Confucians in the ranks

28th March 1997 at 00:00
Wai Ting Cheung is no stranger to hard work. Every day last year, after spending a high-octane day at school with only one short break apart from lunchtime, she would come home to six hours of homework and fall into bed, exhausted, at 10pm.

On top of schoolwork, there were compulsory after-school activities, ranging from sports to physics clubs. Sports tended to be popular, as there was no time to let off steam during the intense school day.

Wai Ting endured this arduous timetable - which left no room for the Western notion of childhood - as a 10-year-old, in her final year at primary school. It is part of the Confucian philosophy of filial loyalty, obedience and hard work which has ruled Chinese children's lives for centuries.

Such is life in Hong Kong today. But tomorrow, or more precisely in three months' time, a new era begins. On July 1, the colony is being handed back to China after more than 150 years of British rule. There are fears in Hong Kong and abroad that Chinese rule will bring political and social repression of the kind epitomised by the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

In recognition of these fears and bowing to pressure from Hong Kong, the Home Office has granted British citizenship to 50,000 Chinese heads of household, plus an additional 8,000 mainly Indian and Pakistani citizens. If all were to take up residency, this would mean upwards of 85,000 children coming to live and be educated in Britain, or a 70 per cent increase in the current Chinese population of around 188, 000.

But unless things take a nasty turn, it is highly improbable that there will be a last-minute exodus before the handover and unlikely that British schools will face an influx of Hong Kong Chinese children. Rather, their British passports are their insurance policies, to be used only as a last resort.

But learning about the Hong Kong education system could be a worthwhile investment for British schools, especially for the small number of independent and state schools that have admitted Hong Kong Chinese children in the last few years. Although the Hong Kong government office in London says the two systems are similar - with-A levels, free university provision and English language taught from an early age - there are fundamental differences.

For the hard-working Wai Ting, who came here six months ago with her mother and sisters, cultural differences are writ large at school. Now a 12-year-old at Levenshulme School in Manchester, she and her 14-year-old sister, Wai Man, get a mere two homework assignments a night. Placed in the lowest sets for maths and science because of their inadequate English (although Hong Kong children start learning English at primary school, few can speak it), they are doing work that they did two or three years ago in Hong Kong.

They sit in small groups in classrooms buzzing with discussion and activity, whereas in Hong Kong the 40 children in each class would sit in desks lined up neatly, one behind the other, in total silence. "It was very tense in the classroom,'' says Wai Man through an interpreter. "There was always a lot of work to do, and there were no breaks between tasks.'' Nine subjects were taught each day, in contrast with six here. Every morning would begin with an assembly outside. Rain or shine, the headteacher would address the uniformed children for a quarter of an hour. Girls had to wear their hair behind their ears, hands had to be clasped behind backs. At Levenshulme, things are a little less stringent.

But neither sister is whooping with joy at this cushy number called England. The two bright, softly spoken girls know that they have to get on with their English, and quickly, if they are to do well. And doing well is all that matters. Even if their parents did allow them to go out for anything but school - which they don't and probably won't - the girls say they wouldn't want to. "Chinese children think of their future, '' says Wai Man. "If we played a lot now, we would regret it in our thirties. We came here to study, not to have a good time."

So, for the moment, these sisters are representative of the achievement culture of all Chinese children, whether their parents are academics or bankers, business people or manual workers.

The Cheung girls' father, a mechanic, came to Britain four years ago to work in a Chinese restaurant; their mother does not work. Neither parent speaks English. Although now in the same country, their separate lives continue; the father works in Sheffield and is home only once a week.

He made the move because he was worried that Hong Kong, already crowded and competitive, would become more so with thousands of mainland Chinese families arriving. "The mainland Chinese work harder than people from Hong Kong,'' explains Wai Man.

If that is so, they must be hard workers indeed. The Hong Kong Chinese in Britain are famous for their determination and perserverance. Take Sylvia Sham, a Hong Kong Chinese woman. She came to Britain from Hong Kong 10 years ago at the age of 26 with no English to speak of but with the determination to get a British education. Step by step, starting with a BTEC in nursery nursing, she achieved her goal. Last month, she received a PhD from the Didsbury School of Education at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her thesis was on Cultural Differences in Teaching and Learning Styles: a Case Study of Chinese Adolescents.

Sylvia's personal experience of the subject is at least as interesting as the thesis itself. "My learning experience over the last 10 years gave me a lot of insight into how different the education system was in relation to Hong Kong's," she says. "I struggled through every course, every degree.I just couldn't get on with teachers giving me too much independence. I chose this thesis so that teachers and headteachers could understand the ways in which Chinese parents bring up their children and how this is reflected in the Chinese education system.'

One of the central differences is that, in Dr Sham's words, "when Chinese children are young, they don't ask their parents questions. The relationship does not allow it. Chinese children do what their parents tell them to do. Here, there is lots of dialogue and negotiation between parents and children.''

One of the consequences for Chinese children here is that "deep down, they're scared to ask teachers questions". They get down to their studies, particularly concentrating on the maths and science that are so highly prioritised in Hong Kong and they do incredibly well. Chinese young people achieve higher than LEA averages in all subjects and are proportionately over-represented in university admissions.

Like many other children from immigrant communities, Sylvia Sham found that academic pressure from parents was accompanied by an assumption that children would help with the family business. For Chinese families, this usually means catering: in Manchester, 90 per cent of families from Hong Kong are in the catering industry. So from the time children come home from school until bedtime, they are helping parents run the takeaway. Homework is slotted in at weekends.

Playwright, director and actor David Tse knows the story well. When he was six years old, he came with his family to England from Hong Kong. They were the first Chinese to settle in Leominster, Herefordshire, where they set up a fish and chip shopChinese takeaway. "It was in 1970 and the local paper featured me as the little boy who didn't speak a word of English," he says.

The move to England was hard on his four siblings, most of whom ended up in catering. "I escaped because I was the youngest," says Mr Tse. The years of sacrifice his parents ploughed into their clever son's education - he was sent to boarding school in Shropshire and then an independent secondary school - paid off. Continually top of his class, he achieved nine As, two Bs and a C for his O-levels and similar high marks for his A-levels. He took a law degree, he says, "to pay my parents back for the sacrifices they made for me. And that,'' he says with a laugh, "was the end of my Confucian obligations. Then I did what I wanted to do and went to drama school."

He wrote about his experiences in New Territories, a recently produced play about a boy sent to a British boarding school from Hong Kong. Presented by his own theatre company, Yellow Earth, it is a rites-of-passage story in which the central character moves away from the Confucianism of his upbringing to seek harmony with nature and the world around him. The play, which was in part devised with the actors, looks at racism and bullying and the central role of the family to the Chinese among other things.

With a growing number of British Chinese coming of age since the first wave of migration in the 1960s, we can look forward to more insights like Sham's and Tse's. They are both interesting and necessary. "Because Chinese children are so high achieving and so quiet,'' says Dr Sham, "there has not been much research interest in them. Teachers say they're no trouble. But the fact is that they need help."

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