Upon a Rock

by Richard M. Romney

Associate Editor

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    A light rain was falling when the Star Ferry pulled away from the Kowloon dock. The drops of water formed rings on the sea. Often the ferry is crowded to capacity, riding low in the water. But on this Sunday evening, it was relatively empty. Most of the passengers sat on benches inside, where the yellow glow of light bulbs allowed them to read.

    Over in one corner of the passenger compartment, several young Chinese were talking, smiling, laughing. They weren’t loud or boisterous. They weren’t annoying the other passengers. But they seemed like a spot of particular brightness on an otherwise bleak, gray evening.

    In a few minutes the ferry docked, this time on the Hong Kong side of the harbor. The group of young people made their way up the ramp, past the billboards advertising watches, perfume, and monosodium glutamate, out into the warm, damp night.

    Along the quay, ice cream vendors beckoned customers. A small boy sat on the rocks, casting for fish. Couples strolled aimlessly, using umbrellas to keep the drizzle at bay. Two old men sat on a bench, mildly arguing about how soon the monsoon season would begin. A line of taxis, mostly reds and yellows, blurred in the reflection from the shiny pavement.

    The young people ignored the commercialism of the pier and walked up a steep, winding road. Soon another small group saw them, waved in greeting, and joined them in their walk up the hill. It wasn’t long before they arrived at a sober-looking red brick building, 7 Castle Road, Central, Hong Kong.

    They opened the door and went inside, up the stairs to a large room. There, dozens and dozens of other young people just like them were setting up chairs, engaged in conversations that were as happy and full of life as those who were talking. The room was alive with light—not sunlight or man-made light, but the kind of light that shines from people’s faces.

    These were the young Latter-day Saints of Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the surrounding areas of the British colony, and they had gathered for a regional fireside.

    Windows were opened for ventilation. Overhead fans spun lazily, twisting some life into the stale air. The speaker stood and rested his arms on the podium.

    “The Lord has taught us that we should have merry hearts,” he said. “He has sent us to earth and has given us a plan for joy and rejoicing. Why do we exist? Why does the Church exist? To purify us. God wants his children to be in his kingdom with him. The whole gospel program is to help us find a happy, abundant life in this world and in the world to come.”

    The young audience recognized the truth of what the speaker was saying. Most of them had experienced the miracle of conversion in their own lives. Many had been members of the Church less than a year. After the fireside, sipping soybean milk as a refreshment, some of them talked about life as a Latter-day Saint in Hong Kong.

    (Names are given according to personal preference. In Chinese the family name comes first. Most students in Hong Kong also take an English name when they enter secondary school.)

    Li Sze Wai (John Lee), 17, has been a priest in the West Point Ward of the Hong Kong Island Stake for one year. “I’m trying to get ready to go on a mission. But I’m the only member in my family, and they don’t understand why I want to go. I love to come to meetings like this, to feel the strength of the Church. Someday I hope my family will feel the same enthusiasm.”

    Joseph Tai, 14, is president of the deacons quorum in the same ward. “There are only two people in my quorum,” he explained. “But I still feel it’s a great honor to hold the priesthood. It impels me to set an example. Hong Kong is a noisy, crowded city, but it has its good points, too. People have learned to be friendly so they can get along. When they join the Church, they become even more friendly because they’re so happy inside. You always feel welcome when you come to the ward.”

    “Having friends in the Church helps me a lot,” said 18-year-old Maria Lam, also from the same ward. “They give me a lot of help both spiritually and in my everyday life. When I have problems, they try to help me do what my Heavenly Father would want me to do.” Maria has been a member for four years.

    By the next morning, the rain had lifted. The sun was bright but not yet hot. At the Kowloon Hong Kong Stake Center, which includes seminary and institute offices and classrooms, Brother Joseph Wan was teaching a room loaded with students. He led them through several passages m the scriptures, passages talking about Solomon’s temple. He showed slides, then asked for comments or questions. Several of the students were busy highlighting important verses. Following Chinese writing patterns, they flipped through their books from right to left, and when they marked a passage they moved their pens up and down, not sideways.

