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Hong Kong’s rock star tutors: Meet the teachers earning more than the average British Premier League footballer

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 December, 2015, 11:16pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 December, 2015, 3:35pm

Sporting a trendy, gelled hairdo and dressed in a slick purple suit, superstar tutor Siu Yuen is being extra entertaining in the first 20 minutes of his lecture.

The 39-year-old Chinese-language guru is teaching three classes of about 100 students simultaneously in this early- evening session, with two classes watching his lecture projected live on a big, white screen from a small television.

At one point, he uses the term “small womb” to help his packed audience memorise word usage in ancient Chinese literature. It turns out that the three Chinese characters for “small womb” can also mean “your house is small” in classical Chinese. He also draws an emoji-like smiley face to help them memorise some classical Chinese grammar most likely to pop up in exams, and the students diligently copy the doodle in their notes.

At the end of 20 minutes, his tone becomes more serious.

“We made more jokes during class time just now,” said Siu, who has been tutoring students for 19 years. “Let me compensate you for the time, OK ?”

As he speaks, one of the public relations people at Modern Education walks into the classroom and taps on the Post reporter’s shoulder, indicating that it’s time to leave.

The Post was only allowed to sit for 20 minutes of Siu’s lecture and the “tutor king” did his best to show how lively and fun-filled his classes could be. But in Hong Kong’s competitive and no-nonsense shadow education industry, more joking means less time to teach students how to pass exams, so everything needs to be perfectly choreographed to reach the highest effectiveness.

The Education Bureau’s school registration information shows there are almost 7,500 tutorial centres and their branches across the city.

Insiders say Hong Kong’s tutoring industry, especially when involving medium- and large-scale cram schools, is highly commercialised, organised and mature. These schools, they say, rely on star teachers as their main source of revenue, and the stars survive on the number of their students.

So the competition is cut-throat. With showbiz-style packaging and promotion that focuses on predicting the trend of exam questions, cooperation between on-stage “performers” and backstage supporters has become the industry’s main theme.

The money game

In October, Modern Education placed a full-page advertisement in two Chinese-language newspapers, promising celebrity Chinese-language tutor Lam Yat-yan – from another tutoring centre, Beacon College – an annual salary package of HK$85 million if he joined Modern. Lam later declined the offer.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s annual salary is around HK$4.5 million and HSBC chief executive Stuart Gulliver’s salary last year was reported to be £7.6 million (HK$89 million).

The average British Premier League football player earns £2.29 million a year (HK$25 million).

Although observers hold doubts over Modern’s sincerity and whether a tutor, even a top one like Lam, can really make this much, it is not unusual for star tutors to earn millions and even tens of millions a year.

According to the annual report of Modern, the only publicly-listed tutoring centre in Hong Kong so far, the school last year paid about HK$38.3 million to its five best-performing tutors in the form of “tutor contractor fee”.

The fee is calculated based on a certain percentage – agreed on between a teacher and the centre – of the revenues generated by the teacher. These five tutors’ fees ranged from about HK$2 million to around HK$15 million, according to the report.

In Beacon’s application documents for listing submitted last month, the highest-paid tutor – whom many suspected to be Lam – made about HK$35 million in the 2014-15 year, followed by another four tutors who made an average of around HK$4.8 million each.

But teachers have to spend part of their earnings in running their tutoring services, since they are contractors instead of employees of the tutoring centres. This means they do not have salaries and the centres provide them mainly with brand names, classrooms and other teaching facilities, as well as some administrative and marketing support.

Siu Yuen, who quit King’s Glory Education Centre to work under Modern as its leading Chinese-language tutor in May, says he spent about 40 per cent of his annual income paying for operation costs such as printing notes, hiring assistants, marketing and promotion, buying small gifts for his students, and renting a studio – for recording Chinese listening materials – and an office.

“Modern is Watson’s, and I’m Coltalin,” said Siu. “You not only need to ensure the quality of your drug, you also need to negotiate with Watson’s on many things such as where your drug is displayed, how the drug should be promoted and customers’ feedback.

“Watson’s is a good platform ... what it has to do is to improve itself such as renovating its branches and maintaining the reputation of its brand name.”

Karson Oten Van Karno, better known as K Oten, is a celebrity English-language tutor at All-Star Education. He says he has started to seek advertisers to sponsor the printing of his notes this year. This has attracted companies such as stationers, bakeries, film producers and children’s clothing shops, he says.

Van Karno says he will only choose companies whose advertisements are “positive” to pupils. He adds that the move is to support the school’s plan to provide free tutoring for pupils in Primary One, Primary Four, Form One and Form Four.

