When I retired from ETH Zurich, a friend wrote to me, “Now that you are free – come to Hong Kong!”. He wanted to hire me for a five-year guest professorship at Hong Kong Baptist University. We agreed, initially for just a one-semester appointment to ensure that I would like Hong Kong and that the university would be happy with me. It turned out to be a very pleasant experience and I have now spent eight semesters in Hong Kong!
Since 1997, Hong Kong is once again part of China. However, as part of the handover agreement it maintains a special economic status for 50 years. The slogan of Deng Xiaoping was “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong and Macau retain their own economic and administrative systems, while the rest of China remains a socialist system with typical Chinese characteristics.
“In fact, there are many leftovers of the British Empire in Hong Kong.”
Cars drive on the left side of the road, while in Mainland China drivers drive on the right side. People queue up before a bus or a counter, children go to school in uniforms – schools still follow the British model. Wine, meat, fruit, and other goods are imported “jet-fresh” from former British colonies like South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia etc. Many Hong Kongers speak fluent English as well as their native Cantonese.
Hong Kong Baptist University was founded in 1956 by the Baptist religious scholars as a post-secondary college. In 1983, the college became a fully-funded public tertiary institution. Finally, in 1994, it received university status and was renamed Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU). HKBU is not a technical university and there is no engineering education. HKBU is more comparable to the University of Zurich than to ETH Zurich. It has, for example, a medical school specializing on Chinese medicine, a wonderful music department with an orchestra that performs all over the world – even in Carnegie Hall in New York. The Computer Science Department is part of the Faculty of Science together with Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology.
After graduation, most students prefer to apply to well-known universities in U.S., United Kingdom, or Australia for further studies. These universities advertise heavily in Hong Kong and are present at recruiting events to engage prospective students, often ETH Zurich is not present.“In Hong Kong, ETH Zurich has a reputation as an excellent university. However, the students don’t realize the potential and opportunities that ETH can offer.”
My presence as guest professor gives an opportunity to tell my students about Switzerland and about ETH.
Another positive point, in terms of making ETH accessible for foreign students, is that ETH Zurich now teaches master’s and doctoral studies in English. This is also opens the door for Hong Kong and other foreign students to attend ETH.
Hong Kong has about 8 million inhabitants, comparable to Switzerland, however the entire population lives in land surface area about the same size as Canton Uri. So, if the whole of Switzerland would move to Uri, it would feel a lot like Hong Kong. Now you would think that every square meter would be overbuilt, but this is not the case. One can hike in Hong Kong without seeing a house. The highest mountain is about 1’000 meters high. The city is built very compact, in three high rises with 50 floors, 8 apartments on one floor one can accommodate a whole Swiss village.
Hong Kong Animals
The animals one encounters in Hong Kong are also different then everyday animals one might see in Switzerland. You may see monkeys, snakes, big insects, beautiful butterflies, wild cows, dogs, and even water buffaloes. The cows, dogs, and water buffaloes once belonged to farmers. As farmers abandoned their land, they let the animals free and some have prospered living in the wild.
Hong Kong is a truly international dynamic city with people of all kinds of nationalities. The universities are eager to exchange students. Think of spending a semester in the East. The distance from Zurich to Hong Kong is about the same as from Zurich to San Francisco.
By Prof. Em. Walter Gander
Walter Gander is professor emeritus of the Department of Computer Science. His research area is scientific computing. After his retirement from ETH he became a visiting professor at Baptist University in Hong Kong. Since many years he is actively promoting computer science in Swiss schools. Personal Webpage.