For Hong Kong’s troubled youth, a 24-hour study room offers a safe place to work as well as mental wellness support

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  • A co-founder of StudyAt in Lai Chi Kok explains why its services are crucial for the city’s underprivileged students who often are unaware of their own mental health issues
  • Every week, Talking Points gives you a worksheet to practise your reading comprehension with questions and exercises about the story we’ve written
Kelly Fung |
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Emanuel Cheng says she can relate to the students who come to StudyAt needing mental health support because she too has experience with depression. Photo: Edmond So

Open at all hours, StudyAt is unlike any other study room in Hong Kong. Not only will visitors find stacks of practice exams and textbooks, but there are also slippers and sleeping bags for students who need a safe place to stay.

More than a year ago, Emanuel Cheng, 26, was training to become a nurse when she decided to pursue a different path. The study room is her brainchild – a 500 sq ft sanctuary for students tucked away in Lai Chi Kok. But this is more than just a typical study space.

StudyAt, with its simple wooden desks and cream-coloured interior, doubles as a second home for some troubled youth.

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“One time, I received a call late at night from a student, who was beaten by his father after an argument,” Cheng recalled.

“So he asked me if the study room was open and said he needed a place to finish his homework,” she said, adding that she often received calls from students who needed the study space’s services late at night.

Dubbed “auntie mom” in Cantonese by her wards, Cheng had been training to be a psychiatric nurse when she came up with the idea for StudyAt. At the time, she met many children who were suffering because of the pressures of school or who had dysfunctional families. The pandemic only aggravated these problems.

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She decided that being a nurse was not enough to help these children. Not only did she retake her university entrance exams to study clinical psychology, but in August 2020, she co-founded StudyAt with two friends.

It gives pupils a quiet place to work and provides free academic guidance services. Using her training as a nurse, Cheng also conducts mental wellness screenings and refers students to outside services when needed.

Bookings are divided into three sessions at HK$50 per session: from 10am to 4pm, 4pm to 10pm, and an “owl session” from 10pm to 10am the next day. Cheng also works as a Chinese tutor, providing four classes at four hours each for a total of HK$900. She often provides discounts for underprivileged students.

She and her co-founders typically earn just enough to cover the rent for the space.

For some students, StudyAt acts as a second home. Photo: Captured from Instagram @studyat.sg

At first, the venture filled a void as many study rooms were closed amid the coronavirus pandemic. But even when such amenities reopened, Cheng knew there was still a need for StudyAt’s services.

In the study room’s early days, Cheng searched Instagram using the hashtag #studygram to reach out to students who seemed anxious or depressed about their academics. Quite a few students started coming to StudyAt because of Cheng’s proactive outreach.

One of her pupils, whose mother recently died of cancer, was unaware she was suffering from depression. She had not been able to eat or sleep. At the time, she was taking care of her father and siblings every day, while also studying for exams. She initially went to StudyAt for its free academic services, but eventually, Cheng accompanied the girl to seek professional help.

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“Many of these students are unaware of depression and other mental health issues even if they experience severe insomnia,” she explained, adding that she could relate to them because she too had suffered from depression.

She likened StudyAt to a “burrow” where students could find refuge and moments of solitude.

“Students are supposed to seek academic support from their schools, and love and a sense of belonging from their families,” she said. “But when these two sources fail to provide such support, we act as a third ‘burrow’ for them.

“Our power is limited, but we strive to offer pupils a safe environment any time they need a hand,” Cheng explained, adding she chose Lai Chi Kok – near Sham Shui Po, the city’s poorest district – because she wanted to help the disadvantaged.

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“We had a student who had to lie on a bed to study because her subdivided flat had no space,” she said.

Ultimately, Cheng hopes StudyAt can give a fighting chance for pupils from dysfunctional families or underprivileged backgrounds.

“I hope that through encouraging students in their education, they will have the ability to change the course of their lives,” she said.

Click here to download a printable worksheet with questions and exercises about this story. Answers are on the second page of the document.

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