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Electronics alumnus Chan Chu-lok, first president of the Hong Kong Amateur Astronomical Society (now known as Hong Kong Astronomical Society), established the Society with other astronomy enthusiasts some 50 years ago to promote astronomy education among the public.

With only poor grades in public exams, Chu-lok became a worker in a factory after secondary school but had to leave due to a work-related injury. Later a social worker helped him get a job in a tutorial school that also sold astronomical instruments. This was where he met his mentor, who not only inspired him to study chemistry and move towards his professional career path, but also taught him astronomy and encouraged him to pursue his interest in this area. The duo later set up the Hong Kong Amateur Astronomical Society together.

Forming groups to popularize astronomy education

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Chu-lok recalled picking up French astronomer Gérard Henri de Vaucouleurs’s Discovery of the Universe incidentally and became deeply inspired. ‘Unlike other subjects, amateurs can make a lot of contributions to astronomy,’ he reckoned. When he first ventured into the field, he met many young devotees like himself. They lamented that although ancient China made fascinating achievements in astronomical observation, interest in space among Hong Kong people remained lukewarm. ‘We were young and determined to do something for the amateur astronomy community in Hong Kong,’ he explained. The enthusiasts formed an amateur union in 1970 and had it formally registered as Hong Kong Amateur Astronomical Society in 1974. Chu-lok, who was elected first president, also helped to set up Space Observers H.K. in 1980 and became its first president.

In order to recruit new blood for the two bodies and break new ground, Chu-lok organized different activities including Hong Kong’s first large-scale astrophotography exhibition, astronomy conferences, publication of academic papers and promotion in secondary schools. ‘It was heartening to see more young people joining us. Our groups will stay young only if we continue to nurture new members,’ he affirmed. Today the two bodies are still communication platforms for devotees in Hong Kong, and Chu-lok keeps promoting the sharing of knowledge among members on the Internet. ‘Renowned for their wealth of information, astronomy enthusiasts in mainland China have praised our discussion platforms, saying they contain “the largest reserve of gold”, ’ he said.

Chasing the celestial phenomena

Advanced astronomical telescopes have become increasingly common and affordable, but this was not the case 40 or 50 years ago. In 1972 when Chu-lok knew that there was land available in Wang Chau, Yuen Long, he took the initiative to build an astronomical observation station with members. ‘I also wrote the words on the signboard by the entrance,’ he said, still bubbling with excitement. The station was just a shabby little hut, but it showed that unity of purpose and effort would do wonders and provided them with many unforgettable memories. He continued, ‘We once set up the largest 4-inch refracting telescope in Hong Kong at that time to watch a Mars perihelic opposition.’

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The maniac described himself as bold and daring when he was young. In 1980, when mainland China was just opening up, he wrote to the Chinese Academy of Sciences to apply to go to the Yunnan Observatories to watch the total solar eclipse for a team of 20. The application was approved unexpectedly, so he took action to prepare the itinerary straight away. Unfortunately, the weather let them down when a blanket of clouds came about suddenly during the viewing. Although Chu-lok’s wish was not fulfilled, he succeeded in establishing a connection with the observatory there and collaborated with it on a number of research projects later. There have also been dialogues and exchanges of views with counterparts in the mainland. ‘I’ve started promoting mainland-Hong Kong collaboration a long time ago,’ he said with a smile.

Passionate quest for knowledge about the boundless universe

Before retirement, Chu-lok had been working in the laboratory of a university’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering. Although he guided students in their research and participated in many research projects, he was not given credit in academic papers as he did not have a university degree. In 1991, Chu-lok enrolled in our Bachelor of Science in Electronics (part-time) programme and became a named researcher eventually after obtaining his degree in 1998. ‘There are 36 academic papers with my name printed on it. This is indeed invaluable and a testament to my contribution to collaborative research,’ he said.

It took Chu-lok eight years to obtain the degree, however it was a joyful time for him. ‘Before starting the programme, I had never thought that I could learn about differential calculus and integral calculus established by Newton. The quest for knowledge has given me a lot of satisfaction,’ he said. Totally immersed in exploring the universe, Chu-lok hopes to do his best as an amateur and has continued to conduct research and write academic papers. He expounded modestly that his research projects were small in scale but all original. ‘All came from my own observations and thoughts. With a critical mind, bold assumptions and thorough verification, I made some new discoveries. For example, several meteorite craters on the moon have pinyin names with Chinese elements, but their Chinese names have not yet been finalized. Later, I used the Wade-Giles romanization system to compare and suggested that the Chinese words for the craters should be Ching-Te, Sung-Mei and Wan-Yu.’ When mainland authorities expanded their lunar exploration programme and got news about Chu-lok’s paper on the names of meteorite craters, they contacted him for more information.

Speaking about China’s great advance in aerospace science and technology, Chu-lok expressed some emotions: ‘Thirty years ago, I could hardly imagine that we Chinese could land on the moon and explore Mars. I was fortunate to see our country’s achievements and felt very proud of them.’ Chu-lok devoted himself wholeheartedly to research after retirement. As an academic consultant of Space Observers H.K., he has continued to participate in the ‘Research and Developments in Astronomy’ lecture series co-organized by it and Hong Kong Space Museum for more than ten years. Moving forward with like-minded enthusiasts, Chu-lok remained steadfast in his commitment to the firmament. After looking at the sky for half a century, his outlook on life has also changed. ‘Once you get to know about the origin of the universe and human evolution, you would realize how insignificant human beings are. We should make more contribution to society rather than caring too much about seeking enjoyment and wealth,’ he supplemented.