HONG KONG - Cut-throat competition for exam success in Hong Kong's high-pressure education system has spawned a new breed of teacher -- celebrity tutors with near cult-like status and millionaire lifestyles.
With their glamorous photographs showing megawatt grins and flashy attire splashed across billboards and buses, the star teachers claim to transform failing students into A-grade pupils -- and earn up to $1.5 million a year.
The former British colony’s tutoring industry is reportedly worth at least HK$400 million ($51 million), with official figures showing as many as half of secondary school seniors seek private tutoring after school.
Hong Kong parents, often desperate to help their children succeed in the city's intense public-exam system, are more than willing to shell out handsome sums for extracurricular help.
"Hong Kong has a very examination-oriented school culture and tutoring is regarded as a kind of educational investment," said Kelly Mok, an English tutor who teaches at King's Glory, one of the largest tutorial schools in Hong Kong.
That focus on academic success at almost any cost has turned celebrity tutor Richard Eng into a rich man who wheels around the teeming city in a Lamborghini, wears expensive watches and lives in a multi-million dollar mansion in the city's Yuen Long district.
"Enrolment in tutorial schools is astoundingly high -- we are talking about 100,000 students every year," Eng told AFP.
Eng and other top tutors have successfully tapped that demand, using flashy, commercial marketing tactics to make themselves household names or academic superstars, otherwise known as "tutor kings" in Cantonese.
His empire, Beacon College, employs over 100 tutors and Eng plans to take the firm public.
"There are only 20,000 degree places in Hong Kong every year, but there are 100,000 aspiring college students" Eng said.
"When you think about this keen competition, you will understand why there is this obsession with doing well in public examinations -- especially college-admission ones."
Dozens of students turned up to Eng's lecture on a recent spring day to learn how to ace the city's English public exam for 16-year-olds. Glass walls separate the teenagers into groups of 45 students -- the maximum class size allowed by the government.
Clad in skin-tight jeans, a shimmery grey shirt and a big-buckled Gucci belt, the 47-year-old lectured animatedly in a mix of Cantonese and English, gesturing frequently to his Powerpoint slides and enthralling students with his quick-fire delivery over a headset microphone.
Mok, who has the looks of a model, concedes that her lessons are also almost as much entertainment as academics.
"I suppose it is a bit like a show," she said before a class, clutching a Louis Vuitton handbag and sporting a mini-skirt and a pair of high heels.
"But bear in mind these students are bored and tired after school," she added. "It's our job to make these extra-curricular lesson a bit more exciting for them."
Some tutors, like economics teacher Alex Lam, star in their own online soap operas. Lam has self-financed the production of about 10 hours of his own show over the years, using it as a way to draw in students.
Schools also pay to have instructors' faces plastered throughout the city on giant billboards and the backs of its ubiquitous double-decker buses.
King's Glory, one of Hong Kong’s leading tutorial schools, went the extra mile in its bid to attract students, awarding points to pupils that they can redeem for gifts like stationery and toy robots.
But some tutors try to boost class enrolments through unethical means, such as claiming to have access to exam questions, Lam said.
"A few bad apples in the industry tell students they have access to exam questions -- it is just a way to bump up student enrolment. But so far as I know, none of it is true -- no one really has had that kind of access," he told AFP.
Despite his own success, Lam warns that some parents and students may be taking educational achievement to the extreme.
"The tutoring culture is getting a little crazy," he said.
"Some students are taking tutorial lessons for five to six different subjects. The truth is, students might not necessarily benefit from taking so many lessons. They're better off concentrating on one or two subjects that they're weak at."
The craze also has veterans warning that quality may be slipping.
"The newcomers like to use gimmicks to attract students -- telling jokes, being pretty faces," Lam said. "They're not focusing on their teaching, which worries me as the teaching quality is dropping."
But while the big names are millionaires, the average rank-and file tutor earns much less.
"The younger tutors -- they have unrealistic expectations," Lam said. "They think are they are superstars and expect to earn superstar salaries -- but not all of them will."
Hong Kong’s Education Bureau has shied away from endorsing the popular schools, saying in 2009 that "students receive essential education at formal schools".
But as long as parents fret about their children's scholastic success, the industry seems likely to thrive, the Lamborghini-driving Eng predicted.
"Education will always be a priority because every parent wants his or her child to be better than their own generation," he said.