Walk into one of Hong Kong’s four biggest tutorial centers and you’ll probably see the same thing. There’s an admission ticket you get at registration; TV screens in the lobby play promotional cartoons with little characters shouting, “You’ve got pressure! It’s not solved yet!” And the cartoons are right – yes, you do have pressure; pressure to pass exams; to get good marks; to get ahead in school. And that’s why you’re at this tutorial, expressly designed to get you through your exams, nothing more - but then they don’t promise more. (According to government statistics, 48 percent of A-level students attend some kind of tutorial.) If you’re lucky, and willing to pay for it, then you’ll get into the live class, which means that, as per education standards, there are no more than forty people to a room. Of course, the tutorial centers can circumvent this rule by trisecting the room with glass panes, rigging an AV system in each compartment. 100-student live sessions, easy. If you’re unlucky, you’ll be stuck in one of the other rooms, watching a one-way video of your tutor. Questions? Tough luck. In a live session, you’ll be face to face with your tutor. The man or woman you’d heretofore only seen twelve-feet high, decorating the back of a bus. The advertisements for these tutors make them look like they’ve got a starring role in a Jerry Bruckheimer popcorn flick. They’re in full-page newspaper ads, on TV. They have image consultants, photo shoots. They sell ad space in their “textbooks.” Some of them make over $700,000 per month. They are, for all intents and purposes, a celebrity. Can’t sing, can’t act; can teach, a little. They know just what you need, as a student. Exams are your top priority. It’s what your parents nag you about, what your teachers warn you about. You think exams will either make you or break you. Fortunately, these celebrity tutors know exactly what you need to pass. They will tell you how to get an A on your exams. They explain what can be skipped, the weaknesses of marking schemes, how to prioritize questions on papers. Sometimes they talk about school and how teachers are wasting students’ time by teaching information not on the syllabus. After class, they take questions from the lucky hundred in the “live” class – although they have to leave early to make the next session. Form seven student Mandy says, “I take tutorial classes because my friends say that tutors are good: I don’t want to be left out. They claim that we can e-mail or call them if we have any questions – I’ve tried, but never gotten a reply.” But it doesn’t seem to matter. These star tutors - pop idols in their own right - seem to have everything Hong Kong instinctively worships: charisma, good looks, and intelligence. And they’ve found a wide open market to capitalize on: pressure. You’ve got it, I’ve got it. Fill in the Blanks But one of the most controversial issues surrounding these tutors is their questionable backgrounds. How qualified, precisely, are they to tell others how to pass a test? Si Wai-chuen, an English tutor and founder of A1 Tutoring Centre, has no degree. Thomas Siu at Modern Education? No BA either. Misleading titles and awards are used in promotional material. Mia Wong at King’s Glory claims she was the “English commentator for numerous prestigious universities,” including Cambridge; it was later discovered she merely proofread for her friends, Ph.D. students at Cambridge. Dr. Amanda Tann from Everlearning Centre once used a “President’s Education Award,” ostensibly awarded by President Bush himself, as a selling point. In reality, this award is given to junior high and high school students in the US. And K. Oten, an English tutor from Modern Education and possibly the most famous of the lot, claimed to have received an A on his English test. True, he did. He might have omitted the part where the A came after he retook the test - three years after graduating from university. Does any of this justify their lavish incomes? One student we interviewed wondered, “They earn that much to teach students to fill in the blanks?” Mr. Kwong, a chemistry teacher with 25 years of experience, says the problem with Hong Kong schools is that the “present education system is too exam-oriented. Students want to get high marks in their exams. To them, high marks equate with success.” So these tutorials must really help people pass exams, right? “A myth,” he says. “The Education and Manpower Bureau or the Consumer Council should do something about it. And if a teacher knows most of his or her students attend tutorial schools, they should look at their teaching methods or attitude. If students have helpful teachers, they’re not going to spend extra money to attend tutorial classes.” Star tutor Siu-Yuen defends his profession: He’s hurt by the low regard in which he’s held by the established education field. “I remember one time I went to a wedding with a lot of guests from the so-called ‘formal’ educational field. My friend onstage wanted to mention that I was here, but decided not to because it would upset his guests. The teachers looked down on me as an idiot who doesn’t deserve to earn more than they do.” Reviled or not, students throughout the SAR are willing to pay these people for their guidance (it's about $400 for four classes with these tutors). Form seven student Chris says, “The tutors tell us what will be on the exam, so that we can save time studying. They sometimes swear in classes and they’re a lot funnier than teachers at school.” Another student says that “tutors can teach you how to give the right answer without understanding anything about it. How great is that?” Not at all. The problem isn’t the tutors, is it? It’s those exams. Also see: Tutor Speaks, for an interview with 3 of these star tutors.