ONE AFTERNOON A MONTH BEFORE the verdict, I met with Chu in the social services office of Chai Wan Baptist Church. With the verdict looming, Chu seemed calm yet weary as he poured a cup of tea and shared his story.
Chu was born in Hong Kong in 1944. Both his parents died when he was young, so his grandmother raised him in nearby Taishan, Guangdong province. As a child, he watched officials humiliate and even execute landowners in front of jeering crowds. At school, lessons focused on defeating “American imperialists.”
As land reforms led to food shortages, Chu remembers eating tree leaves and pilfering vegetables from a neighbor’s field. After his grandmother died, he returned to Hong Kong as a 12-year-old to begin an apprenticeship with a tailor. Yet instead of teaching Chu any skills, the tailor forced him to cook meals and wash clothes.
After a year and a half, Chu left and lived on the streets, making money as a shoe shiner. Gang members demanded protection money—if he couldn’t pay up, they’d beat him with a metal bar. He worked miscellaneous jobs until one day an elderly man offered him a position as a school janitor, a job allowing him to take night classes to continue his education. Chu accepted.
One day, a nearby church held an evangelistic meeting, and Chu slipped in, sitting in the back row by the exit. The preacher spoke about Jesus being the way, the truth, and the life, and the message touched Chu—he realized he had long been searching for meaning in his difficult life. Desiring change, Chu professed faith in Christ.
As he became more involved in church, he thought back to his old companions: the homeless, the destitute, and society’s outcasts. He wanted them to know Jesus, so he decided to become a pastor. Just 18 at the time, Chu had only a middle-school education, but with his church’s help, he returned to school, graduated in three years, and enrolled in Chu Hai College.
While later studying at a Baptist seminary in Taiwan, Chu says, a professor taught him an important lesson: As a pastor, he should care first for his church, then for his community, and then for his country.
In 1974, Chu returned to serve at Chai Wan Baptist Church, becoming its pastor in 1978. At the time, Chai Wan was a backwater area where families lived in shanties often destroyed during typhoons or fires. Residents had little education and little access to public health facilities. Drugs and crime were rampant.
His first foray into activism came as the government planned the Island Eastern Corridor, a major thruway along Hong Kong Island’s northeastern shore. He advocated for the road to extend east into Chai Wan to increase access for the impoverished neighborhood. When a reporter asked Chu to speak on camera, doubts filled his heart: If he spoke out, what would his church members and other pastors think? He was applying for land to build a church building at the time—would the government consider his congregation a “pressure group” and deny it the land?
Then he remembered Jesus’ courageous ministry to the hungry, the blind, and the oppressed. “I shouldn’t fear others’ opinions,” Chu remembers thinking. “I should follow God.”
Today, the Island Eastern Corridor extends into Chai Wan.
In the 1980s, Chu also pushed the government to open Eastern Hospital in Chai Wan, as there were no hospitals for the 440,000 residents in the Eastern District. He advocated for the construction of public housing so that residents could move out of dangerous shanties. His church opened a medical center, a kindergarten, an after-school program, a homeless ministry, a drug rehab program, and other social services.