Studious Saturdays on the Far East bank of the Clyde

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
Glasgow's Chinese school for adults and children is booming with weekend classes in Mandarin, Cantonese, English and Oriental culture, Miranda Fettes reports

At 10.20am every Saturday, swarms of parents arrive at Glasgow's Stow College to drop off their children, not for football or hockey but for school.

The children run and skip around outside, chattering animatedly, before flocking into the huge red brick building which towers on the south side of Junction 17 of the M8.

The youngsters thronging along corridors and up four flights of stairs are not the typical diverse mix of Glaswegian children from different ethnic backgrounds. There are no Asian or black children and only a handful of white youngsters. Almost all are Oriental in origin.

Every Saturday, from 10.30am to 3pm, the college is home to the Glasgow Chinese School. The school's remit is to teach Chinese language and culture; its objectives, to provide mother tongue teaching for Chinese children and to promote cultural exchange and understanding.

Of the 430 children and 50 adults who attend the school, 43 have no Chinese origin. Some are indigenous Glaswegians with Chinese partners; some are children whose parents have sent them to the school to learn Chinese; one or two are simply interested in learning more about Chinese language and culture.

School fees are only pound;50 per child per year and the children range in age from five to 18. Volunteer teachers, who are not qualified but work predominantly in Glasgow's Chinese community, take the children for classes in Cantonese and Mandarin.

Cantonese is the dialect of Hong Kong and southern China, while Mandarin is the primary language of China. The majority of Scotland's Chinese population are Cantonese speakers and 85 per cent of the classes are in Cantonese rather than Mandarin.

The children's language classes are organised across 11 levels, from beginners in class 1 to A level students in class 11. The last three classes are examined, with pupils sitting GCSEs at the end of class 9 and AS level after class 10.

"Our students are mainly Scottish-born Chinese pupils; some are from Hong Kong, China, Macau," explains headteacher Sam Chau, who works in Glasgow's Wing Hong Chinese Elderly Centre during the week. "All teachers are volunteers from the Chinese community.

"The parents want their children to learn Chinese because of communication.

I want my children to learn some Chinese because I still have family in Hong Kong. I would like my children to communicate with their grandparents.

There is a relationship that you cannot forget."

Mr Chau says it is not just about preserving Chinese language and heritage.

"One more language is very useful in this world and more and more people are speaking Chinese because of the growing economy of China," he reasons.

The notion of six days of schooling a week and extra exams being excessive for a child is alien in his culture, he says. Chinese pupils outperform every other ethnic group in the UK and Mr Chau believes that learning is important in Chinese culture because it is considered imperative to do one's best and better one's knowledge. He talks of "the stringent practice of Chinese parents telling their children to do the best that they can".

"You need to obey and respect your elders," he says. "In Chinese culture that's very important. I wouldn't say 100 per cent of Chinese children are well disciplined but they're more disciplined than local indigenous children.

"The classes are only two and a half hours and they give children a good opportunity to meet and to make friends. It helps them to better equip themselves to compete in this vigorous world."

In class 10 Cantonese, the AS class, the children take turns reading out of a book. Downstairs, Colin Crawford, 9, and his sister May Yuk, 8, are in an elementary class. Colin is busy practising writing the Chinese character for water, opposite a page full of river characters which he has already written. He says he speaks English to his dad and Chinese to his gran.

One of the Cantonese teachers, Szeman Ho, 27, is a former pupil of the school, and works at the Chinese Health and Living Centre during the week.

Born in Hong Kong, she was raised in Glasgow from the age of five and started attending the school in her mid-teens.

"The children are very willing to learn and their parents are very encouraging," she says. "When I was a pupil, I just came to class. When I became a teacher, I realised how much work there is behind teaching, marking and preparing for exams."

At 1pm, a bell sounds and language classes are over. There is a stampede for the front door and most of the children and adults unite in a mass exodus.

A few stay on for afternoon leisure and culture classes in Chinese dance, traditional Chinese music and the lion dance.

On the fourth floor, 16 girls learning traditional Chinese dance are bowing, jumping, tapping their feet and sweeping their arms.

Along the corridor in the traditional music class, a group of children are playing a variety of drums, clashing cymbals and hitting sticks together to make a crescendo of rhythmic sound. Next door, three boys are being shown the minutiae of playing the erhu, with advice on how to hold the bow and pull it across the strings.

Round the corner, a group of boys in yellow T-shirts and black trousers are drumming, playing the cha (cymbals) and practising kung fu, while two boys are performing the traditional lion dance, taking choreographed steps beneath a colourful lion.

The largest Chinese school in Scotland, Glasgow Chinese School opened in 1972 with just 40 students. Having increased more than tenfold to more than 400 pupils, Glasgow's Chinese community appears in little danger of losing its cultural heritage.

"I like coming to the school," says Vincent Ho, 15. "I have a lot of friends here of my age and my race, and learning the language will help me in future life."

Of the adults taking language classes at Glasgow Chinese School, the majority are Chinese parents eager to learn English. Since the tuition is provided by Stow College as part of its community education budget, the classes are free.

Jill McInnes, who teaches social sciences during the week at Stow College and English to Chinese speakers on Saturday mornings, says: "Students are not really interested in defining clauses and perfect grammar. They're more interested in practical, everyday things: how to speak to their kids'

teachers, how to take something back to a shop and that sort of thing."

In the beginners' class, 26 adults are busy doing writing and spelling exercises. Liming Lee, 39, and Eva Yu, 39, both have children in the school. Lee's daughters Elisa, 7, and Cynthia, 5, are learning Cantonese, while Yu's 12-year-old daughter Angel is learning English "to help her with her schoolwork". Both women moved here because of their husbands' jobs.

They say they like Glasgow but miss their families.

Kam Hap Lai, 46, from Macau, has a son, Wai Wai Chang, 11, who is in another classroom learning Cantonese. "I'm learning English because I live here, to do shopping, to see the doctor. My son helps me with my homework," she chuckles.

As well as writing and spelling exercises, they complete vowel detective worksheets, participate in role playing, acting out a patient and doctor's receptionist or a customer and shopkeeper, as well as practising social expressions such as "Good morning".

At the end of the year, they are awarded a certificate at the school's graduation ceremony.

In the intermediate class, Mei Lee, 48, is learning verb patterns and future forms. "My life needs English. I want to know new friends, see the doctor, go shopping. All these things need English," she reasons.

Lawrence Charles, meanwhile, is at the school taking classes in Cantonese, as is his son Allan, 9. "The majority of the people in the class are Scottish-born Chinese people in their mid-20s," explains Mr Charles, 38.

"There are a few Scottish people learning Chinese and most of them are either married to or in a relationship with a Chinese person, as I am.

"I find that the written characters are easier to learn than the spoken language because it's a tonal language and the same word can have several different meanings, depending on how you say it."

Emma Leighton, 25, is studying advanced Mandarin. With no Chinese origins and no Chinese partner, she is interested in learning more about the language and culture. With a degree in Chinese language, history of art and Chinese art archaeology, she is refreshing her knowledge both for personal and professional reasons, as she is the curator of Chinese art for Glasgow Museums. "I'm the only white student in the class," she says.

Cantonese and Mandarin are completely different, she adds. "Mandarin's much easier to learn because there are only four tones, compared to nine in Cantonese."

This means that the same word in Cantonese, pronounced with differing intonations, could have up to nine different meanings. Nevertheless, it has a written character set in common with Mandarin.

"My whole life passion is China and Chinese art," enthuses Ms Leighton.

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