Review: ‘Does it Have to Be Like This? Education and Socialisation in Hong Kong’ by Anthony J Solloway

There is a particular type of Westerner who works in Hong Kong educational institutions and is, or becomes, mentally unhinged.  There was the lecturer who fought a years-long battle with his college and the government in an attempt to prove himself exempt from having to pay tiny Mandatory Provident Fund contributions.  A teacher who compiled a 100-plus-page dossier, replete with upper-case, bold and yellow highlighter, which he sent to every senior official and lawmaker, describing his persecution by colleagues and superiors.  There was a course designer in an education faculty whose conflict with his boss led to legal action and a whole, vindictive book.  I have long assumed that such people, who would never last five minutes in a private-sector commercial environment, drifted into education.

Does it Have to Be Like This? raises a second possibility, namely that Hong Kong schools drive people mad.  The author, who has taught in the system, seems to have escaped with his sanity intact – but perhaps only just.  This fascinating and disturbing critique of Hong Kong’s education system leans at times towards strong polemic.  At the very least, it is fair to say that this is a highly opinionated work.  Some might say insensitive, or worse after reading a passage like “…the vast majority of Hong Kong males (the current writer hesitates to use the term men)…”

To some of us who have not worked, studied or put children in Hong Kong’s local (as opposed to international) schools, the city’s education methods conjure up clichés: rote-learning, exam-based, and so on.  We know the system has its shortcomings.  What we don’t realize, and what this book describes, is just how dysfunctional the system really is, and what the repercussions are for the whole community.

The book starts with a summary of the overall environment: the prevalence of child-rearing by grandparents or Southeast Asian maids, crowding, pollution, noise, even Confucianism and a culture of not questioning.  It is a colourful, if not entirely sympathetic, analysis of Hong Kong society.

The author then opens our eyes to the strange world of the Hong Kong classroom and school, where teachers – typically female, single and living at home well into adulthood – lecture and dictate to students through microphones, often interrupted by announcements over the school-wide PA system from the dictator-like principal’s office.  Teachers are overworked in that they are attending pointless meetings, having naps and long lunches, and marking and correcting students’ work without asking why their charges keep making the same mistakes year after year.  He describes the worst aspects of rote-learning and the traumas of the examination system (“Hong Kong does not really have an education system as such, but rather simply has an exam-preparation system”).  Textbook publishers, it seems, are “bottom-feeding educational leeches”.

He addresses the vexed issue of English versus Chinese medium, teachers’ often-woeful standards and the role of cram schools, as well as a lengthy and debatable digression on the way Chinese characters are taught.  He also delivers what, to me, is an epiphany in a single, small fact: all three bands of Hong Kong high school, segregating children by academic ability, follow the same curriculum – that designed for the elite  minority.  The majority of students study for exams they know, from the beginning, they have no hope of passing.  In all my years here, I had never realized this; it’s a wonder all kids at band two and three schools aren’t dropping out, doing drugs, joining triads and doing ‘compensated dating’.  The thinking, apparently, is that exam success is all about effort, and ability plays no role.

Other local assumptions explain much.  “Learning has to be structured and instructional; it is never unstructured or self-structured, and is never experiential.”  This is why, when I pontificate in certain company on the theory of evolution, plate tectonics or the history of man’s expansion across the world, some locally educated people assume I must have a formal education, and of course credentials, in these fields.  The possibility that I, a non-scientist, would read and learn about these subjects out of curiosity – for pleasure – seems to escape them.

After an esoteric rant about how the British Council trains English teachers, the author looks into the universities, where this lack of general knowledge and awareness of current affairs is noticeable.  “…few [students evince] any particular desire to know… Much of this can be put squarely down to a complete and total absence of reading.”  He also describes how academia becomes mired in politics and backstabbing.

Even allowing for some exaggeration on the jaded author’s part, it is easy to see how working in such a system would drive someone to despair, or to writing a sometimes-undiplomatically phrased book. Is it any wonder that anyone who can do so – including Education Bureau officials who oversee all this – sends their kids overseas?  What would Hong Kong, with its generally productive and resourceful people, be like without handicapping itself with such a system?

Does it Have to Be Like This? Education and Socialisation in Hong Kong is available at Amazon and here.

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15 Responses to Review: ‘Does it Have to Be Like This? Education and Socialisation in Hong Kong’ by Anthony J Solloway

  1. Nic says:

    He has some moot points, the system is not perfect.
    An Anthony J Solloway posted this on a web forum “Why go to Shanghai? Hong Kong is so much better! I teach children English and get a great salary – much better than my university classmates from Brighton and Durham now get in the UK!” The namesake has raised an issue I wonder whether the author tackled, ie, expats here for monetary reasons whose care for the locals and ‘the system’ is best displayed by pontificating about how things are done elsewhere as opposed to making a difference at other levels. Just a thought.