“In the long run, if tutoring can rely only on advertisers and be totally free, it actually is quite a happy thing,” said 39-year-old Van Karno who has been in the industry for 12 years. “Students don’t have to pay tuition fees, tutors can keep their incomes and different organisations can have one more channel to place advertisements. This is a win-win-win solution.”

But Siu said he will not follow suit. “If advertisements suddenly appear on the last page [of the notes], like some tabloid magazines, it’s not reasonable,” he said. “Students won’t like it either.”

The making of a “king”

The notes the tutors refer to is probably one of the keys to their success. These books contain different elements such as their shortcuts in solving exam problems, their prediction of future exam trends, key knowledge points and categories of questions from past exam papers that can potentially reoccur.

But tutor kings and queens do not work alone in producing these notes.

Mia Wong Man-chi, a 36-year-old star English-language teacher at King’s Glory Education Centre, said she has more than 10 assistants helping her doing research, reading past exam papers and compiling notes, because she said one has to read a lot to be able to predict future exam questions.

The assistants will also help her tending to pupils’ needs on classes, answering their questions on Whatsapp and Facebook and handling other works.

The tutor queen herself will need to fine-tune her lecture delivering to perfection so students can easily understand and memorise her points in a fun way. This is why Wong says she spends six hours every day before lectures searching for up-to-date examples and trendy expressions, and practising her lectures in front of a mirror to achieve the best effect.

“It’s like performing a drama or a stand-up comedy, but there must be content, so students can learn things in a happy way,” said Wong, who joined the industry around 2002.

Siu has three assistants helping him teach in classrooms and eight others doing research for him behind the stage. This enables him to keep up with current affairs which he can use as talking points in classes.

“Like a singer, I can’t handle being the one singing, composing, writing lyrics and tending to the fan club at the same time, for example,” he said.

Buses, YouTube and backstabbing

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence celebrity tutors liken themselves to showbiz stars. Just a stroll along a street will probably find their smart and glamorous images on advertisement boards or posters on buildings, walls and the back of buses.

Insiders say nobody knows how it all began, but it probably involved one crammer trying to stand out in the increasingly heated competition. And the rest is history.

Wong said she was among the first group of tutors uploading promotional videos on YouTube around 2004. She says the tactic attracted six times as many students. If a tutor wants to be known among students, he or she has to spend at least HK$1 million in advertisements.

“If you wait for a student to refer you to another, it may take three or four years [to become famous],” she said. “But the teacher may not survive in the three or four years due to high costs and low income.”

She added that cram schools may be willing to pay for new tutors’ advertising costs if the schools see potential in them.

But when advertisements about tutors have become so commonplace that students no longer feel anything when they see them, other tactics are employed for tutors to stay competitive.

Wilson Liu Chung-kin, a popular mathematics teacher at King’s Glory, said backstabbing – such as “viciously attacking other tutors” in front of students in classes – is not unusual. He said a teacher once told students that Liu had many pupils because he bribed a tutoring centre staff member.

“Many fellow teachers will imagine things themselves, but if they repeat the lies 10 times, students may believe it,” said Liu, who has been tutoring for 16 years.

“It’s very tiring if we have to engage ourselves in politics besides teaching. So I usually will choose to avoid [the fights] but some people will spend all days to strike back and fight until death.”

A grim future?

With all the money, gloss and fighting, it is easy to think that large-scale tutoring is at its prime. But people in the industry complain that the trade is actually in decline.

Wong says the number of secondary school graduation exam candidates has dropped drastically, from around 140,000 in the early 2000s to around 60,000 in recent years, due to a low birthrate. At the same time, costs such as rent, printing, manpower and transport have been rising.

But the tutoring fees have not increased much due to cut-throat competition. Cram schools now generally charge students an average of about HK$500 a month, but Wong said when she just joined the industry, the fees were about HK$300.

The switch from Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination and Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination to the Diploma of Secondary Education exam in 2012 has not only reduced the number of exams students need to prepare for, but also made students prefer small-scale tutoring centres and private tutors because of their flexibility.

Wong said the DSE curriculum includes much more knowledge points, and students may only want teachers to teach them several points scattered in different chapters and years. But large-scale tutoring centres cannot provide such flexibility because of the sheer number of pupils per class.

Van Karno said the situation may not pick up until after six or seven years, when the number of secondary students will rise again. He complained about longer working hours, falling income and less hard-working students because of reduced competition in getting into tertiary education.

But he said he has no plan to quit.

“What else can I do?” he asked. “How many industries in Hong Kong can give you a good future? Property development? I don’t have such ability. Selling properties? I don’t have such capital. Nowadays which industry is really blossoming? If you can answer me, then I will quit immediately.”