The glamorous celebrity tutors of Hong Kong.

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Aug. 29 2011 4:25 PM

Meet the Glamorous Celebrity Tutors of Hong Kong

Brutal exams go down easier when your teacher looks like a pop star.

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So tutors try to boost their brand power however they can. Some—for fear of losing fans—avoid mentioning that they're married. Kelly Mok, who has been teaching English for two years at the renowned chain King's Glory—and who came into high demand after she was interviewed on a TV news program—encourages her students to check in often with her Facebook page. They leave messages letting her know how amazing she looked that day and wondering what she's "up to right now." The 26-year-old former psych major acknowledges that her lessons are meant to be performative, but maintains that "you have to strike a balance" between entertainment and instruction. The afternoon we meet, her dark hair is coiled flawlessly, her face thoroughly blushed and mascaraed. Cheerful and petite, she pairs a sleeveless black dress that puffs up around the bottom with cork wedges. "I can't wear the same thing twice," she titters softly. "They would notice."

Not for nothing do most of this city's rank-and-file teachers despise the tutorial industry. Educators at Hong Kong's heavily subsidized local schools earn about $60,000—roughly half of what a tutor who's just becoming a public figure brings in. Very few tutors have teaching backgrounds; cram chains like Modern Education are more likely to scout out young, charismatic lawyers or former beauty contestants. And in the contest to capture students' attention, plain, hardworking professors simply can't compete with miniskirted billboard personalities. In a strange irony, regular teachers often find that their lack of glamour makes them less credible as educators: Parents and their kids tend to believe that since mainstream schools are free and all teachers paid the same wage, the instructors have no real incentive to adequately prepare pupils for the public exams.

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The truth is that formal schools simply don't have the resources to pore over old tests, spot trends, develop shortcuts, and predict questions. Tutors deal in quick tricks proven to boost results. Their extracurricular sessions may not relay much in the way of real knowledge, but they deliver what they promise: high scores. "We're a supplement to day school, like a vitamin," says Eng.

Or, as Mark Bray of the University of Hong Kong has it: "Hong Kong cram schools are like the McDonald's of education: They have a product, they mass produce it, it's relatively cheap, it's probably not very nutritious, but it fills your stomach." It's not an exaggeration to liken the city's cram-school culture to the ever-present, aggressively marketed fast-food chain. But that doesn't mean a star tutor would ever be caught dead with a Quarter Pounder.

Hillary Brenhouse is a freelance writer currently based in Hong Kong and a former reporter for Time magazine.

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