    “Seminary and institute are wonderful programs,” according to Yam Siu-ping (Doris Yam), a member of the Kwai Chung Ward. “Seminary and institute help us have a good time while we study, discuss, and learn more about the gospel, more about Jesus Christ. They give us a chance to bear our testimonies to each other, to have a fuller knowledge of the gospel.

    “Christianity is known in Hong Kong. But people think it’s strange when you tell them you’re a Latter-day Saint. That isn’t as well known. Hong Kong has carried over a lot of religious traditions from China, and many people cling to them. The only key is love. We must try to build our testimonies, then share them with those we love. I’ve spent seven years sharing my testimony with my mother. Now she finally agrees that it was okay for me to join the Church, if I will do my best to live its teachings.”

    Lai Oi Li, of the Tsuen Wan Ward, said she enjoys the fellowship offered by the seminary and institute program. “It has helped me to know that there are other people here who feel about the gospel the way I do,” she said. “If you think about it, the most important knowledge is spiritual knowledge. And that’s what you’re studying in seminary.”

    Hong Kong is a city bristling with commerce. It seems as if every product in the world is sold here, and as if every salesman in the world has come to bargain. It’s a city as new as a hand-tailored suit, as old as the street markets where dried fish and fresh vegetables are sold. In the harbor, sleek yachts and cargo-laden commercial vessels anchor near whole crees of creaking boats older than the people who call them home. At night, Hong Kong is ablaze with enough neon lights to make Las Vegas jealous.

    And as though Hong Kong Island were so busy and crowded it could not contain itself, the city has spread across the harbor to the Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories, continuing the mass of buildings and apartments that make this the most densely populated place on earth.

    Above the stake center where the institute class was meeting, steep steps scale a granite cliff to a government housing complex where 80,000 people live. One of them is Ng Tor Yin, a 17-year-old from the Tsim Sha Tsui Ward, who joined the Church just one year ago. He is the only member in his family.

    Tor Yin’s father is a sailor who is often at sea for up to a year and a half at a time. Tor Yin, his mother, his grandmother, and his three sisters share the one-bedroom apartment on the 19th floor. They do their cooking, dishwashing, and laundry on the open air balcony. Living expenses take up more than half of the family’s monthly income. Schooling beyond form three (ninth grade) must also be paid for, and the monthly fee does not include books, uniforms, and transportation.

    Tor Yin just finished form five in school, which means he’s in 11th grade. He’s also a seminary student.

    “Other than Church activities, I spend most of my time studying,” he said. “I have Classes in Chinese, English, math, world history, Chinese history and politics, bookkeeping, and economics. I go to classes from 8 A.M. to 12:30, although some go on until 3 P.M. We go to school all year long.”

    He explained that there’s enormous pressure on students in Hong Kong. “Every year, 10,000 take entrance exams for two universities. Even those who pass the exams may not be admitted.” Those who fail drop into a crowded job market or have to travel to other countries in search of work or schooling.

    Still, Tor Yin has found time to serve as priests quorum secretary and to prepare himself to someday serve a mission. “The gospel doesn’t belong just to me,” he said “The Church belongs to everybody. If I could give one message to everyone, I would tell them the Joseph Smith story.”

    Tor Yin knows the story by heart. He remembers when some LDS friends told him about the Church. He came to meetings all by himself and introduced himself to the missionaries. The Joseph Smith story was one of the first pamphlets they gave him to read.

    “When I read it, I knew it was true. It wasn’t long until I was baptized,” he said. “Now my mother is pleased to see how I’ve become so interested in seminary, and I hope my father will be pleased when I can talk to him in person again. I hope the Church will help to bring my family closer together.”

    Not far from where Tor Yin lives, there is a park. It’s not a park with trees, flowers, gardens, fountains, and birds. It is a realm of asphalt, of blacktop painted with yellow lines to mark boundaries for basketball courts and soccer fields. Victoria Park is the largest park in the Hong Kong area. Thousands of people play here, even when it’s raining, even when the sun sets and the artificial lights come on. The athletes typify the fever for life common in Hong Kong, though at times it reminds one of a colony of ants.

    One Saturday afternoon, Victoria Park was the site of the Hong Kong Island and Kowloon stakes basketball tournament. The Tsuen Wan Ward was out on the blacktop, dodging puddles to dribble and shoot. Kwok Kan Wing, 19, served as unofficial captain of the team. Called to the sideline momentarily for an interview, he pointed with pride to his younger brother, Kan Hong, 17. All five sons in the Kwok family are Church members, he explained.

