Hell hath no fury like a woman denied ‘no local content’

Maybe the Germans have a word for it: a disproportionate and indeed irrational sense of injustice provoked by the sight of another person fortunate enough to enjoy benefits you do not have and which do not come at your expense in any way. Children tend to suffer from it, until they learn to rejoice at other people’s good luck (or at least pretend to). There is a particular type of Hongkonger who seems rather prone to it as well, seething with outrage, for example, over having paid full price one day when a neighbour enjoys a discount the next. It is closely related to Kiasu, from the Hokkien ‘afraid to lose’, in which Singaporeans take such a perverse pride.

A ceaselessly entertaining example of the type is the anti-English Schools Foundation letter-writer to the South China Morning Post. The paper prints their diatribes – almost weekly – because it knows it is stirring up a hornet’s nest; the letters are an implicit threat to a large portion of Hong Kong’s Western parents to force them to pay higher school fees. What is more intriguing, however, is the psychology of the letter-writers.

Today’s is from one Cynthia Sze of Quarry Bay. Two things stand out: first her reasoning, which has a simple and in fact rather sad explanation; second her implicit appraisal of the value of ESF-style schooling.

We can only guess, but it seems more than likely that Ms Sze attempted to get a child into an ESF institution. The schools, originally intended for colonial-era English-speaking kids, offer a relaxed international education, and a route to prestigious colleges and careers, subsidized by the government. Places are highly desired among Chinese-speaking families with cosmopolitan aspirations. When Sze junior failed to win a place, it seems, the mother turned into an extreme enemy of the ESF: if her child couldn’t get a place, no-one else from a Chinese-speaking family should be allowed to either, and the non-Chinese families who remain should pay full fees.

Oh and, she adds, an ESF-style education is worthless and abhorrent to Hong Kong.

In all its mouth-frothing glory…

She calls the native Anglophone students ‘non-residents’. Of course, they do reside, and were in many cases born in, Hong Kong. She presumably means that they are of European or South Asian ethnicity, and the idea is to goad white- and brown-skinned taxpayers into vitriolic responses.

The key thing is that her high degree of loathing for the ESF is very obviously in proportion to her one-time desperation to get the presumed Sze kid an ESF place. She, and many other Chinese families, lost out while others no different from them got their prince or princess into an ESF school. It is arbitrary, thus unfair, and the resulting bitterness “undermine[s] the city’s moral fabric” and could cause rioting when more people understand. It is classic, unforgiving, vengeance-seeking blackballed-from-club syndrome, with obvious racial overtones (how many nationalist revolutionaries were radicalized when the foreign elite they hungered to join rejected them?)

She refers to the ESF’s reputation with scorn and dismisses the product of the “outlandish institution” as “an ‘international’ curriculum with virtually no local content.” Which leads us to a question not just for her but for the Hong Kong government: why should so many people be so keen to give their child that?

Click to hear the Residents’ ‘Act of Being Polite’!

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54 Responses to Hell hath no fury like a woman denied ‘no local content’

  1. Henry says:

    Hopefully ESF and everyone else will just Ignore her. It’s the most she deserves.

  2. Joe Blow says:

    I don’t have any brats in ESF, because I don’t have any to begin with (as far as I know).

    However, I have always been curious (and not only as a tax-payer) why private schools would receive -and, indeed, accept- tax-payers’ funds.

    Especially in the light of the extravagant salaries and benefits that ESF teachers receive. Not to mention that HK$ 10,000,000- golden handshake a previous head of ESF received for doing not a whole lot of anything.

  3. Iffy says:

    Quite the frenzied and disjointed rant. On the question of local content, I happened to be at an ESF school for the first time recently (using its taxpayer-provided pool on the weekend) and checked out the notice boards around the place featuring student work. The content, a heady mix of pro-democratic musings, commentary on local politics and analysis of HK’s social issues, might as well have been from an alien planet as far as Ms Sze and her mindless, clamouring ilk are concerned.

  4. Revolution says:

    Ah, the “extravagant salaries and benefits” strawman again. Extravagant compared to what, exactly?

  5. FB3 says:

    I would have a lot more time for Cynthia if she focused on why Civil Servants send their kids overseas rather than putting them into the local education system that they administer.