  2. Da Docta izza Teacha Oh Yes! says:

    Stop being so cynical.

    I have been here for 22 years and never received an expat salary. I started trying to reform education in 1988 and wrote my doctoral thesis on the subject. My first book – on education reform – appeared in 1991. It was a big hit in Poland. Really!

    Mr Solloway is equally committed to educational reform.

    Believe it or not, some people are not in life for the money even though they live in Hong Kong. Strange but true.

    Take me for example – I even turned down a Swiss millionairess!

    Imagine that…

  3. Historian says:

    Surely it’s no coincidence that we’re ruled by a man who, with his bow tie and first-day-at-school anxious grin, looks very much like an overgrown kindergarten student.

  4. I know Anthony well. He’s well-known as an expert on Dave’s ESL cafe too – having had over 20 different aliases there over the years. He has some really interesting (no joke) theories about teaching students in Hong Kong by showing them The Chuckle Brothers videos.

  5. Jackson Solloway says:

    Hello cousin Anthony! Congrats on getting your book out. See, I told you things would be fine after you lost your job in HK!

  6. Jackson Solloway says:

    Nice one cuz Tony! Your Auntie Flo says ‘see i told ya youd get a new job after the last one in hong kong!’. Nice one matey. Wish I cud understand your fancy talk!!! LOL 🙂 🙂 Lookin forward to my next visit and more special fun eye eye!

  7. Virgil Tibbs says:

    And how much flak do the overpaid, underworked NETs get for their role in this failure?

  8. The Evil Anglo says:

    Dear Mr Tibbs,

    Since most NETs at secondary level at least, work very long hours and do a damn good job, they have very little to do with the problems in Hong Kong’s education system. They comprise far less than 1% of the teaching population anyway, and the currrent scheme has only been around for a decade or so anyway. As for being overpaid, NETs are on the same pay scale as their local colleages (the living allowance covers basic housing in the current economic climate – and locals don’t have to pay huge education fees for their kids and get much better retirement incentives).

    Many NETs, like me, are far better qualified but earn less than their HK fellow-teachers (I’ve got a PhD), because the EDB doesn’y pay more for higher quals, and often refuses to recognise perfectly valid teaching experience to save themselves cash. Then shall we add the huge expenses if you are married to a Chinese national and have to pay massive hospital fees, and for regular jaunts back to the mainland for her to get visas because the government won’t give PRC nationals a spouse visa?

    What’s next? Are we going to blame Chinese immigrant teachers in the US for the weaknesess the US education system?

    Just silly.

  9. Virgil Tibbs says:


    NETs are better paid than their local equivalents, and take part in far fewer school activities. Most NETs do the bare minimum.

    That you made the mistake of marrying a mainlander is irrelevant.

    I was just wondering if the ineffective NET scheme and its overpaid and underworked functionaries came in for criticism as well as the rest of HK society.

    Seeing as Solloway is (was?) a NET, I doubt it.

  10. Ah says:


    If you analyse your response starting wtih ‘untrue’, is not only racist but also incomprehensibe. Are you an English teacher? I do hope not.

  11. Stanley Barker says:

    Yes, Anthony J Solloway was a NET. He came to Hong Kong after working for EF for some time in Shenzhen. He was until very recently a ‘lecturer’ at City University.

  12. Murdo Morrison says:

    Anthony J Solloway has written a series of rants on Dave’s ESL under more than 50 names, the most interesting being ‘Ludwig’. ‘11.59’, ‘Moriarty’, ‘And your bird can sing’, ‘Zero hero’, ‘Robert Lubeck’, ‘The Weakest Link’, ‘Bertrand’ and ‘Jehan Cottard’ among.

    Looking back at these now it’s fascinating to see how his thinking has progressed over the years.

  13. Professor Tuppy Brough says:

    Off-topic, but just wondering if this is the same Anthony J Solloway who founded the Dorset branch of the Red-Headed League? If so and you are reading this Anthony then you may like to know that we’re still going strong! Ginger FOREVER, Ginger FOREVER!

  14. Angela says:

    Rather scathing. Proof is in the pudding, does HK produce productive, well adjusted young adults? Compare them to their peers from around the world.
    If HK didn’t teach all three bands to the same exam then their would be hue and cry that they were dismissing the potential of the children.

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