A Brief History of Mathematics in Hong Kong: What It Means for the Future of Mathematics Education

26/05/2016 10:48 | Updated 26 May 2016

In light of the upcoming International Mathematics Olympiad 2016, I'd like to present the world with a little bit of mathematical history of Hong Kong. It's a business hub, so one would expect many people to use mathematics, but surprisingly the history of mathematics in Hong Kong is rather brief.

Prominent mathematician Shing-Tung Yau came from Hong Kong. There are some significant mathematical discoveries in Hong Kong, with notable examples being Juncheng Wei's proof of de Giorgi's conjecture in dimensions greater than nine and work by the late Yung-chow Wong, who was a mathematics professor at the University of Hong Kong. Most of today's research output is from universities in the region.

Mathematics competitions have a coveted place in Hong Kong. In 1974, the Northcote College of Education first held the Inter-school Mathematics Olympiad, which is now known as the Hong Kong Mathematical Olympiad. (The college and four other institutions merged in 1994 to form the Hong Kong Institute of Education, which is to be renamed the Education University of Hong Kong later in 2016.) Since then, many other mathematics contests have sprung up. In 1986, the International Mathematical Olympiad Hong Kong Committee was founded and the contest was held here for the first time in 1994.

Apart from mathematics departments in local universities, several societies for mathematics were established as well. Yung-chow Wong founded in 1972 the Southeast Asian Mathematical Society and initiated the establishment of the Hong Kong Mathematical Society in 1979. In 1988, several secondary school students established the Hong Kong Joint School Mathematics Society, and it holds an annual mathematics contest as well. In 1995 a group of mathematics educators, with Chun-ip Fung taking the lead, founded the the Hong Kong Association for Mathematics Education. One of the founders, Ngai-ying Wong, wrote several books on the history of mathematics education in primary and secondary school curriculum.

Since the 1960s, Hong Kong rode on the coattails of the New Mathematics movement which began in the States, including advanced material like symbolic logic and set theory in public examination syllabi. In the 1970s some schools abandoned the new curriculum and returned to the former curriculum known as "old mathematics", while the new curriculum was progressively made simpler. In 1977, the Education Department combined the old and new mathematics syllabi, and integrated the combined syllabus into the school leaving examination, the HKCEE (short for "Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination", roughly equivalent to the GCSE).

Interestingly, mathematics has been a peculiar choice among top achievers in public examinations, most of whom usually opt for business school, medicine or law in this city. Jeff Sze, who obtained 10 A's in the HKCEE, took up mathematics at Stanford University. Jeff now works for the Hong Kong government in education. Another 10A achiever, Martin Li, is now a mathematics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. March Tian Boedihardjo, a child prodigy who finished his A-Levels in Britain, took up mathematics at Hong Kong Baptist University in 2011 and became the youngest ever university student in Hong Kong. He is now pursuing further studies in mathematics in the States. These examples are only the tip of the iceberg, and local newspapers enjoy shining a spotlight on students, gifted or otherwise, who love mathematics.

So what can be said about the future of mathematics in Hong Kong? It will remain a subject that gives mixed feelings, just as in many developed regions. People will still churn out mathematical results. Yet more importantly, I hope that this brief discussion sets the tone for a retrospective on how mathematics has been part of the city and its culture. This is because its history of mathematics is largely overlooked in the history of this financial centre. A thorough investigation will raise popular interest in mathematics and improve the state of mathematics education in this city and beyond.

Credits and gratitude to Professor Man-keung Siu for some of the material thus presented.