Are Hong Kong students being bullied in the name of tradition?
The issue of hazing is raising awkward questions about university dormitories, where hall rituals can all too easily descend into cruelty
When a video showing a University of Hong Kong student slapping another on the face with his genitals went viral on the internet last month, it drew mixed reactions on and off campus.
Some attributed it to “hall tradition” but many who were disturbed by it argued that no matter what label was used – hazing or teasing – it should not be taken lightly.
Despite the pervasive problem of school bullying, across all grades and all schools, receiving greater exposure the world over, it is still not an issue that gets the attention it deserves in local educational circles.
What’s worrying is that a 2010 study by Chinese University’s department of social work found a staggering 70.8 per cent of local secondary students reported being victims of violent bullying by peers, while similar research by the Hong Kong Family Welfare Society in 2012 revealed that one in three pupils between Primary Four and Form Three were targets of cyberbullying.
Meanwhile, based on its research, the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups estimates only one quarter of cyberbullying victims will formally report the abuse.
Many critics are quick to lay the blame on a lack of legislation to prevent cyberbullying and lack of intervention at classroom level, such as incorporating an anti-bullying section into schools’ regular guidance curriculum. The situation is particularly dire at tertiary level, as evidenced by a dearth of literature and discussion on the topic.
A number of recent suspected hazing and bullying incidents with sexual undertones at HKU suddenly brought the issue to the fore in a dramatic way and stirred heated debate on what constitutes hall traditions, when they should be stopped and whether universities should step in.
One of these cases involved a 19-second video showing a resident of HKU’s Simon K.Y. Lee Hall using his genitalia to lightly strike the head of another male – who was pinned down by at least two other men. The incident came a few days after a candidate running in the election for the council of St John’s College, another HKU residence, quit the race amid claims he had been bullied, attacked and intimidated.
This candidate claimed in a Facebook post, which has now been deleted, that another election candidate had wax poured over his lower body by over 20 people. As a result of this allegation, at least three students were ordered to leave the halls, while over 20 were suspended, as the university pledged to investigate both cases.
Surprisingly, the student association of Simon K.Y. Lee Hall had earlier said the warden, hall tutors and union had found the incident “raised no concern about bullying”.
But City University’s Professor Dennis Wong Sing-wing, an expert in the study of bullying, said both cases constituted bullying as they satisfied three criteria.
First, there is always an imbalance of power, with the bullies outnumbering the victim.
Second, it’s about repetition over time that involves the same people doing an act over and over again even if it’s just a short period of time.
And third, there’s the element of intentionality, which means an intention to inflict harm or cause offence or humiliation.
But a former resident of St John’s College of HKU, who wished to remain anonymous, believed what many might perceive as bullying acts were in fact just playful teasing incidents.
While he was unable to comment on this particular case in the residence, the HKU graduate recalled that acts such as wax dripping were quite common back in his time.
He explained that the wax used was usually of low temperature and hence not intended to hurt sensitive body parts.
“Generally speaking, the people who do such activities still respect boundaries. Say if the receiver of these seemingly bullying acts show they are not OK with it, such as if they start crying, the people will stop,” he said.
Father Alfred Deignan, a former warden of Ricci Hall at HKU, lamented the bullying of new students at hall orientations.
“Unfortunately, hall education has suffered from the colonial way of running a hostel,” he said.
“Orientation can be very healthy, but sometimes you get one or two bullies who use orientations to cause trouble for the younger students who [just joined]. It is very unfair.”
Wong of City University, who is also a registered social worker, warned that hazing or school bullying could have a serious impact on some who might already be dealing with other difficulties in life, such as having low self-esteem, being estranged from their family, or just breaking up with a partner.
“They may face sleeping difficulties and be unable to concentrate on their work or studies because they will be constantly recalling the incident,” he said.
Wong said in the long-term, the victims could develop psychosis.
As such, he stressed the importance of seeking help if the thoughts kept troubling them.
“[Seeking help] is not common among young people as they often overestimate their tolerance threshold,” Wong said.
He explained that if the memories kept troubling the victims for say three consecutive days, they should talk to people they can trust and seek support.
If they faced more serious symptoms such as not being able to sleep well or eat, they should get professional help from a social worker, psychologist, or even a psychiatrist.
Wong also believed that support should be extended to the bullies through a process called restorative practice, in which for example a trained teacher or social worker mediates the relationship between bullies and victims.
“Perhaps the bullies feel regretful and want to find a way to repair the harm done,” he said.
The professor added that over the years, his research had found that punishment alone not only could not resolve bullying, but instead would lead to more bullying.
After the two incidents came to light, Professor Peter Mathieson, the university’s vice-chancellor said in an interview with HKUDOS, a blog run by HKU students, he wanted to “engineer structures that [would] make bad behaviour less likely”, including reforming the admission process of the halls.
He cited newer dormitories along Lung Wah Street as a positive example – they deliberately admit an equal proportion of locals, mainland students and overseas students, with a roughly even split between undergraduates and postgraduates.
The former St John’s College resident was against the suggestion as it’s widely believed that the residential halls along Lung Wah Street in Kennedy Town do not bear the characteristics of so-called HKU hall life.
“The reason why HKU hall life is so highly valued is that by going through a challenging experience, such as participating in inter-hall competitions – which the halls in Lung Wah do not get involved in – residents are able to bond with their hall mates,” he said.
He warned that the new arrangement proposed by Mathieson could stifle the unique HKU hall spirit.
But Wong believed it would be beneficial to mix postgraduates with undergraduates in the same hall as those who were older tended to be more mature and rational.
Meanwhile, Mathieson also voiced support for an online course on sexual harassment, which is expected to be launched in September to help students protect themselves and their friends. Wong, however, said it would be more effective to train students on empathy and virtues at a young age.