    Surely its time for Apple Daily to do a bit of research & see how many Education Secretaries have shipped their kids overseas. Here’s a list to get them started.

    Joseph Wong (1995 – 2000)
    Fanny Law (2000 – 2002)
    Arthur Li (2002 – 2007)
    Michael Suen (2007 – present)

    Hong Kong has plenty of cash to provide a world class education for its citizens, until HK’ers start asking questions of how the Govt spends their money, they will continue to get shafted.

  6. Ms Sze is, if I’m not mistaken, a regular contributor to the SCMP, and is among that strange crowd of letter writers and blog commenting locals, with excellent English, whom seem to have a chip on their shoulders so large, the Kwok brothers themselves might be interested in redevelopment. My personal theory is that these unhappy folk spent a large part of their formative years desperately in denial of their Chinese roots, only to find that come post colonial times, it is unimportant to everyone except themselves.

  7. truthier says:

    Mr. Blow is quite correct here. Hemmy in this post you are the one who shows the experience of being messed up by colonialism and alienation from others. Your usually sharp social libertarianism slides into a pretty reactionary stance. You’re also obsessed with English dying out here and it being the key to success. Neither is the case but the former is definitely losing its power. You want to buttress it, focus on English in the public schools. Who gives a F about this super-rich demographic anyway, 95% of whom are destined to leave HK?

    There is ZERO reason why private and non-open schools like ESF should get public monies. Other than a certain hangover of colonial privilege and, it is true, a small proportion of elite Anglicized ‘locals” who want their kids to be gweilo-like (a fetish and self-loathing perhaps or just contempt for their own culture and society). You don’t have to be a HK nativiist or Chinese nationalist to think that stinks.

    So any critique of this faintly ridiculous institution getting public moolah means said person failed to get a child into it? Really? I dont have a child though and am a gweilo.

    I don’t know if the schools are any good or not. If people want to plonk that much cash for those teachers and curricula, more power to ’em. But it is a con and colonial hangover in terms of public money.

  8. Maugrim says:

    Hemlock sums things pretty much up. The name Cynthia alone does however conjour up a view of a vole faced greedy see lai who is jealous of others.

    ‘Non-residents’ is an interesting choice of words along with ‘indigenous’. Presumably Ms. Sze is discussing those of Hakka, Haklo or Punti descent or maybe even the hairy Ainu people of Hokkaido? Sze does have a kernel of truth in that there are those within the ESF who see anything Chinese as being ‘so local’ and as a result, inferior. My solution would be to give them the same subsidies given to any student attending a HK school, but to make the ESF accountable to the same local accounting standards.

  9. PCC says:

    It is blindingly obvious that the government should support a greatly expanded ESF or create its equivalent to meet the huge local demand for an “international” English-language education and then take credit for doing something popular and right for once. But that would make too much sense, wouldn’t it?

  10. Iffy says:

    Truthier: other countries (Australia for example) provide quite generous subsidies to high-end, exclusive, fully private schools. I guess it is cheaper to throw a few bones the way of these institutions than to fund the equivalent number of public schools from the ground up. The public system remains funded to an acceptable level while the rich (bastards) who want elite education still have to fork over wads of cash for it. It’s divisive to some extent but no one really suffers.

    On principle, ESF funding seems less loathsome than this. But if you think it’s ridiculous and a colonial anachronism and you want rid of it, would you prefer that the govt redirect the funds to the international schools? I don’t think so. Perhaps more sensible to make use of what we’ve got: eg enforce fees at standard public levels but make the system academically selective or subject to entry by prescribed scholarship criteria, or some such.

  11. Joe Blow says:

    @Revolution: extravagant compared to any other secondary school teacher on this planet.

  12. Probably says:

    As FB3 correctly says HK has the money to fund a “world class” public education system. If this were the case then the ESF would become an irrelevance as it is by-passed by parents having their offspring educated to a high standard for free. Surely this is what Ms. Sze should be ranting about?

    And after schools what about a “world class” public healthcare system? Surely a better use of funds then pouring concrete into the harbour and potentially providing more permanent jobs to boot!

  13. The Regulator says:

    Education language discrimination is entrenched in The Basic Law and in the English Schools Foundation Ordinance. The Government subvention review is not yet complete.

