Life at HKU SPACEOur Stories
Lam Chiu Ying on Bird Watching: Noticing, Seeing, ObservingHKU SPACE
It is a beautiful morning with warm sunshine and a gentle breeze. We gather on a cozy balcony at the Hong Kong Observatory and listen to Lam Chiu Ying speak. He shares his bird-watching experiences, his views on Hong Kong people, and his observations on Hong Kong society.
On Survival, on Living, and on Life
Lam compares birds to human beings on three levels of existence: survival, living, and life. When we think about people at work, toiling hard from dawn till dusk, they are no different from birds or animals hunting for food – working for mere sustenance and survival.
Lam’s original interest lay in astronomy. After joining the Hong Kong Observatory in 1974, he encountered a critical dilemma: his interest, having become his work, had become wholly eclipsed by it. Not contented with existing only on the level of survival, Lam actively sought out new interests to enrich his life. So in 1976 he applied for the “Hong Kong Birds” course at HKU SPACE (formerly known as the Department of Extra-Mural Studies of HKU). It was a chance happening that ignited an enduring passion for bird watching.
“Those ten classes changed my life”, Lam says. From then on, bird watching became his lifelong interest. “I used to study physics, which was a world devoid of life. Bird watching took me into the realm of the living.” Lam fell in love with observing his subjects’ delicate movements and habits, incorporating the intricate rhythms of their lives into his own. Gradually, he came to witness even their most intimate interactions: the playful pursuits, the fights, even the courtships. After a day’s work, Lam would crouch patiently in a corner of Kowloon Park, watching over a row of new-born chicks – their mouths open and expectant – waiting for their mother to deliver food. Lam once witnessed a mother bird risk her life for her baby; according to Lam, her great love exceeded even that of human. Lam’s passion for birds extends to all things in nature. He actively participates in environmental campaigns and serves as Chairman of various environmental conservation groups. Always eager to spread his passion to others, Lam organises bird watching expeditions in Hong Kong, Mainland China, and Southeast Asia. On one occasion, in Guizhou, an old man invited Lam to his home. After accepting his invitation, Lam was shocked to encounter the old man’s Spartan living quarters. Lam recalls: “He had no material possessions, and yet he was not in any respect poor. He led a simple, fulfilling, and happy life. I suddenly realised that the Hong Kong way of life was not the only way to live.”
Lam’s passion for birds extends to all things in nature. He actively participates in environmental campaigns and serves as Chairman of a variety of environmental conservation groups. Always eager to spread his passion to others, Lam organises bird watching expeditions in Hong Kong, mainland China, and Southeast Asia. On one occasion, in Guizhou, an old man invited Lam to his home. After accepting his invitation, Lam was shocked to encounter the old man’s spartan living quarters. Lam recalls: “He had no material possessions at all, and yet he was not in any respect poor. He led a simple, fulfilling, and happy life. I suddenly realised that the Hong Kong way of life was not the only way to live.”
The lessons Lam learned from birds led him to reflect upon his life and living habits. Gradually, Lam developed a philosophy based on bird watching.
To See, or Not to See?
By now, Lam has led us into the woods beyond the Observatory, and we wait in anticipation for traces of his beloved birds. As Honorary Chairman of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, Lam is well acquainted with the daily lives and habits of most birds in Hong Kong. Recalling his first experience in bird watching many years ago, however, Lam says: “I did not notice a single bird in my first bird watching class. We were at a cemetery, and our teacher kept pointing out different birds to us, but I failed to see a single one. I felt like I was blind!” The experience was a profound one. Lam realised suddenly that entire worlds of beautiful things existed right under his nose, and that he had to pay attention in order to notice them. From then on Lam progressed from “not noticing” to “seeing”, and then from “merely seeing” to “observing”. Such insights helped him not just in bird watching but also in his professional pursuits. At work, Lam became more open and accepting of other people’s thoughts and views.
“When I watch birds, I am their equal,” says Lam. But Lam says, he “observes” birds, he doesn't “study” them. Lam explains that the Chinese character “觀” is composed of two parts: the left component comprises a bird with two eyes on top, while the right component is a person with his eyes open. Putting the two together, the character “觀” pictorialises the phenomenon of man and bird gazing at each other, observing each other as equals.
Turning back to our present expedition, we notice that Lam does not take any pictures and relies only on what he can see with his own eyes. Lam tells us, “There are many stories of people so focused on taking pictures that they don’t even notice what they are taking a photo of. If you ask them what bird they encountered on their expedition, they would have to take out their camera to check.” Lam thinks that such people represent the average modern Hong Kong person, mindlessly operating within the virtual world of cell phones and cameras, ignoring real things in the real world.
The practice of bird watching has also enriched Lam’s professional life. He says: “Bird watching helped develop my instincts. A lot of times you only catch a fleeting glimpse of a bird, and within that moment you have to deduce its type, the climate it belongs to, or its physical characteristics.” In other words, the practice of bird watching complemented Lam’s training in science and logic with shrewd intuition, enhancing the great meteorologist’s skills and capabilities.
Learning as Constructive Leisure
For Lam, learning is a means to fully recharge and rejuvenate in a world outside of work – one which provides simultaneous escape, rest, and physical and intellectual nourishment. As such, learning for Lam is the most positive and constructive type of leisure.
Over the 35 years Lam spent at the Hong Kong Observatory, he undertook courses on bird watching, dance, Western art appreciation and Spanish classes at HKU SPACE – experiences that immeasurably enriched his life. According to Lam, life is a journey of continuous exploration and discovery. He says: “Hong Kong people are too busy. We should all keep looking for things that inspire us. Only then can we live out a meaningful and fulfilling life.”