Hong Kong and mainland parents feel pressure of kindergarten chaos

Parents from Hong Kong and the mainland tell how the stress and strain of seeking preschool places for their children has affected their lives

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 October, 2013, 11:30pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 October, 2013, 4:26pm

In August, Michael Wu Ho-yin quit his job with the Hong Kong office of an American university, giving him time to prepare for an epic battle - enrolling his son in kindergarten. He applied to nine preschools, queuing overnight at two. After one such vigil, he crashed his bike, breaking four ribs. Still, he thinks that leaving work was vital.

"It was not out of an adrenaline rush that I quit my job," says Wu. "I believe the decision is absolutely rational. A job, I can find another one. But a son, I've only got one."

The Great Kindergarten Scare of 2013 started when thousands of mainland parents of children born years ago in Hong Kong applied for next school year's kindergarten places. That made parents of local preschoolers agitated, and led many to queue at several preschools for coveted slots.

Some parents camped outside at least five kindergartens - some even more than 10 - for application forms. Some preschools with easy accessibility or particularly good reputations say four in every five adults in the queues came from the mainland.

The battle for preschool spots pitted mainland parents against locals, with many Hongkongers seeing their counterparts as resource-grabbing enemies. The worst invective, though, has been aimed at local school officials who, parents say, should have prepared for the tsunami of new pupils given the number of births years ago. In previous years, there had always been a surplus of kindergarten slots. But because the government did not release details on supply and demand, parents fear their children could get shut out.

"Parents are scared by the long queues. They think if they don't join, their children could be out-competed," says Christopher Yu Wing-fai, director of the non-profit Hong Kong Institute of Family Education.

Yu says the fear was fanned by the media reports concerning the phenomenon, creating a city-wide sense of pressure.

Kiasu, a Hokkien word that literally means "fearing to lose", might sum up the situation best.

Joyce Chan Pui-sze, a 36-year-old housewife, is no stranger to the fear. She says she has applied to six kindergartens, and that the process has frazzled her nerves. "Every time when I heard someone talking about a kindergarten opening for applications, I would rush there and queue up immediately," she says. "I've also been constantly checking online forums such as Baby Kingdom and School Land for updates. I know it's silly, but I'm afraid."

Parents say standing in long lines sapped their energy. Joyce Chan says that when she had to eat or go to the toilet, she needed to ask friends to secure her position in the queue. She dared not leave for long: one time the stool she sat on was tossed away during her absence, forcing her to go to the end of the line and queue up again.

"It's the endless wait that's the most torturing," says Chan. "We wait for forms, for submitting forms, for interview notices and for results of the interviews. I've spent nights worrying, because after waiting for so long, I'm not even sure if my daughter can get a school place."

Wu says it's incredible that schools still require parents to queue up physically when parents can access a spectrum of information through websites and apps on smartphones.

"It's a complete waste of parents' time, especially the time we could have spent with our children," he says. "It's really ridiculous."

But Yung Hau-heung, early childhood education spokeswoman for the Professional Teachers' Union, says preschools have limited manpower and could never handle the flood of online applications, which might well have numbered in the thousands.

Popular preschools such as Fung Kai Kindergarten in Sheung Shui received some 2,000 application forms, leaving eight children competing for one of its 240 places. Yung says some principals told her that they had been suffering from insomnia over the past few months; some shed several kilograms dealing with the applications.

"Parents flood in [to the preschools] in full fury. Teachers are all panicking," says Yung, who is also a kindergarten principal. "Principals have been worrying that their teachers might leave next year, and they might not be able to hire new staff." Teachers are panicked dealing with the applications and preparing to interview all the children.

But are the sleepless nights and constant fretting necessary? Does the city really have a shortage of kindergarten places? How many places should Hong Kong create next year when the 58,000 babies born in the Year of the Dragon to local parents - 6,000 more than the year before - reach the age of two when their parents apply for preschool?

How many of the 27,000 "dragon babies" born to mainland parents will return to Hong Kong to enter kindergarten? What about the years to come?

The answers could prove unknowable.

Education Minister Eddie Ng Hak-kim said in Legco that the bureau could only estimate the number of kindergarten pupils for the coming school year. Any long-term projection of the demand might only be useful as an internal reference, as it was difficult to "predict with accuracy".

Earlier this month, amid the kinder-chaos, the bureau estimated that overall demand for places next year in kindergartens would be about 168,000, and that there were 241,000 places available, but that the 4,000 first-year places in North District would be barely enough to satisfy demand. The prediction was released after many parents had queued for days, even though Ng said that officials had provided the figures "earlier than usual".

A total of 142,240 babies were born in Hong Kong to mainland parents from 2007 to 2011. Using surveys, the government projected last year that 95 per cent of the children would leave, but half would return before the age of 21.

Education sector legislator Ip Kin-yuen has said he doubts the government has a long-term projection of school place demand for internal reference, since it does not record the number of these children who come back for kindergarten each year, nor does it have a tracking study showing when they will come.

Without a projection for kindergarten places, it will be hard to prepare for primary and secondary school places as well, educators say. Some 3,000 cross-border children applied to local primary schools this year, with more than 1,700 allocated to Sheung Shui, Fanling and Sha Tau Kok, the towns closest to Shenzhen, leaving North District short of 1,400 places for local and other cross-border children.

The issue has exacerbated tensions between mainland and local parents. Wu says he and other local parents tend to abandon preschools that admit too many cross-border children, disliking their "nouveau riche" manners. Yet mainland parents want their children to study at schools filled with local children.

"We used to live in a civilised, tasteful and altruistic society, but under the influence of mainland culture, I fear our children will live in a money-oriented society where there's no rule and everyone is selfish," Wu says.

To assuage local parents, some kindergarten classes have required that placement interviews be conducted in Cantonese. Most preschools have agreed that children living in the same district should have priority.

New rules have further upset mainland parents. After all, their Hong Kong-born offspring wouldn't be welcome at mainland schools, because they don't have a hukou, or household record registration, there.

Wang Yongjun, a 40-year-old Henan businessman, says the myriad Hong Kong school policies are discriminatory.

"I'm willing to sell my company and six properties in Henan to move to Shenzhen for my son," says Wang, who applied to 15 kindergartens. "All we want is to let him grow up in a civilised society as a person with social responsibility. We are willing to do more, but [what] can we get [in] return?"

Yu Dejiang, a 33-year-old businessman from Beijing, says the government is responsible for the widening gap between mainlanders and Hongkongers.

"The worst-case scenario for me now would be letting my son study in the mainland and emigrate when he grows up," says Yu. "If so, the Hong Kong government would have screwed me up really badly this time. Since it allowed us mainland parents to have children here, it should have ... prepared for these problems."

With demand for services, and not just schools, rising, Joyce Chan is considering emigrating. Her daughter had a high fever during Lunar New Year, but when they arrived at Union Hospital in Sha Tin, nurses told her that it was already full and that most beds were occupied by mainlanders.

"The government asked us to have more children, but without enough support, how can we have the confidence to have more?" she says. She has consulted an immigration company about moving to Canada, but for the time being her family cannot afford to make the move.

"I'm not asking for much," she says. "I just want a city where the government actually plans for us, and where our children can all have schools to study in. They don't have these problems in other countries."