  14. Allen Pinsent says:

    Perhaps there wouldn’t be a need for ESF schools if the Hong Kong Government got its educational system right and stopped chopping and changing the local school syllabus.

    FB3 is quite right in pointing out that the government bureaucrats who design the system don’t have enough faith in the system itself to send their kids to local schools/universities; instead they ship them over to the UK and remain indifferent to those without the means of getting out of a poorly-managed, poorly-funded government system.

  15. Revolution says:

    Well Joe, there has to be some sort of premium, otherwise they couldn’t afford to live here.

    I’d bet good money that your salary and benefits are just as “extravagant”, if not more so.

  16. oddsox says:

    I have no stake in this debate, as I’ve foresworn producing children and I loathe xenophobic expats, though a non-Chinese permanent resident myself. However, I presume parents who send their children to ESF schools pay taxes. So, they should be entitled to tax funding of their children’s education, whether it be a local school, ESF school or international school. If they then chose to top that govt funding up with school fees, that’s their choice. On the question of the level of funding, I claim ignorance. The level should be the same. Many letter writers claim that ESF schools are more generously funded than local schools, which would be unfair to those who attend local schools, but produce no evidence. I saw this quite strongly refuted recently by one person. An informed contribution on this would be helpful. The fairest system would be a voucher system where a voucher was given to each parent of a child resident in HK and of schoolable age and the parent could chose to send their child to the school of their choice, local, ESF or international and give the voucher to that school. Successful schools would prosper and parents given freedom of choice. What seems to be behind a lot of these attacks is ignorance maybe and an assault on cosmopolitanism. English may be of declining significance, if it were ever of significance other than to the top earning professional and business elites in HK. However, I don’t see the civil service, Goldman Sachs and international professional firms hiring monolingual Cantonese speakers. They hire the bilingually fluent these days, with a preference in the private sector for those bilingual in Putonghua and English – in particular foreign educated Mainland returnees. HK didn’t prosper by being monolingual. It has prospered because of how it differs from the Mainland – a stable, predictable and largely political and legal system and by providing a degree of comfort for non-Chinese speaking business people which means being able to conduct life and business in English and the vague trappings of cosmopolitanism HK offers. Otherwise business may as well be done in Shanghai or Guangzhou. Not HK. Ms Sze and her ilk may not favour having to move to Guanzhou.

  17. Big Al says:

    Where to start?

    Kids fail to get in to ESF not because they speak Cantonese but because they can’t speak English well enough. A Gweilo friend of mine failed to get Junior into an ESF school precisely because of this (even though English was his native language and it seemed okay to me). Big Al Jr attends an ESF School because he failed to get into a local (private) school as his Cantonese wasn’t good enough.

    If anyone bothers to investigate, the MAJORITY of kids at ESF are local Hong Kong Chinese, with a few others of various hues thrown in. If Ms Sze is talking about ethnic minorities, then the Brits would certainly fall into this category, as would every other non-Chinese in Hong Kong.

    What is so difficult in subsidizing ALL schools EQUALLY with the same level of oversight/transparancy? Must be as difficult a problem for government to resolve as having the same toll charge at each of the three cross-harbour tunnels.

    Yes, ESF teachers are overpaid, as are teachers at international schools, as are bankers, as are all employees of the civil service (who, by the way, are the ultimate in “discrimination on a linguistic pretext” – if you’re Chinese is not perfect, you can’t get a job). Or are they all overpaid?? Surely the market determines the going rate?

  18. To be labeled as a non-resident on her context is totally inappropriate. What is going on these days?

  19. pcrghlll says:

    FB3’s point is worth pursuing. Kenneth Chen, Under-secretary of education (or something like that), volunteered the info that he sends his kids to the (pricey) German-Swiss. He didn’t seem embarassed at all…

  20. Real Tax Payer says:

    I wonder if Ms Cynthia Sze is reading all this……

  21. Claw says:

    Hemlock gains so much delight from quoting these missives that it is a reasonable supposition that he writes to the SCMP under the noms-de-plume of Cynthia Sze, Pierce Lam, etc.

