The Unconventional Professor

Ying Chan
Ying Chan
Dec 14, 2018 · 17 min read

3 December 2017

Iconic historian and sociologist Keith Hopkins remembered for his vision for change, and pioneering teaching and research @HKU 50 years ago.

A vintage photo of HKU’s Lily Pond, a popular gathering place for students from the 1950’s to the early 1980’s. (HKU photo)

The young professor walked into the classroom, and settled on the desk on the podium. He sat in silence staring past us, arms folded on his chest. His hard gaze yielded no clue.

Minutes passed. Catherine Wong recalled the scene in a recent text message: “The silence made everyone very uncomfortable as it lasted at least five minutes. The class was silent. You could hear a pin drop.”

Time ticked by, and people began to agitate in their seats. Finally, a student shouted, “Shall we all go home?”

The professor stood, walked to the blackboard and, with a sweeping arm, wrote in chalk, letter by letter, a single word: ‘ROLE.”

The year was 1967. Catherine and I belonged to the proud first class of students admitted to a new Department of Sociology at the newly created Faculty of Social Sciences at The University of Hong Kong. Professor Keith Hopkins, who was also new to HKU, was there to give his first lecture in the course titled “Introduction to Sociology”.

It was the start of a teachable moment, a picture etched in our minds for the past half-century.

‘Roles’, Hopkins told the class crammed in a classroom in HKU’s historic Main Building, are the basic units of human society, like atoms are the basic units of matter. Humans all have multiple roles. We are parents, sons, daughters, friends, citizens, bosses and workers. All our roles come with different expectations governed by societal norms. We are expected to act accordingly.

When we violate an expectation, such as when a teacher doesn’t speak, we cause dismay or discomfort, which can lead to disappointment, confusion and conflict. We are going home!

Catherine Wong remembers her first sociology class half-a-century ago

I left the class that day mesmerised by the new concepts, and the vibrant and youthful professor. I knew little about him except that he was British, as were our two `other sociology teachers. Of course, in late 1960s colonial Hong Kong many of the teachers at our then-small university of about 2,000 students were British. I also heard that he was a scholar of Roman history, not a sociologist by training. I have no idea about the weight of the academic credentials that brought him to Hong Kong at age 32 and how he eventually would become a distinguished and unconventional scholar of ancient Rome.

All that learning on my part came many years later when I was reminded that Hopkins had died.

Experiential learning

These days, experiential learning is trendy at Hong Kong universities. But Hopkins was a pioneer in the genre long before the term appeared in the pedagogic lingo. Shortly after his arrival in 1967, he launched a study of public housing policy in Hong Kong and enlisted all 25 of us to assist in the research during our summer break in 1968. The students grumbled a bit but were happy to work with a charismatic professor.

HK public housing in its early days consisted of seven-storey walk-ups with communal toilets. Tenants cooked in the open corridors outside their living unit. (Hong Kong Housing Authority)

The assignment was another learning experience of a lifetime, this one unfolding during eight weeks of exploring the stories of people living in remote and depressed corners of Hong Kong. In the research, Hopkins sought to examine the origins of public housing and the social and economic effects on the residents of two housing types. The first was the crazy quilt of squatter camps that sprouted in Hong Kong after the communist victory on the mainland in 1949 unleashed a flood of refugees across the border. The second was the resettlement estates the government began to build to relocate the squatters, as well as people evicted from private tenements deemed too dangerous for occupation. The squatters lived in raw homemade huts, considered hazards for fire and infectious disease. The relocated or evicted were housed in seven-storey walk-ups built in haste. Families were given cubicles with communal water taps and toilets with no doors. Each adult was allotted a space of 24 sq. ft., just twice the area of a grave. Children had less than six sq. ft. The situation raised a reasonable research question: which was the better life?

Under Hopkins’ guidance, we learned the fundamentals of scientific social surveys, from questionnaire design, sampling, to face-to-face interviews and collating the data from the interviews. We polled a total of 1,650 heads of households or their adult close relatives. Tallying numbers in those pre-digital days was tedious. Trudging up and down the hills and stairways in the summer heat was gruelling.

But somehow we enjoyed the work. We were proud of the project, which seemed meaningful at the time.

