Home » It’s All Work And No Play For Children In Hong Kong

It’s All Work And No Play For Children In Hong Kong

“How did the interview go?”

It’s a question that peppers conversations daily across the island and beyond, here in The Kong.

You probably think I’m talking about a job interview – for a grown-up right?

Wrong! I’m talking about interviewing a two year old.
Yes – a very small person who can barely communicate (verbally anyway).

What’s the job? Well, it’s school! Pre-school even.To make the cut, you’ve got to pass with flying colours and kids that means no tantrum throwing or displaying even the tiniest hint of separation anxiety!

Yep! Forget the days of choosing a school based on how close it is for the kids to walk and then popping into the classroom for a quick meet and greet with little Johnny’s teacher. The fact is, in Hong Kong, demand for an education outweighs supply. Significantly.

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Typically, for every school place, at least double the number of students are applying and if it’s a ‘big name’ school, there can be hundreds of parents jockeying for a few coveted spots. So fiercely competitive is the process, parents often apply from birth to as many as a dozen schools – paying a small fortune in deposits.

While it’s not compulsory to start school until six years old, it is the norm to start at three and often well before.

My daughter started ‘school’ this week, in the loosest sense of the word. Three afternoons a week for just over an hour… considered pretty tame ‘round here really for a two year old. To be honest with you, I’m quite relieved I can say Ava’s at ‘school.’ Grateful to avoid the ambush of questions I’ve been receiving from well meaning locals, long before Ava reached her first birthday. It usually played out something like this?

“How’s Ava going at school?”

“School??” I’m sure my initial, slightly alarmed and confused response only served to highlight my lack of attention to Ava’s so-called plight.

(A quick calculation in my head, I’d reassure myself, they must think she’s older than she is, I mean she looks older, she’s tall isn’t she?)

“She’s not two,” I’d stammer, but they press on…

“She’s not in school, what do you do all day? Is she social??”

I’d try to keep my face blank whilst the little voice inside my head recoiled in horror. “No actually she’s devoid of all social interaction (hint of sarcasm) we sit at home and stare at four walls all day…what the hell do you think we do?” Instead, I’d mutter something about all our very ‘active’ play dates, soccer and swimming lessons and how Ava is more sociable than a puppy on steroids. (Meanwhile, she’s sitting there with an ‘I’ve just woken up’ dormant look on her face – mute!) Nice one Ava.

Most Chinese children will be in school at 18 months, five days a week. Five, long days a week. Of course, a lot of toddlers around the world are in full-time day care or the equivalent because both mum and dad need to/want to work.

But here, it’s different. Both parents working or not, it doesn’t matter. This is a planned pathway to success that starts earlier than potty training!

Since I started writing this I’ve had my own dilemma, you see, we enrolled Ava at a nice pre-school downstairs about a year ago, thinking it was a few hours in the afternoon, three days a week. (Quite a big ask in my eyes anyway, but I figured it was two minutes away and an easy, viable option.) I’ve since discovered the school term starts in a few months and it’s five days a week!

My panicky chat with the head teacher was met with an ever so polite “we know in your culture it’s done a little differently, but we can assure you Ava will benefit and adapt very quickly.” Maybe so, but the jury’s still out in this household.

It’s probably no great surprise, even if you’ve never lived in Asia, you will have at some point read or watched something about China and it’s reputation as the great education machine.

Before moving here, I’ll admit, I’d always pegged Asian kids as the smart ones. You know the type who go to school very early in life and are encouraged to spend hours during and after school studying and achieving, in all areas. That perception it turns out is not too far from the truth.

For Chinese children ‘over scheduled’ is an understatement.

It’s not uncommon for five year olds to have resumes as long as your arm, listing violin lessons, horse riding, drama, not to mention multiple languages.

From pre-school, children are busy building their portfolios. Their latest scribblings plus certificates and letters of recommendation all documented in perfectly composed folders, for a later date (with the big guns)!

‘Down-time’ isn’t a phrase that’s bandied around much in this culture.

From as early as two, it’s classroom style lessons, in two or three languages (Mandarin, Cantonese and English). As they get older (a little), three to five hours of homework a night is considered doable and school on a Saturday is common, with most kids having an after-school tutor. In fact, 72 per cent of final-year school students in Hong Kong now go to private tutors.

And if you are a tutor in these parts, you’ll be granted rock star status, your photo plastered on posters lining the streets. Apparently, the better looking you are, the better your chances are of making a fortune! These so called Tutor Kings and Tutor Queens are raking in millions. It’s a celebrity tutor phenomenon fuelled by the enormous pressure on students to gain a competitive edge over fellow students. The difference between an A and an A-plus is critical – in a world where failure is not an option.

Children will tell you with absolute conviction: “It depends on the effort I invest and I can succeed if I study hard.”

These are kids who know their class rank as early as Kindy!

There are mini universities where children can get their Little Academy Bachelors, Little Masters and Little PhD’s…from as young as six months.

About now many of you are probably gritting your teeth, especially if you come from a more relaxed westernised educational setting.


But, whether you agree with the approach or not, you’ve got to hand it to them – when it comes to global rankings, Hong Kong is an educational powerhouse.

In 2011, a report ‘How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better’ rated Hong Kong as the best in the world.

