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From “War on Rape” to “Farm to Table”: Prof Fanny Cheung’s 40 years of driving social change

“Women’s rights are just part of what I do – I am deeply involved with mental health advocacy, including years of volunteering at New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association (New Life). The term ‘social enterprise’ had yet to trend when I was already caught up in it.” Prof Fanny Cheung barely took her seat when she started “protesting”; apparently too many interviewers were fixated merely on her early community work in women’s development. A trace of a smile on her lips, the petite professor slowly unravelled to us tales of her “extra-curricular activities”.

Waging war on rape

Currently CUHK’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Resear¬ch, Fanny earned her PhD in Psychology from the University of Minnesota in the 70s, “then I headed back without hesitation …preferred not to be a second-class citizen there.” A returnee with eye-catching qualifications, not to mention a hard-to-come-by clinical psychologist in then-Hong Kong – naturally, both the academic and medical sector wanted her on their team. She eventually settled on the Psychiatry Department at United Christian Hospital. Two years on the frontline, she picked up on the array of social issues behind the scenes.

To her utmost disdain, women who were sexually abused had nobody to turn to. “(The rape victims) had no support. Stigmatised and put to shame, they dared not tell their own family. Dial 999? First to arrive on the scene were not the cops, but the reporters. The next day the victim’s photo and address would be all over the news, (the disclosure of private information) completely unregulated…that was 1976.” She added that women pregnant from rape were even barred from legal abortion!

The advancement in women’s rights was trailing far behind, so Fanny swung into action. In her spare time, she worked with expatriate women groups and launched a “War on Rape” campaign. Taking into consideration the locals’ taboo on this subject matter, they modified the Chinese version into “Women Protection Movement (保護婦女運動)”.

Following her return to Hong Kong in the 1970s, Prof Cheung practised clinical psychology while playing a key role in women's rights movements. (Photo: Unsplash)

Guidelines and a hotline

As part of their lobbying efforts, Fanny and her expatriate comrades helped to advocate and formulate medical assessment, aftercare services, evidence gathering procedures for victims and legislative amendments. “The police had been very supportive. Opportunities to educate the public were ample, and they (the police) were happy to take our suggestions on, for instance, how to handle reported cases of rape.” In the days when female police officers were rare, “not all were able to put themselves in the victims’ shoes, or properly see to these cases. So we drew up relevant guidelines and gave them training.”

Just attending to aftercare was far from a comprehensive solution. “A centre was what the women needed,” Fanny recalled the era of limited information flow, “Not a single government department was responsible for catering to women’s needs – most thought families should take care of their domestic problems. When it came to legal, family and medical issues, whose door could they knock on?”

Marshalling several organisations, Fanny initiated change using existing community resources. Her efforts bore fruit in 1981 as the first Women’s Centre (now Hong Kong Federation of Women’s Centres) came into being. Then-Urban Council member Elsie Tu generously offered them a spot to set up the territory’s first women’s service hotline. Professionals volunteered in turns to give legal assistance, health advice and counselling support over the phone, as well as service referrals.

Not only did underprivileged women benefit, but the better-off volunteers also gained fulfilment. “One joked that volunteering has empowered herself – she learned to ride the MTR across the harbour!” As the organisation grew, its first permanent office was set up in Cheung Sha Wan in 1985. Now they have five locations throughout the city.

Prof Cheung galvanised the establishment of Hong Kong Federation of Women's Centres. The Federation recently set up a "Carer's Cafe", raising awareness towards the well-being of carers with an innovative means. (Photo: Hong Kong Federation of Women's Centres Facebook Page)

Renewing lives at the farm

Coming face-to-face with social issues in her clinical practice left Fanny unsettled, “Time and again I ponder about these problems behind, then find resources through every means I can to address them. No use following the beaten track!” She shrugged, “I often went on TV; few females or professional women in those days would touch upon these sensitive topics in public.”

Following two years of clinical practice, Fanny was “headhunted” by CUHK. In the course of her tenure, invitations to serve on public bodies came one after another. She was the first Chairperson to the Equal Opportunities Commission (1996-99), taking her leave of absence from the University these three years. Besides, she has been volunteering at New Life since its early days, promoting wellbeing and support services for those in recovery. During her nine years as Chairperson, she spurred the Association to evolve.

New Life was a trailblazer long before the term “social enterprise” gained momentum. “We just hadn’t called it that, yet.” Back in the 70s, the organisation was already leasing land next to Castle Peak Hospital and built a farm. Volunteers trained the recovered to till the soil and helped smoothing out their return to the workforce.

“We reared pigs and pigeons…not anymore. It’s an organic farm now.” New Life also used to run a vegetable stall at Tuen Mun Kin Sang Estate in 1994, later embarking on other lines of businesses, from F&B to retail and ecotourism. CUHK is home to one of their icons – Café 330, featuring a chic environment and inviting dishes, as well as messages of physical and psychological wellness (or “330”, homophonic to “身心靈” in Cantonese). “All thanks to the expert team of staff and volunteers.”

New Life was founded in 1959 and Prof Cheung witnessed how it expanded in scale. The Association developed a diversity of social enterprises, including a farm in Tuen Mun and Café 330. The top photos show how the farm and veg stall looked in their early days. (Photos: New Life)
Prof Cheung often represents New Life at public events. (Photo: Prof Cheung)

Enlightening CUHK on social innovation

With her fruitful experience, Fanny is definitely persuasive when advocating for an innovative culture in CUHK, though she humbly denied the connection.

Five to six years back, the University put forward the strategy to nurture an entrepreneurial mindset in students – all students, not only those from business or engineering. Fanny called for a discussion with the eight Faculties, though some felt this attaches too much importance to monetary returns. “So I asked if they ever heard of social entrepreneurship.”

Fanny introduced the concept onto campus, first to inspire faculty members, then to motivate students across disciplines to engage in social innovation, beyond just technology and business. SoCUBE, CUHK’s own platform for social innovation, is thus born. “It assembles relevant information and focuses resources, cultivating an entrepreneurial sense in CUHK members through sharing of experiences. Awareness lays the foundations of actions.”

She laid it on the line that many scholars simply shut themselves in labs, wrapped up in their own research, “while I take part in a lot of ‘extra-curricular activities’, which in turn inspire my research.” Nevertheless, she stressed that this is not for every professor, “we do need some to focus on basic research and build theories.”

Years of external experience in social innovation are nutrients to Prof Cheung's endeavours in promoting the social entrepreneurial mindset on campus. (Photo: ORKTS)

An integrated ecosystem at InnoPort (coming soon!)

About time academics start thinking about social innovation – who might have noticed the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 2020 is emulating the UK’s practice. The newly introduced criterion “Research Impact” accounts for 15%, and faculty members are expected to provide evidence on the societal impact their research creates. Still, Fanny confessed this new requirement from the University Grants Committee was a bit of a rush; the academic circle needed more time to adjust.

SoCUBE is just part of the CUHK social innovation ecosystem. The first-of-its-kind Minor Programme in Entrepreneurship and Innovation (EPIN) has been open to all undergraduates since 2017. InnoPort, the University’s basecamp for innovation is due to open next year. Together with the Hong Kong Social Enterprise Challenge (HKSEC) and I·CARE Programme, it is Fanny’s wish that the new landmark rallies entrepreneurial forces across campus, “facilitating synergy across units. Minding one’s own business is not always a good thing!”

By Kary Wong@ORKTS
English translation by Cathy Wong@ORKTS