  22. Maugrim says:

    For oddsox and others, an excellent piece of information is contained here:

    The argument actually boils down to a few things: ESF gets a per class subsidy and isnt bound by the code of aid. DSS schools get a per head subsidy and are bound by strict financial protocols. International Schools get no subsidies. The ESF has large financial reserves and an ambitious expansion plan. Staff at ESF schoold get a very good gratuity and better holidays etc than say teachers in local schools, but similar to that of their counterparts in International schools.

    Thus the argument is International school or not? If yes, then treat them as an International school. A local school? Then ditto.

  23. Civil Servant says:

    @oddsox – for your kind information

    For this year subvention for ESF Secondary Schools is $28,700 per pupil. Some 70% of pupils have parents who are permanent ID holders.

    Meanwhile government subsidy for DSS (private) schools is $43,890 per pupil.

  24. Vile says:

    I still haven’t heard a satisfactory explanation as to why I need to fund other people’s kids’ education with my taxes.

  25. Claw says:

    Vile, because it’s in everyone’s interest to have a well educated youth who can grow up to be an effective workforce which will contribute to the future of the community. Not all parents (many through no fault of their own) can afford to educate their children and it is not in the interests of the community that such children should lack education.

    Whether the education your taxes are actually paying for is worth it is a different matter!

  26. Darovia says:

    Vile. Your taxes pay for education (or should) in any jurisdiction. the better question is why some of our tax money goes to the Society for Truth and Light’s (public) school programmes and also why it is to be spent on little red book brainwashing.

    Cynthia is Pierce Lam in drag. Indigenous people are those who spent their day looking at the ass end of a bullock as they ploughed HKG’s paddy fields before non-residents dropped anchor and brough theri discriminatory practices with them.

  27. Joe Blow says:

    @revolution: some sort of premium huh ?

    I shall give you one example that I personally know of: a (long-time) ESF teacher who makes approx. 80k per month PLUS a spacious, rather nice apartment in the better upper part of Midlevels.

    A premium indeed: for a secondary school teacher !

    Now, I remember the secondary schools teachers when I attended secondary school (and yes, I did, in case you wondered). The types with the shaggy beards, the cardigans, the corduroys, the sandals and the Amnesty International buttons, and their left-leaning babble.
    And those types are basically the same types who teach at ESF. For the same money they would have ended up at a vocational training school in Nowhere-Upon-Tyne.

    revolution, my guess is that you are an ESF teacher. Let’s be honest here: when you first heard about the salary and benefits of your new job, could you believe your flappy ears, or your luck ? Could you ?

  28. Lucas O'Gara says:


    Have you driven or ridden or walked on every road and paved path throughout HK? No, right? Are you confused about or up in arms over the fact that some small amount of your tax money is spent on creating or maintaining these roads? What about the salaries of govt-employed cleaners who empty litter bins in places you are exceedingly unlikely to visit?

    Having your tax money applied in ways that you personally don’t always benefit from is part of living in a modern society.

  29. Real Tax Payer says:

    On a more serious note :

    One commonsense commentator of worth (was it Tom Holland or Jake ? ) pointed out some real data to the effect that the subsidy per pupil at the ESF came to something like ( round figures for example ) HK$20K / per year, whereas it costs (again round figures, for example) HK$45K / year to educate a kid at a local school. So if the ESF educates Z pupils who have the right to free local education and there was no ESF , the extra burden on us REAL TAX PAYERS would be Z x HK$25K / year . So I say let the ESF pay its teachers whatever it likes and continue to get its subsidies. I am sure it is turning out some very well-educated kids who will one day make a difference to HK’s society.

    It’s like the analogy with private medicine : imagine you are waiting in long queue for the bus and suddenly taxi passes by and a group of 4 people ahead of you in the queue hail the taxi and take off in it . Should you be jealous because they can afford a taxi or pleased because the bus queue just got shorter?

    Your call.

    BUT I must say : what really pisses me off is high-paid govt civil servants, including, I am sure several Education Secretaries, who send their kids abroad for education . We have a trillion $ in the kitty and yet we spend more on a high speed railway to GZ which no-one needs, than we spend on education. I guess all our top civil servants did not get a decent education, and now we are paying the price for it. If you pay peanuts you get monkeys, and MAN what a load of monkeys are now running the place.

  30. Ramer Kang says:

    Pls correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t you need top-notch Cantonese in order to be acceptable to a regular HK secondary school?

