In the spotlight: Hong Kong's superstar teachers

In the spotlight: Hong Kong's superstar teachers

They look and act like rock stars, and some earn the money of rock stars too. Only they teach children English
Hong Kong's King's Glory Education
Hong Kong's King's Glory Education tutor's billboard.

The pressure for youngsters to perform at school today is as high as it has ever been. In Asia this has led to a 'tutor culture,' in which specialist teachers provide private tuition to those who want, and can afford, it. Yet far from giving the continent's youngsters an edge over their tutor-less peers, it appears more successful at turning a band of young, good-looking teachers into superstars, particularly in Hong Kong. 

Studded belts and spiky hair: Hong Kong’s super tutors

A typical working day for Alan Chan begins with an hour-long recording session at a TV studio, followed by a photo shoot in designer duds. People recognize him in the streets, and his handsome face beams from billboards and bus posters. Is he a model? A Hong Kong pop idol? Not even close: Chan is an English tutor at leading 'cram school,' King’s Glory

Tutoring has become a glamorous profession, especially in Hong Kong. CNNGo spoke with Tutor King Richard Eng, who appears in celebrity glossies wearing makeup and Gucci belts and driving a yellow Lamborghini. Eng co-founded Beacon College and earns US$1.5 million a year, courtesy of drooling fan girls who convince their parents to pay for his amusing prep classes. 

What’s with the Tom Cruise tutor phenomenon? According to Dr F Shum, chief English consultant at King’s Glory, competition is keen and “appearance is important as a marketing strategy. It is the first passport for getting students into the classroom.”

Alan Chan agrees. “Take the example of David Beckham. First, the public focused on his appearance and charm, and then became interested in soccer. Students may attend my class because of my first impression, but after, what holds them is their desire to learn English,” he says. 

Cram schools also work the bribery angle. They offer cash for good grades and coupons for signing up. Hong Kong-based author Nury Vittachi was amazed to find a toy shop in Sylvan’s after-school center. His children were eager to take classes so that they could buy trinkets with 'study points.' Vittachi jokes, “Some of the gear was really cool. I’m signing up for classes myself next term.”

King’s GloryDr F Shum and Alan Chan of King’s Glory pose like action heroes on a Hong Kong bus ad.Japanese 'idol tutors' and foreigners in China

All over Asia, tutorial schools have turned to outlandish gimmicks to attract students. CNNGo reported on Idol Gaigo Gakuen, a Tokyo language academy, that brings in short-skirted idols to encourage otaku to speak English.

In China, white tutors are coveted because they bring in a mark of prestige. In a blog post about her experiences as an English teacher in Shanghai, Shakti Hurst says her school put her photo on the front page of newspapers and made her the host of an English-learning TV show. “I realized I was a marketing tool and was often the final selling point [for potential students]. I felt more like an actor than a teacher as my days were now filled with endless shooting sessions in front of lights and cameras.” 

Scandal and drama: The future of super-tutors

John Skutlin, an American who has taught in Japan for three years and participates in otaku culture, thinks gimmicks such as cute girls can be effective as teaching tools. “If a solid foundation of ESL education can be established, the relaxing atmosphere and motivation for learning provided by the idols could offer hope for those shy Akiba types, and give them the boost they need.” 

However, a few bad boys have already put a black mark on the industry. Hong Kong’s K. Oten claimed to have an A on his English college entry exam, but actually scored a D on his first try. He was dismissed by King’s Glory in April 2006 for violating his employment contract, eventually paying HK$8.9 million in damages. In May 2008, the Independent Commission Against Corruption began investigating claims that Oten bought exam papers and texted answers to students. 

When I allude to the incident, Oten’s former employer Dr Shum says, “Some people start making money and become too proud, and think they can get away with certain behaviors. I’m not going to comment on the person you mentioned except that he deserved what he got.”

Expect to read about tutor scandals in the tabloids for some time. Dr Shum predicts that as the overall student population decreases, cram schools will have to leverage every possible angle to fill classrooms -- no matter how sensational. 

La Carmina writes about Harajuku pop culture and all things spooky-cute. She is the author of three books about Japanese pop culture and food, including "Cute Yummy Time" and "Crazy Wacky Theme Restaurants: Tokyo" -- for which she did all the photos and illustrations. Both books were released in October, accompanied by a U.S. major city book tour.

For more, please visit her website.

Read more about La Carmina