John Ap: Dialogue with an Adventist urban and tourism planner

John Ap, assistant professor in the department of hotel and tourism management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, is an urban planner of parks and open spaces. A native of Sydney, he is a first-generation Australian-born Chinese and has received a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University. He researches the impact of tourism from the residents’ perspective, directs surveys to help theme park managers, conducts academic studies on service qualities for hotel management, travel motivation of vacationers, and barriers to vacationing.

Methodical and organized, Ap chose his profession in park-and-recreation planning because he deplored office routine and preferred a job with variety in the out-of-doors. However, although he ended up spending most of his time in his university office, he considers it worth the while, for he can pass his skills along to young people. He believes that God created us to enjoy life and that we should spice up life by doing new and different things from time to time. His concept spills over into his Christian living and Sabbath observance. In his work with his church’s Pathfinder Club and Adventurer Group, he organizes camping on the outlying islands and nature study at the beach. His carefully planned projects are designed so the youth won’t say, “Ah, there’s nothing to do on Sabbath; it’s boring!”

Is Ap a common Chinese surname?

No, but the name gives me uniqueness. Many Chinese have commented about it. The name should be spelled Yip or Ip, but it seems that when the Australian immigration authorities registered my father’s name, they misspelled it. The name has stuck for two generations.

How does being in the tourism business affect your vacation time?

Of course it is holiday time for my family! But, knowing the work that’s involved in creating the mood and atmosphere in a theme park, I can’t help comparing sites and thinking to myself, “Ah, this is how they handle that, and that’s how they handle this.” I get perks that go along with the job. Whenever we go to a theme park or hotel, I write ahead first. When the managers find out that I research the business, they usually want to visit with me so I can talk with them about their philosophy. They want to hear any suggestions I might have for them. Tourism is the fastest-growing business today, so, naturally, with so much competition, managers take their fun very seriously. They carefully calculate the fun-loving environment in theme parks and tourist sites. There’s nothing Mickey Mouse about managing a theme park.

Let’s talk about your religious background.

I was not brought up a Christian. When I was about eight, my parents took me to the local Anglican church. It was only later on, when we visited my great-aunt Hong in Tenterfield, New South Wales, Australia, that we came across Seventh-day Adventists. In Tenterfield there were two Chinese families. One was my great-aunt’s family (the Hongs) and the other was the Hon family. The Hons were Adventists, and through their friendship and influence my great-aunt also joined the Adventists. She in turn took us to church whenever we visited her.

How did your family become Adventists?

After my mother took Bible studies and attended church, she decided to become an Adventist. My father worked six days a week in the restaurant business. On my father’s day off, the pastor would come and give him Bible studies. Then my father had to make a decision. If he wanted to become an Adventist Christian, he’d have to give up his work. He chose to do so and set up a business making rice noodles.

Tell me how you chose to make Sabbath important.

As a child, I didn’t like the idea of going to church on Sabbath, because it seemed to be a day of don’ts. We couldn’t play soccer, or watch TV, or do anything else. But during my teen years, I read a number of significant books on the Sabbath (Desmond Ford’s The Forgotten Day and works by Samuele Bacchiocchi), which changed the direction of my life. I realized that Sabbath is not simply a day. It is a memorial of Creation, an opportunity for us to rest from our daily secular life and spend time with God and the family and to reflect upon spiritual things. When I understood and accepted that, I began keeping Sabbath and enjoying it.

I understand your father’s example also helped you in your decision.

Yes, of course. One day I felt if keeping the Sabbath was good enough for my father, it must be good enough for me. He had had to make a big decision concerning Sabbath. Even within the noodle business, he faced difficulty because the shopkeepers and the restaurants wanted their noodles delivered fresh daily. Initially, they said, “Well, no, you have to deliver daily.” But my father said, “I will give you noodles twice on Friday, in the morning and in the afternoon. But I’m sorry, I cannot deliver on Saturday.” His example showed that if you remain firm about the Sabbath, people will respect your belief and God will bless.

How do you handle the Sabbath problem in a school where teachers are required to work five and a half days a week?

When I joined the university, I mentioned to the administration that I am a Seventh-day Adventist and that because I observe Sabbath as my day of worship, I’d like to be excused from attending official duties during Sabbath hours. The administration has always respected my request. I have to be careful, of course, putting in my hours. I work Sundays. When special official functions are held on Sabbath, I request specifically that I be excused. My colleagues appreciate that and cover for me. And I cover for them when they need to be off on a Sunday or on a weeknight.

Outside your office, I notice you have a special bulletin board.

Right. I put on this bulletin board a saying every week from God’s Little Instruction Book or from God’s Little Instruction Book for Students. This way, when students and colleagues come to my office, I can share something with them. Along with the particular saying, there is always a Bible verse. I want my students and colleagues to know that I am a practicing Christian and am ready to answer their questions about life’s dilemmas from God’s perspective.

How will the change in Hong Kong’s status affect you?

The fact that I’ve switched from being a contract teacher to a regular teacher at the university indicates that I have confidence in the future of Hong Kong. I’m one of the few people who’ve had the opportunity to read both the Joint Declaration, signed in 1984, which agreed that Hong Kong would be turned over, and the Basic Law, which will serve as the mini-constitution for Hong Kong. What surprised me when I read them is that the autonomy of Hong Kong is very much assured.

How will religion fare now that the British have left?

A critical turning point that related to the Chinese authorities’ dealings with Hong Kong occurred last year. It concerned the Lutheran World Congress, which is held once every seven years in a different place around the world. In 1995, the Lutheran Church decided to hold the 1997 Congress in Hong Kong. A local official in the Xinhua News Agency (which served as the de facto Chinese embassy in Hong Kong) criticized the British for permitting the conference that was to begin within a week or two after the Hong Kong handover. The local official indicated to the Lutheran leaders that they wouldn’t be able to hold their World Congress in Hong Kong. This led to a lot of concern in the local Christian community as to what type of religious liberty could be expected under the new government.

Subsequent to that incident, the authorities gave assurances that Christians would continue to enjoy the religious freedoms that they previously experienced. Later, Beijing made an announcement that any decisions concerning Hong Kong had to be cleared from Beijing. Since that time, I’ve observed that nothing controversial has come out from the local Chinese-based officials here.

What challenges do you see for Christians in general, and for Adventists in particular, now that the handover has taken place?

The good news is that the late Deng Xiaoping’s concept of “one country, two systems” will apply. Therefore, we can expect that control over religion in China itself will continue, but this is Hong Kong. Even so, I think that, as Christians living in Hong Kong, we will have to be aware of our responsibilities. While we preach the gospel and go about sharing Christ, we must not jeopardize the so-called security of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. Our trust in God’s guidance remains strong.

Interview by Stanley Maxwell. Stanley Maxwell, a Hong Kong resident, is the author of two books: The Man Who Couldn’t Be Killed (1995) and The Man Who Lived Twice (1997). When he’s not writing, he’s teaching English or telling children’s stories. Married to a Hong Konger, he is the proud father of his daughter, Roxanne. Dr. Ap’s address: A 4, 2 Lok Kwai Path; Fo Tan, Shatin, NT; Hong Kong. E-mail: hmjohnap@polyu.edu.hk.