By April Chong
NOT many schools here have a staff room with a four-generation teaching crew. But Hwa Chong Institution does.
Among the one-third of its 360 teachers who were students there is mathematics teacher Lim Lin Eng, 46.
Her own teacher is now her colleague, at least 10 of her former students are teaching alongside her, and some students of her students have also since joined Hwa Chong's teaching force.
She and 10,000 other members of the Hwa Chong family came together last Saturday under white tents pitched in the school field to mark the 90th anniversary of their alma mater with a dinner.
Former students flew in from around the world. Rounding them up posed little problem, since the 86-year-old alumni association has branches in Malaysia, China, Hong Kong and Britain.
The school spirit burns strongly, so keeping the alumni body going also poses little problem.
Alumni council members are getting younger, as more in their 30s and 40s come back to help out, said the president of the Hwa Chong Alumni Association, Mr Desmond Ong, 57.
In fact, a youth chapter just opened to draw even younger alumni into keeping the old school ties.
Mr Ong, who studied in the school in the 1960s when it was still surrounded by 'jungle', said: 'Once you come back, you'll feel the cohesiveness and spirit.'
Former Hwa Chong student and current literature teacher Liew Pei Li, 27, by her own admission, 'sort of never left the school'.
She said of the school spirit: 'It is competitive but the people are very warm, very real and help each other.'
Her sister, Pei Chin, also a Hwa Chong alumna, is a teacher there too.
The Hwa Chong of today is the result of a 2005 merger between Chinese High School and Hwa Chong Junior College.
The high school, the first Chinese-medium secondary school here, was set up in 1919 by the late philanthropist Tan Kah Kee.
Starting with just four classes of 73 students in a bungalow in Niven Road near Selegie, it moved to Bukit Timah Road in 1925.
The school was to bear witness to some of Singapore's most turbulent times: Classes ceased during World War II. Between 1942 and 1945, the school was occupied by the Allied forces and, later, by the Japanese.
The school building was valued for its strategic location and clock tower, which was a good surveillance point and which has been gazetted as a national monument.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Chinese High's students dabbled in communist activities. They were involved in the 1955 Hock Lee bus riots and the 1956 Chinese middle school riot, which left at least 13 people dead.
The school's three-year junior middle and three-year senior middle system was phased out in 1961.
The high school was among the first nine Special Assistance Plan schools in 1979 and became independent in 1988.
Hwa Chong Junior College came along in 1974. Its campus moved seven times before returning to its Bukit Timah roost.
Hwa Chong Institution has churned out 49 President's Scholars, a record among junior colleges here.
Its luminaries include Senior Minister of State for National Development and Education Grace Fu, music composer Liang Wern Fook and the late president Ong Teng Cheong.
The institution has plans to spread its wings. On the heels of setting up a satellite campus in Beijing in 2007, where students are sent for immersion programmes, the school will build a similar campus in the United States in five years, and in India thereafter.
Hwa Chong will also create a global academy offering virtual mentorship schemes and adopt technology to facilitate learning.
Hwa Chong principal Ang Wee Hiong said: 'Our aim is to nurture effectively bilingual and bicultural leaders with a global perspective, but who are culturally aware of, and have a deep appreciation for, their Chinese origins.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.