Skipping classes

Professor Hopkins also encouraged his students to take risks. In the summer of 1969, as I was heading into the final year of my studies, I got a surprise call from the United States Consulate in Hong Kong. “We would like to invite you to visit the US for three months. We are organising a delegation of student leaders from different places for this trip. You’ll be the one from Hong Kong.”

Should I accept the invitation? It was a tough decision.

In those days, the second year of our three-year programme was known as the “honeymoon year”. There were no quizzes or tests, or examinations. Students would automatically move on to the final year and be evaluated in a set of much dreaded sit-down examinations at the end of the school year. I spent most of my honeymoon year working on the Undergrad, the student union paper, and hanging out with fellow students in the canteen or the newspaper office, known fondly among students as the “PM Room”, short for Publication Member Room. Skipping lectures and classes was the norm.

I needed to spend time catching up with my studies if I wanted to graduate with good grades. But an all-expenses-paid trip to the US was tempting.

I called Professor Hopkins.

“Should I go, or stay home and catch up with studies?” I asked.

“Of course you have to go,” he said, without missing a beat.

Somehow, the department approved my absence for the entire autumn semester. Instead of going to classes, I embarked on a 12-week, eight-city tour of the United States that included a three-week stay with a family in Boulder, Colorado, and a 10-day campus visit at Cornell University. We started in Honolulu, and made our way east, San Francisco, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York City. Our trip coincided with the height of the movement against the US government’s involvement in the war in Vietnam. From Cornell, I joined the student contingent for the 11-hour bus ride to Washington DC to take part in the largest anti-war demonstration in US history.

By the time I reached New York, I learned that Hopkins had taken up a research fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton nearby. It was a good opportunity to visit the beloved professor.

I can still see a blurry image of the building that housed the legendary research institute sitting on a generous patch of green. Inside, paintings of learned men adorned the walls. Hopkins was jovial and friendly, though I don’t recall details of our conversations. I was just a college kid. It was gracious of him to show me around.

It was the last time I saw him. In those pre-internet days, it was easy to lose touch with people. I didn’t even get to tell him that in spite of my delinquency in class attendance, I was able to graduate with high honours. Fast forward to 1998, when my alma mater asked me to create a journalism programme. I left New York City, home for 23 years, to return to my native Hong Kong. The Journalism and Media Studies Centre, a mini journalism school, opened its doors a year later. As was the case with the new sociology department in 1967, our teaching staff was small. But unlike Hopkins, I stayed with the job for 18 years until my retirement from the JMSC in August 2016.

Discovering Hopkins

This year, the 50th anniversary of the Faculty of Social Sciences seems an apt occasion to record my memories of Hopkins, the first class, the housing study and his mentoring. I googled “Keith Hopkins” and read the dispiriting news. Hopkins was dead, having succumbed to cancer in 2004.

Keith Hopkins (1934–2004)

Obituaries in major newspapers, including the New York Times, the Guardian, the Independentand the Telegraph, spoke of a brilliant, iconoclastic historian who used creative methods to study the ancient world. The subhead for his obituary in the Independent referred to him as a “provocatively modern ancient historian.” He was described as a “historian who revolutionised the approach to ancient history.” The opening paragraphs of the obit in the Telegraph are typical of the accolades bestowed on him.

It appears Hopkins never returned to HKU. After a year in Princeton, he resumed his lectureship at the London School of Economics. Two years later, he was named professor of sociology at Brunel University in London at age 37. He taught at Brunel for more than a decade and served as dean of its social sciences faculty for four years.

In 1985, he was appointed to the chair of ancient history at King’s College at Cambridge, his alma mater. Hopkins became vice provost of King’s in 2001, a position he held until his death at age 69 three years later.

Before his sojourn in Hong Kong, Hopkins had graduated in classics from King’s College in 1958. His early mentor was Moses Finley, a leading classics scholar, who went to King’s after being dismissed by Rutgers University in the US for refusing to say, at the height of a red-baiting period known as McCarthyism, whether he had ever been a Communist Party member. Finley wrote several books about ancient Greece and Rome, including an essay collection which one reviewer said reflected “an elegant kind of scholarly journalism.”