    So when Ms Sze rounds off her rant with: “Public subvention should be available only to schools which afford equal opportunity to all without discrimination on a linguistic pretext”, doesn’t she destroy her own argument?

  31. Joe Blow says:

    “Those who can’t, teach”.

  32. Revolution says:

    No Joe, I am not an ESF teacher.

    I am not surprised the example you give is someone who is a long term teacher. Hardly anyone teaching in the ESF earns that much. That’s management levels. Most of them are on half of that at best.

    And I do not accept they are overpaid compared to, say, the parents of the kids they teach and when the cost of living here is factored in.

  33. Gerald says:

    Pls correct me if I’m wrong on this. Civil servants’ pay was increased dramatically in the 1970’s as part of the measures recommended by the then newly formed ICAC to curb rampant corruption. The foreruners of the ESF were paid according to a linked Government payscale and consequently enjoyed good salaries plus free accomodation plus tenure. There are still some of these (now ESF) teachers enjoying these benefits but they are very few in number. ESF now employs most of its teachers on local two year contracts but has to pay them more because they have to recruit some from overseas and assist them with a fairly modest rent allowance. They are consequently well paid but not as well paid or as secure as they were before.

  34. Stephen says:

    “… and the idea is to goad white- and brown-skinned taxpayers into vitriolic responses”

    And with 33 replies to this blog alone Cynthia has certainly succeeded however her reasoning is utter bollox.

  35. I think Mr Blow, Ms Sze and Mr Lam all wear the same pair of knickers, pink, frilly and in a twist….

  36. truthier says:

    vouchers are a really bad idea and just benefit the better off and already privileged.

    The HK public system is what needs funded more, and reformed. I cant agree enough that it is HK’s shame that it lacks a world class educational system and health care system. ESF is more of a symbolic issue and touchstsone, true. The subsidy thing still seems wrong to me, but HK is not normal anyway– the entire system of education is messed up.

    The interesting point to me is the one not about money but what gets taught, incl about HK and China. Frankly I too dont want some Amnesty International douchebag teaching my kids liberal pap. And who is most likely just not that bright. Give me the choice, and I want someone who at least knows something about the local culture and stuff about China.

  37. isomoliu says:

    The Cantonese equivalent to kiasu is “chup shu” or “sit dai”. The concept is that when other people gain something (a plus), it means you instantaneously lose that something (a minus), even though you never had it in the first place and irrespective of whether it is of use to you.

  38. Well said. It is also highly probable that Madam Sze herself might have been denied a place at an ESF school when she was younger. Local parents often burden their offspring with the responsibility of adding to family ‘face’ by getting into a school that their parents deem prestigious enough. The single minded desperation and fixation that some parents display on getting into a certain school borders on what I would call ‘hysteria.’ Then if the kid, usually for no fault of his or her own, fails to get into that certain college, then the parents visit all kinds of recrimination on the poor child’s head such as ‘You’ve let us down, you’ve let the family down, you’ve let yourself down, we had such high hopes…yada yada yada…’
    So if Madame Sze had ‘let her family down’ in such a way, such parental taunts would obviously be long burning and the cause of much seething resentment. Being unable to blame her parents – for this would constitute un-filial behaviour and patently unacceptable to Ms Sze, even though such parents would clearly be at fault – she instead turns her guns on what she sees as ‘white man’s privilege’ and ‘colonial hangovers’ and so on. No matter how indignantly outspoken her stance is over perceived discrimination and unfair privileges, when you apply logic and cool rationalism to her arguments they boil down to a very ugly distillation of pure racism.
    The latest insertion of common sense into the debate was Graeme Cooper of Discovery Bay who, in the SCMP of 29 August, pointed out that according to figures from the Education Bureau for 2009/2010, the cost of government subvention for secondary school students was HK$28,710 for ESF schools and HK41,130 for local schools.

  39. Plod says:

    ESF is the only option for HK residents whose kids don’t read/write Chinese (excluding costly private institutions).

    English is an official language and the Govt is therefore bound to provide affordable English medium education. The ‘English medium’ govt schools won’t admit kids who can’t read/write Chinese because some of the subjects are still taught in Chinese.

    ‘Hk – Asia’s World City” – right?