    “My older brother joined; then the rest of us joined,” he said. “Now he’s on a mission, and the rest of us should follow him in that, too. My parents don’t belong to the Church yet, but they are impressed with what it has done for their sons.” Kan Wing, for example, is the first counselor in the ward Young Men presidency. He’s also a Sunday School teacher and a good friend to the other young men his age.

    Even though for the moment his mind is on basketball, Kan Wing is constantly looking for ways to help others realize the importance of the gospel. “We’ve got several inactive members playing with us today,” he said. “We’ll do all we can to make them feel like part of the group. Then maybe they’ll feel more at home joining us for meetings, too.”

    Back at the Kowloon stake center, Wen Sak Han (Sonya Wen), 16, Laurel class president of the Kowloon City Ward, is busy working with the Young Men and the Young Women of her ward on a service project. They are clipping illustrations from an old manual and preparing a bulletin board about family home evening.

    “I’ve been a member for a year now,” Sonya said. “I am quite happy that I joined the Church. I look upon it as the turning point in my life, both in my behavior and in my psychological development. In the past, I was easily tempted by evil things. But now I have principles to follow, and though I may be tempted I have a reason not to give in.”

    Ho Kan Shing (Clement Ho), 16, put down his scissors. “I know what you mean,” he said. “When I became a member, I changed my destiny, my hope. When I was younger, all I wanted was to have money. Now wealth is not so important to me. I have found other priorities, like reading the scriptures and preparing for a mission. I want to build a good future for myself, but I know that future must include the gospel.”

    Hong Kong isn’t an easy place to be a teenager. Besides the pressures of school, the crowded living conditions, and the constant noise, there’s heat in the summer and cold in the winter and rain all the time. There’s a lot of worry about the future, about finding a career, about living and sharing the teachings of Christ in a society where Christianity is a minority belief.

    “There is great temptation here to be more and more worldly,” said Linda Ling, Young Women president of the Kowloon Stake. “The challenge is to help the youth understand that dress standards, the way they talk, the way they behave, who they date, who they spend their time with, all make up who they are. But they are willing to try hard and they’re eager to learn. There is a wonderful feeling about them.”

    Lo Shuet Keung, Young Men president of the stake, agreed. “They face a lot of pressure,” he said. “Schooling is vital for them, because it’s a big part of their future. The Church teaches us to have knowledge in this way, too. So we try to encourage their studies, but also to teach them how to organize their time. And we try to give them a break from it all by holding athletic activities, dance festivals, or camping trips for the Scouts or the Young Women. But where do you go camping in Hong Kong?”

    Actually, there are a few places to go camping. But they have to be reserved as much as a year in advance. Where real estate sells for thousands of dollars per square foot, most of the land is taken.

    That’s only one of many challenges facing the youth of the Church in Hong Kong. By talking with them, it’s easy to see they’re used to challenges. That’s what life in Hong Kong is all about. But just as the buildings and apartment houses here are anchored to the granite that juts up from the sea, so these young Latter-day Saints are anchored to the rock of faith. It’s an anchor that will carry them through any storm, so that they will be a light to guide others to the harbor.

    Photos by Richard M. Romney

    Like the solid rock they’re built on, Hong Kong’s high rises jut up from the sea. In this city teeming with humanity, young Latter-day Saints have found that their faith is also built upon a rock—the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Arriving for quorum meeting or resting during a stake basketball tournament, Hong Kong’s priesthood holders typify the intensity of a colony that has modified Britain’s double-deck buses and lighted its shops with enough neon to make Las Vegas jealous.

    Enterprise is the city’s middle name, and markets selling everything from fish to cellophane toys prove it. Space not captured by vendors is usually under construction. But for a young man at an institute class and a young girl attending Sunday School at the Tsuen Wan Ward, the gospel provides stability in a commercial world.

    Increasing population and limited space mean overcrowding. There’s no room for a kitchen, so Ng Tor Yin and his mother cook lunch on the porch. Victoria Park offers some relief, and so does the smile of a Church member. And even in a city of millions, it’s not hard to tell who’s washing the ward’s uniforms.