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In Hong Kong, flashy test tutors gain icon status

When Richard Eng isn’t teaching English grammar to high-school students, he might be cruising around Hong Kong in his Lamborghini Murcielago. Or in Paris, on one of his seasonal shopping sprees. Or relaxing in his private, custom-installed karaoke room festooned with giant Louis Vuitton logos.

Mr. Eng, 43 years old, is one of Hong Kong’s best-known celebrity “tutor gods.”

Hong Kong parents are often desperate to help their children succeed in this city’s pressure-cooker public-examination system, which determines students’ college-worthiness. That explains why many are willing to pay handsomely for extracurricular help. Mr. Eng and others like him have made a lucrative business out of tapping that demand. They use flashy, aggressive marketing tactics that have transformed them into scholastic pop stars “tutor gods,” as they’re known in Cantonese.

Private tutoring is big business around the world. Programs that help people prepare for standardized tests such as SAT-prep courses in the U.S. have become a multibillion-dollar industry. Tutoring agencies are also booming in places like mainland China and Japan. Several years ago, Hong Kong’s government estimated that the city’s families spent nearly half a billion dollars a year on tutoring.

Hong Kong stands out, though, for instructors who boldly tout their success rate and their own images. They pay to have their faces plastered throughout the city on 40-foot-high billboards and the sides of double-decker buses. They’re also known for buying ads that take up the entire front page of newspapers space more commonly filled by banks and property developers. One local television station is even preparing to launch a fictional drama series based on the lives of the tutor gods.

The tutors won’t say exactly how much they make. But typically, a popular tutor might teach 100 students in a single lesson, each paying as much as $12.50 to be there. So a tutor working 40 hours could gross $50,000 in a week. “It’s a big business,” says Ken Ng, a well-known tutor god. “That’s why I’m driving my second Ferrari.”

Years ago, Mr. Eng remembers, tutors were looked down in Hong Kong as second-rate teachers. Now, he adds, people ask for his help and “they say, ‘I want to be a tutor god.'”

He relishes the attention. In April, when Louis Vuitton threw a party here to showcase its vintage luggage and trunks, he hammed for photographers in a head-to-toe Louis Vuitton ensemble, complete with glimmering gold blazer and gold leather shoes.

“It’s the product that you’re selling, and in our business, it’s the person just like in showbiz,” says June Leung, Mr. Eng’s cousin and business partner. A recent brochure for their tutoring business features Ms. Leung, 40, wearing a John Galliano T-shirt and knee-high leather boots on the cover.

Flashy clothes might not seem the way for a tutor to impress clients. But Hong Kong youth respond well to the marketing, and many parents go along with whomever their kids choose assured by the promise of better grades. A low score in Hong Kong’s public exams, which cover a range of subjects, can put the brakes on a student’s college aspirations.

Garret Leung, 19, credits multiple tutors for helping him land a perfect score on a recent public exam making him one of only 15 Hong Kong students to do so in 2005. “The tutors may not actually help you speak better English,” he says. “But your scores will certainly be better.”

Rosa Wong, 46, says she’s put off by the “deification” of the tutors. “In my heart, I don’t agree with these practices,” she says. But that didn’t stop her from enrolling her 16-year-old daughter Sarah in classes with four different tutor gods. She decided on the best ones after watching sample lesson videos on YouTube.

“When everyone else takes their classes and your children don’t,” says Ms. Wong, “you’re afraid they won’t be as competitive.” Besides, she says, these tutors are great at “tipping” or predicting exam questions an important edge that could determine her daughter’s future.

Sometimes, the tipping seems to be a little too accurate. A few tutors have been known to guess questions that appeared in nearly identical form on the actual tests. This spring, a legislator here called for a formal investigation into any possible ties between tutors and testing officials.

Mr. Ng’s company, called Modern Education, is one of the dominant players in the field. Mr. Ng, better known here as “Ken Sir,” this spring told students to practice writing essays about fashion designers. During the public exam that followed, students cracked open the test’s English section to find a request for a 250-word essay on the question “Would you like to work with a famous fashion designer?”

Mr. Ng says his prediction was based on experience in the field. He’s proud of his tipping prowess and now hypes it in his marketing materials. “I know all the tricks,” says the 40-year-old tutor.

That includes attracting top talent, ranging from attorneys to fashion models. In one instance, Mr. Ng says he lured one English tutor, Stella Cheng, away from a lucrative gig at a prominent law firm.

On a recent summer day, over one hundred students watched rapt as one of Mr. Ng’s disciples, Karsen Fan, lectured students on how to ace the English portion of the public exam. Glass walls separated the crowd into “classrooms” of 45 students or less that’s the maximum class size allowed by the government who watched the tutor on a live video feed. Teaching assistants circled the students, taking questions.

A baby-faced 31-year-old with a goatee, Mr. Fan, who lectures in mix of Cantonese and English, enthralled students with his rapid-fire delivery over a headset microphone.

“Do you hear that voice?” Mr. Ng said, hovering outside the classroom. “That’s why he’s a star.” As it happens, Mr. Fan has a side career rapping with local pop singers. Like many tutors, he goes by a stage name K. Oten which he uses both in classrooms and recording studios.

Hong Kong’s rank-and-file schoolteachers can find the tutor obsession hugely frustrating. Rosita Louie, 58, who has taught English at a local government-funded public school for 37 years, remembers exploding at two of her students who used her daily English period to finish up their tutorial homework.

“There’s no way for me to compete for my students’ attention,” she says.

– Associated Press

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