In 1961, Hopkins, became an assistant lecturer in sociology at Leicester University and then returned two years later to Cambridge as a research fellow, while at the same time taking a lecturer job at the London School of Economics. He was on secondment or “loan” from LSE when he came to HKU to become the founding chair of our sociology department.

This academic lineage helps explain the making of Hopkins as an unconventional scholar. I was lucky to have crossed paths with him during his short tenure at HKU.

We don’t know why the rising academic star would take a two-year break to come to HKU, then a colonial university at the margin of the British Empire. But his approach to the study of history was consistent with the way he taught us.

History as story-telling

As a senior academic, Hopkins was notorious for his procrastination and tardiness in responding to “administrative demands”, a trait many modern day academics could identify with. He was also slow in the delivery of his writings. For his expansive interest and intellect, his publications were limited to some journal articles, three authored books, and a stack of half-baked manuscripts. In a tribute in the British historical journal Past & Present, Robin Osborne, one of Hopkins’s Cambridge colleagues, wrote that “no fewer than three unfinished books were left in the confused piles of papers in his college rooms. The perfectionism which led Keith to rewrite, and never publish papers, whose essential argument was brilliantly adumbrated in their first delivery, did not make for efficient use of time.”

Still, his publications were provocative and path-breaking, especially with the unorthodox methodology he deployed in making sense of ancient Rome: the use of data, visuals, and original sources. Osborne said Hopkins “preferred to write directly about ancient material rather than address arguments put forward by other scholars — a tiresome approach that often leads to dull papers with little added value. In addition, his “love of demography and fascination with economics” led him to analyse historical questions without referencing ancient texts.

Hopkins was also a storyteller. In an essay in Past & Present, he argued that fictional stories from ancient eras could reveal as much about history as fact-based texts. The idea was heretical for conventional historians, but in his essay, “Novel Evidence for Roman Slavery”, he said an oral story-telling tradition such as the one that eventually became known and written down as Aseop’s Fables served as windows into an ancient society, such as that of the story-telling slave Aseop. Hopkins expanded on his ideas about the value of fiction in history in A World Full of Gods, published in 1999, in which he

created fictional 20th Century time travellers who visited the Mediterranean to send back evidence of Christian roots and rituals. Through these characters, Hopkins used video documentary conventions to tell the story of the breakaway sect of Jews believed to have written the Dead Sea Scrolls. He created imaginary letters between an early Christian and his worldly mentor, and between himself and fictional academics commenting on his draft chapters. He was delighted when some of the book’s reviewers thought the correspondence was real.

The narrative techniques made the book accessible to general readers, but also prompted criticism from fellow academics. Hopkins, who enjoyed controversy and sparring with his detractors, argued that Christianity stole from other religions — Judaism and those of many others in Mesopotamia and Near Eastern regions — and then offered itself as the better option.

Coming to Hopkin’s defence, his supporters said that the novelty of A World Full of Gods does not diminish its authenticity as the facts and arguments inside the story-telling frames are based on decades of research by the author and others.

“Imagination is the key to good history,” wrote Christopher Kelly, author of the Hopkins obituary in the Independent. “That and a recognition that history-writing itself deserves the same care and meticulous effort as the very best of novels.”

Social sciences and policy: an inaugural lecture

Another observation in Osborne’s tribute leads me back to where I began this essay — the research we students helped Hopkins conduct in 1968. Data of the sort we collected in the squatter camps and resettlement estates is never used for mere illustration, Osborne said, but when “inserted into the appropriate demographic model they become the evidence for an argument.” I saw the application of that principle in the transcript of the inaugural lecture Hopkins gave in 1969, in which he posed the question of whether the lives of those resettled from disease-prone camps to grave-sized cubicles were appreciably better.

His answer?


“Public Housing Policy in Hong Kong”, an inaugural lecture delivered on 6 March 1969 by Keith Hopkins, chair professor of the Sociology Department. (Supplement to the Gazette, The University of Hong Kong. Courtesy of University Archives, HKU)

He laid out the evidence for his argument with 10 tables of data drawn from our 1,650 interviews, showing that, for example, the monthly incomes of the two groups remained almost identical, despite the theoretically positive impact on labor-force participation resulting from resettlement to stable housing.

