Teaching Chinese culture in a modern context: how an international school gives its students an immersive experience
Hesitation about China related matters among local pupils doesn’t seem to affect the pupils at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong, according to the school’s director of Chinese Studies
After walking between the indigenous Canadian totem poles at the entrance, we are surprised to find a whole floor of Chinese classrooms tucked away in the ski lodge-like architecture of the Canadian International School of Hong Kong.
As we enter the Chinese Culture Centre located on the 11th floor right above the main library, we find ourselves looking down a corridor lined with Chinese lattice windows and supported with bright red pillars. The whole floor is marked off for the After School Chinese Culture Academy (ASCCA), where pupils can enjoy an immersive experience in a range of cultural extracurricular activities. The centre is made up of a Chinese library, a large multifunctional open area for performances and four classrooms named after Chinese dynasties.
The centre opened in the summer of 2015, but its concept took shape eight years ago, when the director of Chinese Studies, Penny Pan, came to the Canadian school.
“The centre was built to complement what the school may not have in the mainstream curriculum,” she says. Even though teachers try to cram as many cultural elements as possible into the mandatory Chinese language lessons, which amount to at most 15 per cent of the total instruction time – they’re barely scratching the surface.
History isn’t taught systematically in the curriculum either. “When teachers talk about the world wars in history lessons, they will touch on the Opium War and the Sino-Japanese War, but it’s never in-depth,” Pan says.
“Which is why we started the ASCCA. We want to make the whole learning [experience] more in-depth, instead of a wishy-washy kind of experience.”
That said, the school has been cautious not to associate this Chinese setting with something from the distant past.
With movable walls between classrooms, interactive smart projectors and smart boards that allow pupils to share their work directly from their desks, the design of the centre is thoroughly up to date. Furniture that can be adjusted to heights suitable for different age groups also means the classrooms can easily accommodate pupils from Grade 1 to Grade 6.
“China has been ‘moving’ for the past 5,000 years. While some things go out of date, some will always stay relevant,” Pan says. “It is a way to show that we can apply old values in a modern-day context.”
By the same token, integrating modernity into its Chinese cultural programme is one of the ways the school attracts pupils.
The school’s Chinese orchestra, with 30 to 40 members, has been jazzing things up with movie-theme pieces lately, for instance. “There’s a sense that Chinese instruments belong to the old people, so I always ask teachers to perform something that kids understand,” Pan says.
Unlike many school orchestras, no audition is required to enter the Canadian school’s Chinese orchestra. “The only thing we look at is the physical suitability [of students for] the instruments,” Pan explains. For instance, pipaists need to stretch out their fingers when plucking the strings, so younger kids with smaller hands may not be well-suited to playing the instrument.
The orchestra occasionally brings in visiting artists for demonstrations, and also collaborates with other Chinese orchestras from local schools. “Without Chinese instruments in the mainstream curriculum, these kids can be sounding boards to bring Chinese music to the whole school,” Pan says.
Canadian school fifth grader Victoria Kwok has been playing the pipa for two years. She took up the 26-fret, fourstring instrument because she thought it looked “cool”.
“Before I joined the Chinese orchestra, I didn’t know there were Chinese instruments at all,” Victoria says. “Our songs are usually very serious, but this year we experimented with Totoro, which was really upbeat, and City of Stars [from the movie Lalaland].”
Kwok now attends more advanced tutorials, on top of the weekly classes and ensemble practices. She is learning the more difficult lunzhi, a tremolo technique for the pipa which requires all fingers, after she has mastered the more basic two-fingered tantiao technique.
For another fifth grader, Lauren Tran, taking Chinese painting classes every week at ASCCA since last year has provided her with a window on Chinese art.
The difference in painting materials between Chinese and Western paintings was baffling to Tran at first. “I didn’t know what to do with the rice paper. I was afraid of making mistakes in the painting,” she says. “Like, if you add too much water to the ink, it spreads and looks like a gigantic blob.”
Pan, who had no formal training in Chinese arts when she was a child, wants her pupils to enjoy opportunities she didn’t have. “My generation didn’t have as many opportunities as this generation does. It’s good to plant the seed now – you never know what will grow out,” she says.
According to Pan, two students have gone on to take more “serious” courses outside school in erhu and yangqin. Advocating Chinese culture can be a struggle in international schools, however.
“The biggest problem with international schools is that, while the children here may look Chinese or grow up in Hong Kong, they have a very Western outlook in many [respects],” Pan says.
Kwok, in particular, identifies with this. “My grandparents speak Mandarin and understand only a bit of English, so I [have] to speak their language whenever I go to visit them,” Victoria says.
Children such as Kwok are common in international schools. They grow up in a semi-Western environment, speak English with peers, talk “Mantonese” with grandparents and are curious about the Chinese culture.
The key to integrating Chinese values and culture into education, according to Pan, is to make it feel natural and not force it on pupils. “Cultural activities therefore offer a gentler introduction. I would love to see the mainstream curriculum consciously including Chinese elements, but it takes a lot of education of the teaching staff as well.”
The hesitation about China related matters among local students, stirred up by the recent dispute over whether certain events should be included in the Chinese history curriculum reform, doesn’t seem to affect the pupils at the academy.
“Students here are not very in tune with local politics. They probably know more about Donald Trump than Carrie Lam,” says Pan. “In a certain way, they’re more in tune with the rise of China. The kids understand why they need to learn Mandarin and engage [with] China.”
When topics like Occupy Central are discussed in class, the bottom line is to take everyone’s opinion into account. “A lot of times in local politics, it’s often the louder [voices] that get heard. I think that’s dangerous for students,” she says.
“We don’t worry too much about who’s right and who’s wrong. We have a lot of students from mainland China, and they bring in a very different point of view. Pupils end up having a balanced view because they can hear different voices without being drawn back.
“This makes our job a lot easier when we try to teach Chinese culture and values,” she says.
This article appeared in the Good Schools Guide as: traditionally modern