It was December 2017 when Emma Leung, a 10-year-old girl studying in Hong Kong, and her mother were informed that one of Emma’s classmates committed suicide. This was unfortunately not considered to be breaking news in Hong Kong, a city that has a notoriously high student suicide rate. According to the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, up until 2017, 71 students took their own lives as society continues to pile pressure on these students’ academic abilities. The stress that these Hong Kong students face tends to begin materialising from as early as around two years old when these students face their very first interviews in life: to compete for the admission to a “good” kindergarten.
The kid with no life
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Emma was no exception to the intense rounds of obstacles and challenges that many students face to get admitted into a reputable school. “I have signed her up for English reading, Math, and Chinese writing tutoring classes when she was in kindergarten, so she can compete with others during the interviews for primary school.” said Bella Su, Emma’s mother. Due to the increasingly competitive nature of schools in Hong Kong, it has become commonplace for parents to enroll their children into various extracurricular activities, with the hope that this would help bolster their repertoire of skills and subsequently make them into more exciting, sought-after candidates.
Video: A short film on Hong Kong’s education
Su herself comes from Taiwan, where growing up as a kid is generally perceived as being a lot easier than it is in Hong Kong. When Emma was 4 years old, Su did not follow what other parents were doing, such as sending these young little kids to classes that teach kids interviewing techniques.
Instead, she chose to believe in Emma’s natural ability. Who would’ve thought that even in kindergarten there were skills that you can learn to get an admission ticket? “Other parents trained their kids how to sit and what to say in the interview, I didn’t,” said Su. So far, Emma’s performance has been satisfactory for Su as Emma was admitted one of the top international school in Hong Kong.
Emma is currently studying primary 5, a year from starting another chapter of her life in secondary school. But for Emma, being a primary school student has never been easy as she hardly has any time for herself. Every week, her schedule is tightly packed with school work, tutoring classes, and extracurricular activities, leaving her little to no time to relax. “I hear them (her classmates) say ‘I am going to crack under this pressure” a lot,’ said Emma.
Video: Interview with Bella Su, Emma’s mother
The outdated “Hong Kong dream”?
For most children who grow up in Hong Kong, the idea that money equals success is omnipresent. A lot of parents’ biggest goals for their children is to be able to send their kids to top universities, mainly due to the traditional belief that obtaining a degree from these universities essentially guarantees a more successful and brighter future.
Ruth Chee, a 26-year-old education counselor, had pointed out how pressure can be placed on kids in all varieties of different contexts that remind them how “important” it is to get into a good school. When these students step foot into tutorial centres for extra revision sessions, all they see lining across walls are posters that showcase how many other students from these centres have been accepted into traditional and prestigious schools, making it almost impossible for the kids to escape the pressing message of “good school, good future”.
Chee said this suffocating growing-up environment has turned the younger generation into soulless individuals who have lost their self-identity and are constantly subscribed to competitions. “A lot of kids are then looking for short-term successes, like Youtube stars or Instagrammer, instead of something long-term.” said Chee.
The rise of social media-related career
Like most kids, Emma enjoys watching YouTube videos in her spare time. In this digital era, most kids own a smartphone from an early age and also operate their own Instagram accounts, making it so much easier for kids to get access to and influenced by social media trends and phenomena.
Janice Li, a 20-year-old student studying politics at the University of Hong Kong, makes videos and posts them on YouTube. Her bubbly personality was the driving force behind the production of her videos. “I have always enjoyed sharing and interacting with people about my experiences,” said Janice, whose passion provides an outlet from the stress of her normal schooling.
Inspired by other online personalities, Li has started her own YouTube channel, “thatgongnui”, two years ago. Li updates her page by uploading YouTube videos of her favourite make-up looks or where she had traveled to have become her favourite leisure pursuit.
Nonetheless, Janice insists that being a part-time YouTuber will simply remain a hobby for her rather than an occupation for quite some time, primarily due to the unpredictability in the future development of the industry. However, Janice’s sister, who is still studying primary school, wants to become a YouTuber in the future. “A lot of kids, like my sister and her friends, might be attracted to the industry because of the freebies that these KOLs or YouTubers get,” said Janice.
Back when YouTube didn’t exist, if we wanted a toy, our parents would tell us if we study hard, we will be able to make the money and buy the toy when we grow up. “I still remember when slime was the big thing, my sister and all her friends were watching videos of these influencers playing with the toy,” said Janice, “If they see YouTubers getting sent what they want for free, why would they still want to study hard for anything?”
In a 2017 survey conducted by the Family Wellness Centre of Hong Kong’s YMCA, the most popular career choices for primary children for boys and girls are game designers and artists/singers respectively. However, what stood out this year was the new career options that kids have filled in in the “others” column – “YouTuber” and “KOL (key opinion leader)”.
On the flip side of YouTube and Instagram
If becoming a YouTuber is the new hip for our next generation, should we be worried about this emerging trend?
Tina Wong, a 23-year-old full-time YouTuber and Instagrammer, has successfully gained a solid footing in this increasingly competitive industry. Over three years’ time on YouTube and Instagram, she has managed to garner over 95,940 subscribers on YouTube and 142,000 followers on Instagram, respectively.
Video: Tina’s most viewed YouTube video
Being a YouTuber, however, has not always been something that Tina aspired to do. “I started my YouTube channel because of the growing numbers of followers that I have gained over the years on Instagram,” said Tina. To Tina, making YouTube videos was a challenge that she took on because she wanted to move beyond photography and still images.
Content creating is more than just make-up tutorials or daily vlogs for this rising YouTube star. “The intention is very important, you can only create good content when you are really thinking outside the box and dare to be different,” said Tina. There is no formula to success in this industry, “If kids are aspiring to become YouTube stars solely aiming at making money, then it will not be about creativity anymore and it will be hard for them to survive in this industry,” said the YouTuber.
Dr. Paul Wong, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at HKU, said YouTubers should be viewed as “another new profession under the information communication technology era”. When asked about whether kids’ new aspiration of becoming a YouTuber should be considered a blessing or a curse, he said, “if it was a curse, would STEM become a curse as well?”
To pursue a career in this adventurous field might be perceived by many as an escape from Hong Kong’s strenuous education system, but for some, this trend appears to be a brand new profession that has an ever-growing demand in modern society. As once posited by famed economist Joseph Schumpeter, perhaps the concept of the Invisible Hand pushing society’s supply and demand may be in effect – and for a purpose that would be able to mitigate the clearly stressful and often harmful effects of Hong Kong’s competitive education environment.