Passings: Professor Bernard Luk a beloved teacher and colleague

York University Professor of history Bernard Luk passed away at Sunnybrook Hospital on March 23 after suffering a stroke. He was a beloved teacher and colleague, and author of numerous publications on modern East Asia, China and Hong Kong.

Bernard Luk
Bernard Luk

After receiving his PhD in history from Indiana University in 1977, Prof. Luk taught at the Faculty of Education, Chinese University of Hong Kong before joining the History Department at York University in 1991. On leave from York between 2003 and 2007, he served as the vice-president of Hong Kong Institute of Education.

Prof. Luk was an internationally recognized authority on the history of Hong Kong. His early studies were on the Jesuits in Asia, but over time he turned more and more to studying Hong Kong, its history, its present and its future. His devotion to researching and writing about Hong Kong sprang not only from his great dedication to his hometown, but also from his keen observation that this former British colony has always occupied a unique position in the history of China.

He authored and co-edited 14 books and numerous articles on Hong Kong, often, but not exclusively, focusing on education, in both Chinese and English. His last major project, which will result in a substantive volume soon to be published, is the history of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, a major actor in the formation of the civil society in Hong Kong.

In 1992, Prof. Luk initiated and co-directed, with Diana Lary, the Canada and Hong Kong Project with the Joint Centre for Asia Pacific Studies. Apart from hosting academic exchanges and publication, this project houses an impressive collection of reference materials, which he has painstakingly helped to amass over the years. It eventually led to the establishment of the Richard Charles Lee Canada-Hong Kong Library at the University of Toronto.

Prof. Luk was a passionate advocate for democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong, believing, as he did, that these are the foundation of a civil society. While serving as vice-president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, he brought to light incidents of direct interference into the autonomy of higher education institution from high-level government officials. This resulted in a government-appointed commission of inquiry, and later a judicial review into academic freedom and higher education institutional autonomy. His whistleblowing action, probably incurred at great personal cost, remains one of the significant landmarks of the ongoing struggle to defend academic freedom in Hong Kong.

Much less known is Prof. Luk’s penning of a booklet entitled “What is gwok-gaa?” under the pseudonym, Naam Ngaan Ming. Intended to debunk the myth of a timeless, natural formation of a “mother-nation/state”, this booklet carries the weight of the clarity and meticulousness of a good historian, and is intended to help young readers navigate the murky waters of “patriotic education”. His concern for the young ones was such that he took time out of the packed schedule of a university administrator to join a writing workshop for high school students in an under-privileged part of town in the summer of 2004, eventually contributing a short reminiscence of his childhood days to the resulting collection, under the name of “Uncle Gei”.

Despite the magnitude of his professional achievements, friends, family, and colleagues will perhaps miss him most for his thoughtfulness and unwavering sense of social service. Never to miss a meeting, a birthday, a memorial or other event, Prof. Luk saved and sent articles that he thought others would like to read, visited colleagues in hospitals, and brought snacks into the office. It is perhaps appropriate that one of his last activities was serving as coordinator of the East Asian Studies Program at York University during its review.

Prof. Luk is survived by his wife Fatima Lee and two sons.

Contributing authors: Poking Choi, Yuk-Lin Renita Wong, Diana Lary, Janice Kim