By Jason Eng Hun Lee
When Frederick Lugard stepped off the pier to survey his new charge as governor of Hong Kong, he must have wondered what opportunities there were to be had for a man of his talent and industry. A self-confessed missionary of Empire, Lugard had served in West Africa first as an explorer and merchant adventurer, and then as High Commissioner of Northern Nigeria, and obviously found himself lacking a cause that he could divert his passions towards. Luckily, it was not long before his head was turned by the prospect of setting up a bastion of higher education in South China, one that would serve both the needs of the adolescent colony and its larger, restive neighbour to the North.
For Lugard, the venture was not just another self-serving colonial apparatus but a matter of British civic pride, and one that the pragmatic Chinese community were wholeheartedly ready to embrace at that moment in history, both with their vocal support and with their funds. The traders, originally derisive of such a scheme, but not wishing to be outshone by the donations of a PR-minded Swire Group, reluctantly dipped their hands for a measly sum to feed Lugard’s ‘pet lamb’, as they called it. At the time, Lugard had it in mind that the university’s two principal branches of medicine and engineering, formed from two existing schools, would be of greater use to a China still in the painful throes of modernization, while the Arts was only something of an afterthought at this point, though its value in training members of the civil service would be appreciated later on.
Of course, if the University owed its existence to the persistence and vision of Lugard, then the Main Building itself owed its grandeur to the generosity of one Hormusjee Mody, a Parsee gentleman whose bust now looks on indifferent to the flash of cameras and curious stares of tourists and wedding choreographers. Now here was a man who would start the fad for charitable endeavours, and his philanthropic gesture would prove an early precursor for the generous benefactors whose names now adorn the many buildings on campus. Mody confessed himself to be no scholar, having been denied a university education, but he saw this latest donation as an opportunity to provide an endowment for others – and one that would remember him for posterity, in the building’s red brick and granite design, with its greek columns and courtyards with fountains.
So, as the main building’s foundation stone was laid, our two men, one a colonial servant, the other a merchant benefactor, stood to applaud the birth of a new institution that would follow in the tradition of other modern universities, with its admixture of liberal humanism, racial equality and religious tolerance. Mody would go on to receive a knighthood for his contribution, but he would not live long enough to see its doors open to admit its first batch of students. Lugard no doubt would have been pleased by the progress of his scheme, but he too would not be able to bask in the glory of his work for long, for he knew he was being posted back to Nigeria.
We can only guess what went through Lugard’s mind as he stood on the pier gazing up at the spot where the Main Building stood in its grandeur, newly-constructed, unobstructed from view. How he must have felt a stab of pride as he took a final look at the monument that he had bequeathed to the people of Hong Kong, and what would turn out to be his parting gift.