It’s believed the emphasis has always been on diligence rather than natural ability. A city built on hard work, Hong Kong was a refugee society with no in-built class system, meaning the way to achieve social mobility was through education. With no social security blanket, parents traditionally invested in their pension by educating their child.
These days they call them Tiger Mums and the pressure to educate their cubs is just as ferocious.

Best-selling American author Amy Chua coined the phrase when she wrote ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ about shunning western standards of education to bring up her children the strict, traditional Chinese way.

How do you get music prodigies and mathematical wizards she writes?

For a start, sleep-overs are non-existent as are play dates and being in a school play. Any grade less than an A is insufficient and piano and violin are the only accepted instruments of choice. Naturally TV is off limits.

Actually, Tiger mums take note: Piano is no longer considered a big deal. As quoted by one parent “If your kid is in primary school and he or she can play the piano really well, the schools will yawn.”

It’s a dog eat dog world where academic achievement reflects successful parenting. Chances are you’re shaking your head saying what about the children’s happiness? But for many Asian families, their definition of happiness isn’t the same.

In their eyes: “Being happy is doing well and having a sense of pride in yourself.”

Asia lays claim to around half the world’s 6,000 international schools.

In Hong Kong there are three types of schools: Local (primarily taught in Cantonese), Government subsidized schools in English and Private International schools.

Aside from the local schools, most demand a debenture (yes, I can vouch, even pre-schools). It’s a financial debt holding that a company or parent purchases from a school for possible admission for a student. That’s possible admission – there’re no guarantees, but it’s said to give your child preferential treatment. And as right or wrong as that sounds – it’s just the way it is.

The hefty price tag can set you or your company back anywhere from HK$100,000 ($12,500US) to HK$10-million.

The school uses the interest from the debenture amount for capital funding with many but not all debentures refunded after the student leaves the school.

For locals who don’t speak Cantonese and can’t access the local schools or can’t afford the international schools, Hong Kong’s Government established ESF schools or the English School Foundation. However it’s recently come under fire for ramping up fees with a HK$500,000 debenture scheme giving children priority placement. Unless you’re an alumni or your child has a sibling at an ESF school, it’s becoming out of reach for ordinary families.

A city that’s starved for space means school expansion is drastically hindered. While new schools are being built, the price of land among the many thousands of towering high rises is touted the most expensive in the world.

This bottleneck is only intensifying with soaring demand from affluent local and mainland families keen for their children to get better English language education at the international schools. I know there are long waiting lists for primary and secondary schools in western countries, babies’ names put on waiting lists for exclusive schools before they’ve even made their debut in the world – but here, for entry into most schools – the selection process is cut-throat. It has to be.

Almost all schools request a face-to-face interview, even at primary level and local websites are littered with school interview tips. There are even courses you and your child can do to ‘prep’ for the interview.

For a toddler the experience usually begins in a group, without mum and dad. (They’re the ones sitting anxiously next door, ready to burst a blood vessel.) Often parents strategically find out who’s going to be in the group interview and arrange play dates prior to the big day, ensuring little Sally is comfortable with the other children.

The judging panel of teachers plus the principal want to know the children can cope without mum and dad in the room. Can they understand simple instructions? How does he or she respond and communicate? Often a teacher will toss a question out to the group to see who’ll respond first. Naturally some kids will be quiet, while others will be very excited trying to get their answer heard. If you don’t get noticed, you may not make the cut.

I don’t know about you, but my girl takes a good half hour to warm up in any new situation – typically referred to as ‘shy’ one minute to ‘she can talk the leg off an iron pot’ the next. As understanding as she is for a two year old, I reckon I would have buckley’s chance at getting her to perform on cue. (Even with bribery!)

In the interview they can be asked to do tasks like make a Lego man, describe or draw a picture. Sometimes they’ll ask you to mimic a facial expression drawn on a ball or as one mother told me, make a play dough flower arrangement. (No sweat!?) I consider myself to be quite good in the play dough department but even I’d struggle with anything more taxing than a pussycat!

For older students it’s a much more formalised affair with oral and /or written comprehension, story writing, maths tests and the like. Whatever your situation, there’s no escaping the tough admission policy.

Don’t forget the rules of etiquette. Potential pupils (even toddlers) are expected to formally greet the teachers and thank them at the end of the interview, all whilst looking them in the eye (of course.) For some schools, there’s even an unspoken ‘interview dress code.’

The day after the interview, it’s the adults turn to demonstrate a keen interest and commitment to getting a place for their poppet (as if they haven’t already) with a thank you email. Just between you, me and the school gate – I’m told schmoozing may help on occasion!


And that’s just the start of it… once you are in school; it’s a long and challenging road towards academic perfection.

Tiger mums, it’s a jungle out there and failure is not an option.

Nicole was a Journalist and News Reader with Sky News Australia for a decade before making the life changing move to Hong Kong with her hotelier husband.

Mum to hyped up blondie Ava, Nicole has swapped the news desk and microphone for a change table and nappy bag but is still enjoying the best of both worlds, freelancing as a Journalist, Presenter, Master of Ceremonies and Media Trainer.

Her expat journey to date has been filled with plenty of intriguing and humorous tales. Check out her blog Mint Mocha Musings and on Twitter @nicoledwebb

Read Nicole's other Expat Focus articles here.