“Much to our disappointment,” Hopkins told the gathering, “we found few important differences between squatters and those who had been resettled, whether for a short or long time.”

His audience likely included public officials responsible for housing policy, but Hopkins did not pull punches. He told the gathering that as a building programme, the resettlement scheme could be seen as a success and evidence of government concern for the poor, but as “a design for living” the estates were terrible places because of “the lack of private space for families to pursue their personal affairs without interference.” He then added: “Government has for too long sacrificed reasonable ideals of housing to expedience and economy.”

The lecture was a blistering criticism of public housing policy, trumpeted by the colonial government as the hallmark of official benevolence.

Near the end of the lecture, Hopkins shared his view of sociology and the role of sociologists. As the founding chair of the department, he had a duty to offer a vision for the way forward. He admitted that he had been “fairly idiosyncratic” in slighting theory but gave no apologies.

“I have been fairly idiosyncratic. For many sociologists, sociological theory is central; I have neglected it in this lecture. I have also gone beyond my data and made explicit recommendations. Sociologists do this, but not often. University sociologists usually report their data and leave policy to politicians. There is much to be said for this practice. On the other hand, sociologists select particular research topics because they hold certain values. I believe that they might as well be frank and make their values explicit. If they distinguish clearly between data and beliefs, other people are free to look at the data and may come to different conclusions. In Hong Kong, in particular, where there are no politicians and no effective forum for debate between broad opposing views and interests, the University may serve as a valuable source of information and of critical ideas.”

The paragraph is an astounding revelation of the activist side of Professor Hopkins I had never known. Talking to me from the grave, he made these points:

1/. Sociology is not just about theory, it is also about the study of societal problems of the day. Sometimes, the latter took priority over pure theory, as in the case of the housing study.

2/. Academics should not refrain from proposing policy recommendations as long as they are transparent about their values.

3/. Universities and academics in Hong Kong have a special duty to be involved in both the study and the advocacy of policy changes.

In a few years after the inaugural address, the Hong Kong government would begin building better public housing, and the squatter camps disappeared. Living space per person was increased, although families now still live in exceptionally small apartments, compared to public housing tenants in most other parts of the world. But the newer estates have elevators. The communal toilets and shared water taps are gone. Families have room to cook and more freedom to attend to their personal affairs with some semblance of privacy.


David Faure, Director, Centre for China Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong; Emeritus Fellow, St. Anthony’s College, Oxford University

While researching this article, I exchanged emails with David Faure, an old friend from our days at HKU. David, who entered the university a year before me, had also served as chief editor of Undergrad, and got to know Hopkins well. A history major, Faure went on to build his own distinguished academic career, including a Princeton PhD and a lectureship at Oxford University. But unlike Hopkins, Faure loved Hong Kong so much that he chose to quit Oxford to return to teach here, eventually becoming the chair professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, after a brief stint at HKU. Faure pioneered the field of public history with a unique empirical approach of field research, taking students often to China to deep dive into county gazettes and tombstone inscriptions. Like Hopkins, he has also cast a controversial figure among some historians, who charged that his approach is more social science, not authentic “historical”. I have no doubt Professor Hopkins had an early influence on my dear friend, who has in turn mentored a notable group of scholars, collectively known as the “South China School (華南學派)” of historical studies, named for the locations of their academic homes at universities in Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

In response to my e-mail message, Faure reminded me that in 2004 he had forwarded to me a copy of one of Hopkins obituaries. I don’t remember the email and must have overlooked it.

Like me, Faure remembers Professor Hopkins fondly.

“What had always struck me even as an undergraduate was his very straightforward approach to scholarly problems. He was never shy of admitting he didn’t know; there was never any pretence about knowing, and that had struck me even as an undergraduate as an aspect of scholarship that I had not seen in most of my other teachers. You might remember as student newspaper editors (you in the first year and me in the second) we went to him for advice on a survey we did and he took us seriously. I think he helped shape our attitude towards learning at a critical time in our undergraduate career and what I learnt from him stayed with me all my life. “

Faure and I also talked about a book Hopkins edited that was published in1971 by Oxford University Press. Titled Hong Kong: The Industrial Colony; a Political, Social and Economic Survey, the book included chapters by Hopkins and several authors, who focused on social, economic and political issues of the day. Hopkin’s essay, “Housing the Poor” opened with the sentence “Hong Kong is a cruel society in which very little assistance is given to the poor. ” This was typical Hopkins, no-nonsense and in-your-face. Faure, who remembered the line to this day, wrote recently in a message, “when I saw that the first time, it struck me like a bolt of lightning.”

