The Existential Angst of Hong Kong's 'Monster Parents'

The term "monster parent" was first coined in Japan to describe excessively protective parents who meddle in every aspect of their children's lives, and constantly complain to and about their teachers.
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On the last Sunday of September, around 3,000 parents, grandparents and guardians of undergraduate students at the elite Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) descended onto a campus nestled in green mountains and overlooking the sea.

They were there not to attend a commencement or graduation ceremony, but for the university's Parents' Day. They were armed with questions and opinions about every aspect of their adult children's university lives: Would mixed dorms invite trouble? Which subjects and credits should they take to get an edge? They should be punished for being late to class!

Waiting for them were professors from the fields of science, engineering, business and the humanities -- as well as a large number of journalists.

Every September sees a rash of back-to-school headlines in Hong Kong's media. Related facts, factoids and anecdotes fill countless op-eds and Facebook posts. The backdrop for these stories range from kindergartens to university campuses and they often reflect the prevailing obsessions and anxieties of the times.

The HKUST parents' day became a major talking point after a photo of an invite was uploaded onto Facebook and went viral. It spawned numerous newspaper articles, blog posts and soul-searching on the state of parenthood and the perceived shortcomings of our young people.

The event, billed as an opportunity for parents to learn more about university life seemed to confirm people's image of overly-controlling, ultra-competitive "monster parents" and their correspondingly coddled, spoilt brats, known here as "kong kids".

The term "monster parent" was first coined in Japan to describe excessively protective parents who meddle in every aspect of their children's lives, and constantly complain to and about their teachers. They were dramatized in a 2008 TV series of the same name, and predate Amy Chua's high-achieving Asian American "Tiger Mom."

However, unlike the tiger moms, monster parents wrap their children in cotton wool and cannot countenance criticism of their progeny.

At the parents' day, HKUST professors listened patiently as parents fretted that mixed dorms would lead their children astray and complained that noisy dorm-mates kept their kids up all night. They explained that while the school did not prohibit families from asking their domestic helpers to tidy up students' dorm rooms, they did not encourage it. University students should be given the chance to be independent young adults and their parents were urged to let go.

But letting go is becoming increasingly difficult in a city where parents and children are under intense pressure to succeed. Competition for places in desirable schools has progressively worked its way down, from high schools, to elementary schools, to kindergartens, to pre-nursery classes and even playgroups.

For a story about the pressures of early childhood in Hong Kong, my students recently interviewed the mother of a four-year-old who has soccer class on Mondays, piano and violin on Thursdays, extra English and maths on Thursdays and Fridays and music on Saturdays. She was also considering Mandarin and swimming, and all this on top of kindergarten. This may be an extreme case, but there is constant pressure for parents to put their kids on the treadmill and a lucrative industry to promote it.

Unsurprisingly, there was much hand-wringing when a survey published by a local university found Hong Kong's school children scored higher than those in the United States, Britain and Australia in a questionnaire that detects antisocial traits. Researchers warned that monster parents were creating a generation of over-confident, spoilt brats with a tendency towards aggression and violence to get their way.

But it seems too easy to point the finger at parents, simultaneously accused of fostering cowering, over-dependent children and violent narcissists. Parents are trapped in a pressure cooker -- an education system that emphasizes academic achievement, as measured in test results, above all else, a culture that deems those without university degrees as failures.

What's worse, more and more students are attaining the minimum grades needed to qualify to study at a government-funded university, but only 18 per cent of them will win a coveted place.

Some parents with the skills and qualifications, or the financial means, vote with their feet.

When we moved into our building, my daughter quickly befriended a girl living upstairs who was just a year older than her. They bumped into each other often but managed just two play-dates in three years. The girl was always too busy with after school classes.

She was polite, articulate and sharp but by the time she was in (a prestigious) primary school, her teachers told her parents she was an average student, and needed to have extra tuition. Cram classes were added to her dance, swimming and choir practice.

"I actually don't want to put her through all of it," her Dad once confided to me, "but in Hong Kong's system, I would be putting her at a disadvantage if I didn't. It wouldn't be fair."

A year or so later, the family emigrated to Australia.

Escape is not an option for everyone. Those who stay focus on how to maximize their kids' chances of getting into university. This includes attending classes that train children and their parents for kindergarten and primary school interviews. In other words, interview preparation classes for two year-olds.

In recent years, parents' anxieties in this highly competitive environment have been compounded by the arrival in Hong Kong's classrooms of the "cross-border students." The number of children who live in mainland China but travel to school in Hong Kong is increasing every year and has put immense pressure on schools in those parts of Hong Kong nearest to the Mainland.

Some of the kids who make the long journey to school every day are the children of split families, where one parent is a Hong Kong resident and the other is a mainlander. Still more are the children of non-resident parents who chose to give birth here so their kids can enjoy the city's education, health, welfare and employment rights, or to escape China's one child policy.

Before regulations were tightened up, the city's maternity wards were full of expectant mainland mothers. The ensuing shortage of beds for local women fueled the growing tensions between Hong Kongers and their mainland neighbours. Now, competition for school places in the districts bordering the Mainland is doing the same.

As September drew to a close, the school stories refused to go away. There were tales of parents fainting in queues for kindergarten application forms. There was the story of the recent immigrant from the Mainland who had bought a luxury flat in an expensive area and converted from Buddhism to Protestant Christianity to boost her son's chances of getting into a prestigious primary school -- only to discover it was a Catholic school.

Last week was the so-called Golden Week holiday in the Mainland, a celebration of China's National Day Some Mainland parents took advantage of the vacation to come and apply to Hong Kong kindergartens. Correspondingly, there were reports of local parents pitching tents days in advance so they could be first in line for the forms.

Hong Kongers are a competitive bunch at the best of times. Now they are competing not just against each other, but with more than a billion people on the other side of the border in a race that begins in the maternity ward and never lets up.

One of my friends, a fierce critic of Hong Kong's pressure cooker, cookie cutter education system, a veteran of school PTA's and the antithesis of a monster parent, is uncharacteristically riled up when the HKUST parents' day comes up in conversation. For her, the media's mockery of so-called monster parents is a cheap shot.

She has a point. It is easy to caricature and judge other people's parenting styles and decisions and harder to challenge, let alone change a system and culture that encourages the "monster" behavior.

Perhaps monster parents are just anxious parents, scheming and scrambling to ensure the best for their children in a city wracked by uncertainty over its place in time and space. No longer a capitalist gateway to a sleeping communist giant, no longer a colony of a long-faded superpower, Hong Kong is grappling with and resisting becoming just another city in the world's emerging superpower.

With their wary eyes trained on their aspiring and driven cousins from the Chinese mainland, these parents strain to see a constantly shifting finish line. No wonder they are investing so much in the starting line.

Yuen Chan has worked in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing as a newspaper, television and radio reporter, anchor and presenter. She now teaches journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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