IN HIS SLEEVELESS tracksuit, Chan Li-heng performs a tiring routine of kicks and punches with friends in a stadium at Shichahai Sports School in Beijing. Li-heng, 17, could have spent his summer break playing computer games, watching DVDs or hanging out with friends in malls, as many Hong Kong youngsters do. Instead, the Chinese International School student is sweating out this August afternoon in the capital's scorching humidity, without the comfort of air conditioning - and enjoying it.
It's the second time Li-heng has signed up for Shichahai's summer camp since he started taking martial arts lessons at wushu champion Li Fai's training centre in Central last year. He had such a good time at Shichahai that he introduced it to his friends.
'My mum thought it's good for me, because I don't do much sports or exercise. Learning wushu can also help build my character,' says Li-heng. 'And, if I go to Beijing, it can help me to know more about the city and improve my Putonghua.'
Plus, Li-heng says, the sports school has a nationwide reputation for producing Olympic champions, with Hollywood action star and former wushu champion Jet Li among its alumni. His friend, Jonathan Pang Chun-tak, echoes that view. 'It's Beijing, and this is the best wushu school in China,' he says.
Originally conceived in the US to allow children to have fun together during school holidays, summer camps have become increasingly popular in Hong Kong. Affluent families often send children on short summer tours abroad to broaden their exposure and hone language skills.
The mainland's also becoming an increasingly popular destination, on account of its proximity and importance. A Consumer Council survey of 12 local service providers found that the mainland was the second-most popular destination for study tours this summer, with 87 tours, just behind Britain, which drew 98 tours. An increasing number of mainland institutions have responded to demand by offering summer camps for foreign students, although the service quality can vary considerably.
Shichahai began to operate camps for foreigners (non-mainlanders) in 2000. Although it doesn't advertise, or use agents, the school attracted about 300 foreign students this summer, mostly to train in wushu and table tennis - traditional strengths in the Chinese sporting world. The charge of about US$60 per day covers food, accommodation and training, with students from Hong Kong enjoying a US$10 discount.
'That's expensive, at least for me,' says Li-heng. 'But since this is one of the top training schools in Beijing, I think [the fee] is reasonable. It pushes you to train harder to ensure the money is well spent.'
Although the school is often criticised for being too tough on athletes, foreign students are free to decide how much they want to take in. Li-heng says it took him about a week to adapt to a more intensive programme. From two hours' workout each week in Hong Kong, he's spending four hours training daily in Beijing, Sunday being his only rest day.
Li-heng says the rigorous regimen helps them improve quickly, but the school's focus on competitive sports can be frustrating for youngsters whose goal is enjoyment and exercise. Jason Li Zhong-yeen, a 15-year-old who has been practising tai chi with a Hong Kong club for three years, is among them.
'The teacher here only knows standard tai chi [a style for competition]. But I practise Chen-style tai chi [which is popular among amateurs],' he says.
Fung Wing-yin, a student from Yautong Kei Hin Primary School, joined the camp to accompany his teenage sister, Wing-see, a keen competitor. But while his elder sibling thrives on the physical challenge, Wing-yin says he misses home. 'And the food here isn't good,' he says.
Some youngsters also chafe at Shichahai's rules. Although foreign students are allowed to explore the city and visit friends in their spare time, they face certain restrictions. For instance, they're required to report any outings to an assigned teacher and seek instructors' guidance when using training facilities.
'I know that foreign kids don't like strict control. But if they're in China, it's our responsibility to take care of them and ensure their safety,' says Li Yuan, a school administrator.
For instance, some youngsters want to swim in a nearby lake, but don't realise it's dangerous because the water is choked with weeds and boat traffic, he says. The same applies for the Houhai district, which can get rowdy at night because of the many bars.
As well as learning wushu, most Hong Kong youngsters attend camps in Beijing to improve their knowledge of Putonghua and the capital, including its top universities. Nearly all major colleges offer summer courses in Putonghua, Chinese history and culture, usually in collaboration with colleges or travel agencies abroad.
Despite their academic reputation, top universities are not necessarily experienced at running summer camps and some fail to check on their partners' track records. Last month, Tsinghua University ran week-long Putonghua courses for Hong Kong students on study tours organised by China Education International Travel Agency. The agency had been criticised by the Beijing Tourism Bureau as being unqualified for accepting overseas tourists after 15 Hong Kong students were injured in a bus crash in April while on one of its study tours.
Yet demand is so high, universities such as Tsinghua are having to turn business away.
'We don't offer Putonghua summer camps for students under 18 unless they're escorted by their own teachers, because we don't have enough manpower to take care of them. It's too risky,' says Cui Gang, a vice-president at Tsinghua's School of Continuing Education. The institution receives so many summer applicants it sometimes has to hire part-time teachers from other schools to help with its programmes, he says.
However, that's not how its Hong Kong partner describes Tsinghua's summer courses. According to Mandarinet.com, a company that helps people sign up at Tsinghua and Peking universities, all course teachers are faculty members of the two prestigious schools.
Louis Yu Ka-po, a 22-year-old student at Southampton Solent University in England, found Mandarinet from online searches and picked Tsinghua because of its reputation. Since he was abroad, he didn't check the agency's qualifications, and assumed that his teachers would be from Tsinghua.
Yu says some exercises are too passive, such as repeating after teachers who read from textbooks. Neverthess, he says his Putonghua has improved considerably. 'The teacher can correct my accent and pronunciation,' says Yu. 'Also, I have the chance to practise it, such as when I'm buying things and asking for directions.'
Meanwhile, Cheung Chi-hung, chairman of the Aided Primary Schools Heads' Association, expresses worry about the poor quality of some programmes, although he still encourages students to attend summer camps on the mainland.
'There's a vacuum space in the legislation [to regulate summer camps]. As educators, we can't do much but try to get more information from the organisers.'
If in doubt, Cheung says: 'It's better to stay at home than attend a bad camp.'
Additional reporting by Helen Wu