  40. PropertyDeveloper says:

    My sincerest condolences on your loss (I’m responding to your post of 31 August). Although I’ve never met you, I’ve followed your reflections for some years now, and always marvel at your knowledge and insight. I do hope that, in due course, this daily treat will be able to resume.

  41. Vile says:

    On the need for taxes – one must make that comment from time to time to see if anyone does come up with something new. No luck yet.

    1) In the developed world new generations are a a drain on, not a benefit to society, one which will get worse as educational qualifications continue to devalue and the non-productive lifespan of people extends into their 30s. Hence parenting is a lifestyle choice (luckily declining in popularity) and not one that others should bear the cost of. Before the spectre of “who will look after you in your old age?” raises its head – that’s what 45 years of working life are for.

    2) I also object to paying taxes for roads I don’t use. I’m all in favour of road charging instead of road taxes, the main benefit of which would be that we would soon see a reduction in the square mileage of concrete covering the place.

    3) The best thing to do with public litter bins is not to have them at all, educate people to take their trash home, and fine them heavily if they throw it into the street (i.e. self-financing).

    4) Paying taxes is an artifact of civilisation from well before modern times, then as now based on the premise that those who enforce them are better off than those who pay them. The rather recent idea that they should be used for the public benefit is merely a red herring put about to (largely successfully) mollify a potentially revolutionary public in the early part of the 20th century. Paying taxes is indeed part of life in the modern world, but that doesn’t justify it.

    To sum up, I’m still no wiser as to why there are taxes. Well, obviously because states have a monoploy on violence and can make citizens do anything they want or lock them up if they don’t.

  42. Big Al says:

    @ Joe Blow

    … and those that can’t teach, teach PE!

  43. Claw says:

    Vile, while there are many things currently provided by the state which citizens could provide for themselves if they were sufficiently well off, there are others which it would be very difficult, if not impossible, and certainly uneconomic to try and provide: the Police and the Fire Services are two which spring to mind.

  44. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    I like the idea of privatised, user-pay fire services. Crassus did quite well out of it.

  45. Dennis says:


    Somalia seems like the perfect paradise for you. A government without a monopoly on violence, no pesky tax collectors, no pesky schools and no pesky roads.

    You and your collection of Ayn Rand books will surely build a paradise on earth there!

  46. Henry says:

    Big Al – Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.

    TFF (and Vile) – I have a vision of the chief of fire services demanding my credit card before he instructs his men to put out the fire raging in my apartment.

  47. Plod says:

    Henry – before the days of ICAC that’s exactly what used to happen! Except it was cash in a brown bag rather than a credit card.

  48. Vile says:

    Best not to set fire to your own apartment, I find.

    Police are always brought up as an excuse for taxes. This is mostly because people forget that police were created to beat up tenants, workers and protestors, not to solve or prevent crimes (which they are spectacularly bad at). Admittedly they mostly only beat up protestors now.

    Who is Ayn Rand?

  49. Joe Blow says:

    Ayn Rand is the profet-ess (she is a she) of free enterprise and self-reliance. Her philosophy -Objectivism- proclaims that the individual is free and has the power to achieve anything it wants, simply by following the credo of hard work and self determination. Never asking for hand-outs (i.e. socialism) and never wavering from the path that leads to the pot of gold.

    Her most memorable novels are “Atlas Shrugged” (approx. 1000 pages) and “the Fountainhead”.

    I can understand that Objectivism is anathema to the ideas of those who chose to be teachers (or those who prefer to work in ‘closed-shop’ unions like Cathay Pacific pilots).

  50. Henry says:

    Ayn Rand is (was) a pseudo intellectual and cult leader who was actually a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. Objectivism was a cult masquerading as political and economic philosophy, which, rather than promote debate and progress, dictated loyalty and conformity and shamed those who dissented. Her logic led her to suggest to an ex-lover that, since they were of the same (perceived to her) intellectual standing, top of the pile, it was inexplicable that he should be abandoning her for someone else. (He was just going after someone younger)

    For an insight into the sort of crazies Ayn Rand has inspired, take a peek at Pamela Gellers blog, atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com. This is much more dangerous that taxation. Thankfully the sort of people who believe this junk rarely get outside of Iowa or Ohio.

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