Fifty years after he helped found the HKU law faculty, John Rear (r) visited Hong Kong in Nov 2019 to mark the golden anniversary of the law school. I was glad to see him at the anniversary banquet with law professor Rick Golfcheski (Ying Chan photo)

Other contributors of the book include John Rear, senior lecturer and one of the pioneering teachers of the law school, founded in 1969. Rear was prescient in his article titled “One Brand of Politics,” when he wrote:

“Looking at Hong Kong, the writer is concerned at the imbalance of power and influence as between the different classes of its society, at the unequal distribution of wealth within it in which the channels for the peaceful expression of dissent are inadequate and in which the majority of the population are excluded from any direct participation in the management of its affairs.”

Rear’s observation is even more relevant today than it was half a century ago as Hong Kong’s rich and poor divide, measured by the Gini coefficient, has grown to one of the highest in the world.

Another contributor to the book was Joe England, a labour expert who taught at the HKU Extramural Department, the then continuing education school. We did not have formal classes with him but sought his advice often as we wrote about the emerging labour issues and strikes for the student newspaper. Official records showed that he had taught at the Workers Educational Association in South Wales before coming to Hong Kong to serve as the deputy director of the department, responsible for adult education.

The arrival of the group of activist teachers from the UK coincided with Hong Kong at a critical time, as it was recovering from the 1966 and 1967 riots. The colonial government was forced to consider reforms in response to the rising call for measures to fix social problems, such as poverty and housing shortage. At HKU, baby boomers who entered the university in the late 1960s were no longer confined to those from well-to-do families. The cry for radical changes was rising both inside and outside the academic walls.

The coincidence was not lost on Faure. In an essay titled “Hong Kong’s Lost Generation,” he noted that:

In “Hong Kong’s Lost Generation,” one of the four essays in this book, historian David Faure explores the generational changes at HKU in the 1960’s. (Colonialism and the Hong Kong Mentality, Centre of Asian Studies, HKU, 2003)

“In writing history, you have to ask the impossible questions. The generation of academics represented by Hopkins, Rear and others (I should also mention Joe England) were altogether quite radical in the Hong Kong context. Those of us who were at HKU in the late 1960s realised that, but looking back now and comparing what they published with the generation before them, they appear even more so to me today. And the impossible question is why they were ever hired.”

Regardless of the answer to the “impossible question,” the pioneering class of the Faculty of Social Sciences was lucky to have learned from the iconic professor and his cohort of teachers. Hopkins in particular had cast a larger-than-life presence than the two short years he spent at HKU. He was a privileged expatriate, but he engaged himself deeply in local issues in both his teaching and research, and quickly identified housing as a most critical challenge for Hong Kong. He brought the social survey method to Hong Kong before such surveys became popular at local universities. He was a fast-learner as the housing study was the first quantitative survey he ever conducted. The book he edited, The Industrial Colony, was a trailblazer at the time it was published. Hopkins was not only an unconventional historian and sociologist but also an activist with a vision for social change. He asked inconvenient questions. He challenged students and fellow academics to explore issues grounded in reality but also to imagine the unimaginable. Above all, he was not afraid to call the bluff of the stuffy academy. As the founding chair of the then fledgling sociology department, Professor Hopkins had taught us lessons that are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago.


Ying‘s World

Ying Chan is an award-winning journalist, educator, e-learning advocate, and media consultant. Formerly professor and director of Journalism and Media Studies Centre@HKU, Nieman Fellow@Harvard, NY Daily News.

Ying Chan

Written by

Ying Chan

The University of Hong Kong

Ying‘s World

Ying Chan is an award-winning journalist, educator, e-learning advocate, and media consultant. Formerly professor and director of Journalism and Media Studies Centre@HKU, Nieman Fellow@Harvard, NY Daily News.

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