The glamorous celebrity tutors of Hong Kong.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
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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It's a Saturday evening, and 45 teenagers have gathered here to watch Richard Eng perform. Some days he'll play to three or four times as many kids, his high cheekbones and bright teeth projected on flat-screen TVs. Tonight, the bangs that sweep in a copper-streaked diagonal across his forehead are frozen in place with what looks to be a copious amount of hair spray. The designer watch and indigo suede shoes are from his legendarily vast collections. "It's important to give young people stimuli," he tells me later. The 17-year-olds sit rapt as a headset-wearing Eng gesticulates wildly, using adolescent slang and poking fun. They giggle at steady intervals; one girl produces a palpable sigh. When he leaves, they'll congregate to take bets on what he's likely to wear next time. The glossy manuals they hold, emblazoned with the words "Richard 2011" and portraits of the man in various outfits, look like event programs. But this isn't a pop concert—it's an after-school tutoring session.

Welcome to the flash and glitz of Hong Kong's celebrity tutors. Eng, 47,  was the first to realize he could become famous—and rich—by packaging himself like a teen idol, but an entire industry of after-school instructors has since followed suit. They appear on the backs and sides of buses, on billboards that overhang well-trafficked avenues, in radio spots, television shows, and full-page newspaper ads. The best-known among them are referred to in Cantonese as tutor kings and turn up regularly in local gossip rags. (When affluent instructor and part-time rapper K. OTen declared bankruptcy on account of multiple lawsuits, the tabloids had a field day.) With aggressive publicity tactics, they vie for renown and an increasingly large chunk of Hong Kong's $60-million tutoring market. Eng is rumored to bring home $1.5 million a year. He owns an estate north of Kowloon, loves Louis Vuitton, and tools around in a canary-yellow Lamborghini, the license plate of which reads: RICHARD. Earlier this year, one Hong Konger was so excited to catch sight of the car that he tailed it, took a cellphone video, and promptly posted the clip to YouTube.

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In Hong Kong, there are hundreds of so-called "cram schools," which coach teenagers to ace the city's traumatic public exams. Local secondary students take a test in their fifth year at age 16 (they need to pass this simply to continue their studies) and another in their seventh and final year. Each exam lasts about two months, and they can be brutal: This year, less than half of those who sat the latter test did well enough to even be able to apply to undergraduate institutions. Next year, the two exams will be merged into a single one, but that's unlikely to lessen the pressure.

Attending a cram school is common enough here as to seem almost compulsory: Last year, an estimated 85 percent of senior secondary students were receiving tutoring (PDF). But prior to 1996 there was little to distinguish one company from the next. That was the year that Eng—co-founder of Beacon College, now among four leading tutorial chains—began to tout his own personal image in a bid to set his school apart. "I'm an egoist," he shrugs in explanation. He took out costly color newspaper ads in which he "dressed very elegantly," he says, before finding an even more pervasive marketing platform: the city's sprawling public transport system.

In relatively small Hong Kong, names and faces travel quickly. As strangers increasingly recognized Eng, his enrollment numbers shot up. Other institutions with the wherewithal to plug their most skilled and photogenic instructors set about doing the same. As past stories on the phenomenon have stressed, these ad campaigns play on adolescents' materialism (and their hormones). But they succeed mainly because they appeal to the kids' acute anxiety over their exams. A tutor whose likeness is plastered all over town is more than just a crush object: She's a familiar, comforting brand, her Louboutin stilettos an assurance that she's helped plenty of other test-takers make the grade—and been paid handsomely for it. Every giggling tutorial student is, privately, petrified. Asked what she'd like to be when she grows up, Fiona Lam, one of Richard Eng's English tutees, responds tensely: "I just need to prepare for my examination, and everything will be OK."

Students aren't the only ones asked to keep pace in a ruthlessly competitive environment. Currently, Eng estimates that there are about 50 tutors in the city who could credibly call themselves "celebrities." Ascending to the top of the tutorial hierarchy isn't easy, or without investment. New Beacon College recruits interested in shooting photographs and promotional videos (and they are all interested) are asked to contribute to the costs out of pocket, and tutors often spend weeks consulting stylists and makeup artists before production. The larger centers pour from $900,000 to $1.3 million each into advertising every year, erecting hundreds of billboards that spotlight what look like squads of business-casual superheroes. Unless you have a highly marketable background (like Beacon's Cliff Yeung, who used to work for the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority), the only way to make it onto one of these signs is to significantly boost student registration. And fame isn't the only end: The greater a tutor's star power, the more generous her cut of the tuition fees. At Beacon, where 60 instructors accommodate 25,000 enrollees, that can add up quickly.

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.

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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