Teacher warns of misery at school
Classes filled with depressed pupils led Belgian to set up art workshops to help children relax
Hong Kong is raising a generation of unhappy children who have forgotten how to laugh, says a former English teacher.
Liesbeth Avern-Briers has worked in schools across Hong Kong - both international and local schools, from Shek O to Tai Po. She found they all had one thing in common - depressed pupils, as young as five years old, spending their evenings doing homework, often until midnight.
"That breaks my heart," says Avern-Briers, a Belgian.
"We are creating a generation of unhappy kids. We only focus on their knowledge but not their emotional needs. They don't know how to deal with failure because failure is not an option."
Not long after she arrived in Hong Kong in 2010, she founded an art charity, Lizzie Bee, to help youngsters under pressure relax and develop confidence.
She says art allows people to screw up and laugh about it, and to make a mess.
One of the charity's projects is a weekly art workshop for disadvantaged children in Sham Shui Po. Funded by the Sovereign Art Foundation, the Make It Better workshops are free of charge and Lizzie Bee provides everything the children need, be it cardboard, clay, paint or cloth.
"When I came to Hong Kong I saw what an affluent city it is but how poverty is so rife," says Avern-Briers at one of the workshops. "One in four children here don't have three meals a day. How can you comprehend this in such a rich city? I can't eradicate poverty by myself but I can at least contribute.
"The pressure on the kids is very unhealthy. But here we don't give certificates, we don't tell them what to do and we give them a chance to explore."
Carmen Chan Lai-fong, head of the Society for the Protection of Children's Sham Shui Po centre, one of the venues used for the weekly workshops, says she was shocked when she saw the volunteer art mentors and the children playing with clay on the desks.
"I was concerned about the cleanliness but they cleaned the desks together afterwards and they were happy," says Chan. "Gradually I figured out that's the whole point - to feel free and make a mess."
Initially, children need step-by-step commands from volunteers at the workshops until their confidence grows. During one workshop, the children were asked to make cartoon monsters out of papier-mâché, but a shark, a duck, a mermaid and a cat were some of the creatures produced. "That was the highlight of my first six months into the project," says Avern-Briers. "I was so proud of them because they had actually made a decision for themselves.
"Over the weeks we see them become more relaxed, focused and there is a pride in what they make."
He Wulong told how his son adores the workshops, which he has been attending for two months. "He misses it so much during the week and keeps asking me when I'm next going to bring him here."
The children have made lap desks, feet warmers and bed linen, as well as decorations for a centre for youngsters with learning disabilities.
While Avern-Briers wants to see more of these kind of workshops in the city, she believes that if Hong Kong wants its next generation to be more creative and independent, the whole education system has to change.
"I definitely think we're making a difference," she says. "But the education system has to change as well.
"Sometimes I think less is more."