First the shock, then the sadness, and now we grieve. The 22-year tenure of Sydney James Lowcock as the headmaster of Diocesan Boys’ School saw the golden age of DBS. Founded in 1869, its success and renown were, of course, the result of the labors of a great number of other people including his forbearers and successors, rather than solely attributable to him alone. However, the character , spirit and essence of the school on which it has built its identity for the last half a century were without a question the work of James Lowcock. DBS is Lowcock, and Lowcock is DBS, that much is certain. There is no shame in agreeing to this even for successive headmasters Jacland Lai and Terrance Cheung, both of whom were outstanding and filled the shoes of their predecessor with distinction. But still they were James Lowckock’s shoes and, not only were they huge, it was the prints they had left that first led the way to Rome.
In history there are some who are larger than life. Familiar ones in recent times include Churchill, Mandela, Reagan, Thatcher, and Maclehose, to name a few. These people broke with convention and, with wisdom and strength of conviction, pushed through visions that affected numerous people for the better. Lowcock had a vision of a school in Hong Kong mostly for Chinese students that was built along the fine traditions of the English public school where, in addition to academics, young men were able to build and develop their character, for it was strength of character that would ultimately be the measure of a man and determine his success or failure. DBS boasts a large number of captains of industry, government leaders, and celebrities in the arts, but seldom if any heinous criminals and wretched politicians. It all comes back to character building. Contrary to traditional if nescient beliefs back in the 1960s, Lowcock promoted a liberal education, encouraged independent thinking, sports and extra-curricular activities, and a liberal, open, and unoppressive campus lifestyle. This also explains why the Headmaster usually bonded better with students that had a personality over the recondite. Even the teachers were a great deal more than just an group of erudite scholars: the humorous KY Cheng (short pants), the incredibly gifted YT Kwong (spareribs), the titillating Lina Fong, the convulsive J Farrington (fat won-ton), the almost conceited Henry Ho (holland bean), the eccentric John Seed, the didactic TK Hong (old rooster). One could have been fooled for a collection of Marvel characters.
Sold though he was on the English public school model, “Har Gau”, as Lockcock was fondly nicknamed, did not buy its elitism. The school had already begun to enroll students from less priviledged backgrounds during the tenure of his predecessor George Zmmern. Lowcock went even further. The tale of Har Gau’s selfless financial support of poor students to his own financial demise will reverberate through the school hall and corridors as long as those walls will stand. Such was dedication with no bottom, and compassion that knew no bound. And he never took credit for any of it.
Lowcock’s ethnicity had something to do with the character of the school which he molded. Born in Hong Kong, Lowcock came from an Eurasian family with a British father and a mother of Anglo-Indian decent. Indigenous Eurasians saw themselves as authentic Hong Kong people, as they were neither the British from a foreign shore nor the Chinese migrants who identified themselves by the Chinese provinces that they had come from. Early Eurasians were discriminated in Hong Kong until they got their breaks through education and hard work, and enjoyed a unique advantage by being bilingual. The history of the Eurasians and his own experience convinced Lowcock of the importance of knowing and understanding one’s own language and culture. The colonial era’s bias towards the English language did not stop Lowcock from giving his students every opportunity to do so with Chinese in the curriculum. However, at the end of the day, whether the student could take advantage of this and take in both East and West depends largely on the student himself. Har Gau more than once quoted Thomas Jefferson: “The government that governs the best governs the least.” He embraced the idea that one should take responsibility for one’s action. He would help you to develop the tools to do so, but was not about to hold your hand in the process. That was not his cup of tea.
Lowcock’s ethnic background also helped shape his views on nationalism and race.. Chinese made up most of the school’s student body, although there were some Indian and Pakistani boys, and also some Eurasians. There were both local and expatriate teachers. The school itself was like an Eurasian, as the English school system found itself seasoned with local culture and traditions. The path of tolerance and understanding was the only viable path. In a miniature sense the phenomena of “multiculturalism” was already manifest on Lowcock’s campus 30 years before it did in the West, only that in the West it has arguably ended in disaster, whereas at DBS it enriched the students’ learning experience and gave them their first preparation for a globalizing world. During the first ten years of Lowcock’s tenure the world saw the madness of Mao’s cultural revolution. Hong Kong was under siege, with nationalistic fervor near hysterical levels. In the midst of all the insanity, the school’s unswaying adherence to knowledge, tolerance, fair play and good sense provided its students with the equivalent of a shot of antidote to the venoms of nationalism.
Once a parent phoned and complained that her child did not have enough time for studying due to too much extracurricular activities. Lowcock’s reply was blunt: “ Didn’t you know that the core principle of the school is to teach the students to manage their time and to help them become well-rounded individuals? If you disagree, then it means you have erred by enrolling him here and I suggest you send him to another school.” That was in the 1970s, and the parent quietly rested her case. I couldn’t help wonder, with humor, how Har Gau, who did not understood Mandarin, would have handled the following imagined rebuttal of an upstart parent from the mainland in the year 2012: “你這算是那門子的教育?老娘我從來沒聽說過! 我兒要考試不及格, 你得負全責!” It is indeed 2012, and Lowcock’s successors have to deal with problems which he would have considered pure nonsense and not even dignified with a response. Yes,Hong Kong has changed and is a far cry from the glorious days that he knew and shared with his students and staff.
The ghastly father and son duo of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il consecrated themselves with the appellations “the great leader” and “the dear leader” respectively. Even as macabre as they were, they might have been persuaded not to desecrate these words had they attended DBS with Lowcock in court. For they would have seen that Har Gau was held to be “great” because of his selfless devotion to his school and the marvelous and unparallel job he did as its headmaster, and he was “dear” to the students because of how he taught and nurtured us, for which he was held in utmost respect and with deepest affection. And with his departure we are now left with a sense of loss that is larger than any hysterics that those twisted despots could concoct.
As a faithful follower of Christ, our dear Headmaster you have more than completed the task given to you by the Lord. You helped thy children when they called, and you leave us knowing for certain that they will build an undefiled heritage from age to age. As you stand in front of the gates of St Peter, we pay our respects to you and bid you farewell for the last time. So goodbye, and thank you!