked about the grave need for scientists in China to improve people’s livelihood. He pinpointed the emerging discipline of molecular biotechnology and how it was going to change the biological inquiry and shed new light on many lingering problems. It dawned on me then that this was what I wanted to devote my life to doing. People talk about calling. I think I found my calling then and there. For the next year and a half, I worked day and night to salvage my grades in order to secure a ticket to graduate studies. From M.Phil. to Ph.D. to postdoctoral research, I forged ahead knowing what I wanted to do for my life.

True, I could have chosen an easier path. But if the path is easy, there will be no shortage of people to take it. Few people are going to take the difficult path, if not I, then who? If not now, then when?

After more than twenty years of “cultivation”, I am now harvesting. We have built a strong foundation in soybean research. Combining state-of-the-art genomic technology and the traditional wisdom of breeders, my colleagues and I generated new stress-tolerant soybean cultivars for farmers in arid regions of China. My research journey has been extended from basic science to application, from laboratory to fields, from Hong Kong to China and to the world. If somehow, I have been able to make something of myself, it has to be because I dare to dream, and I dare to fight the uphill battles to actualize my dream.


A Few Words of Advice

As I said in my introduction, I wish my story could give you hope and strength to fight your own uphill battles to bring fruition to your dream. Let me give you a few pieces of advice that will come in handy:

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1. Embrace hardship and challenges.

They are in fact blessings in disguise. They are the catalysts that will stimulate your development. Stepping out of the comfort zone to take new challenges is a way to move to the next new level. If one chooses to stay inside his/her comfort zone, he/she will never know the true nature and potential of himself/herself. For a well-protected dormant seed to germinate into a seedling, it takes much energy and courage. There are many unforeseen challenges in the environment. But if a seed never germinates, it remains a dormant seed forever.

2. If it is hard to make big changes, start with small ones.

Sometimes, it looks like that the inertia is too strong and everything seems to be stagnant. However, every small step accumulates to become some significant changes. Here, I would like to share a quote from Lu Xun (Editor's note: Lu Xun was an influential Chinese writer at the turn of the 20th Century.):

“There were no roads. As more and more people tread on it, a path appears.”

3. Build a support network of like-minded people.

As an old African proverb goes:

“If you want to walk fast, walk alone; if you want to walk far, walk together.”

Trust me, the walk is going to be a lot more enjoyable with some good companions. With friends, we are no longer lonely. With teams, we can conquer more challenges.

4. Have a thankful mind.

Be thankful to teachers and others who have been giving you timely and unyielding support. They are expecting you to spread the love and care to others who are in need. Pay it forward.


My dear fellow junior schoolmates, we cannot choose our upbringing; but we can decide how to live our lives. We cannot determine our starting point, but we can pick our path to take. We cannot change the past, but we can transform our future.

Remember our school song: “May knowledge from our works increase, and serve the world and spread the light. Be ours to share an active peace, among ourselves first learned aright.” My younger schoolmates, go find your calling and work at it. Do not short-change yourselves. Make something of yourselves.

Today, I have the privilege to share with you my dream and my story. I am looking forward to listening to your dreams and your stories, in the future that is hopefully not too far away.

Let me end my speech with a more complete version of Samuel Smiles’ quote for you to ponder:

"The battle of life is, in most cases, fought uphill; and to win it without a struggle were perhaps to win it without honor. If there were no difficulties, there would be no success; if there were nothing to struggle for, there would be nothing to be achieved."

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Hon-Ming Lam

Hon-Ming first obtained his B.Sc and M.Phil. degrees at the CUHK, then completed his Ph.D. at Northwestern University, with research interests including climate-smart and sustainable agriculture. He then returned to teach in the School of Life Sciences of CUHK, becoming the director of the Molecular Biotechnology Program, Center for Soybean Research and State Key Laboratory of Agrobiotechnology. As a national expert in plant and agricultural biotechnology, Professor Lam is a visiting professor at four Chinese higher learning institutions as well. Apart from research, he is the Student Hostel Warden of CUHK’s Daisy Li Hall of New Asia College. Professor Lam has published two books, stories from which appear here on The Xylom.

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