When I was seven, I lusted after various exotic-looking but forbidden brands of chocolate displayed behind a glass counter in the local store. In terms of longer-term ambition, I had hazy notions of being drummer for these guys, though the nuns who ran my school dismissed the idea as ‘a waste of a fine mind’. I neither knew nor cared what Harvard was, let alone felt a need to go there.
Not so Jonathan Lu. Even back when he was in short pants, he already had his heart set on the ivy-covered halls and spires of that pinnacle of American academe in New Jersey/Delaware/wherever the hell it is. But his hopes were cruelly dashed when he was ‘Head Boy’ at Hong Kong’s elite/exclusive/tedious-sounding Chinese International School. Another student’s mother wrote emails co-signed by her husband accusing Jonathan and his twin sister of cheating in an economics test, and claiming the kids’ dad Carl Lu, handily a school governor, of covering it up. The Lu family are now suing, so we can all watch the fun.
By suing, the Lu’s may make us wonder if the cheating/cover-up allegation is true. The innocent, we might think, would surely shrug it off and get on with their lives. But it could be that they are enormously thin-skinned – and also obsessive about the Schools Thing, so the boy’s failure to get into Harvard has caused anguish of wrist-slashing proportions. In a city where two-year-olds attend special prep classes for kindergarten admission interviews, it’s all too possible. (They claim the stress caused the kids’ anorexia.)
So we turn to the other parent – the mother and accusatory emailer, Frieda Hui. If there is any time to shrug and get on with your life, it must be upon hearing rumours that a classmate of your own child was cheating in a test. But instead she sent nasty emails to other parents about it. Her position is that she acted out of love for the school; the Lu’s say she was driven by envy and spite at Jonathan’s status as a mega-high-achiever. Either way, we are talking of unhealthy extremes of emotion.
It is an everyday story from one of Hong Kong’s fascinating sub-cultures. This city has a tycoon caste, who just pay for their kids to get into and graduate from brand-name schools. It has its true-born patriots, who traditionally treat Western-style education with disdain and get ahead through groveling and networking.
And then we have this social-climbing upper-middle-class possessed by the need to acquire a specific list of hackneyed and tawdry status symbols to prove to themselves, I would guess, the worth of their existence. The shiny Alphard, the Jockey Club membership, the wine collection, the golf, the hankering after a ‘Justice of the Peace’ tag, and – seemingly – a consuming angst about not only one’s own genius and multi-talented children, but other people’s. While members of this milieu may have risen partly by their own efforts, much of their self-perceived rank depends on others not rising.
You get this everywhere in some form, no doubt. The Hong Kong version is just that bit more hilarious, if a bit puke-inducing. The story in this case, of course, is that frustrated Frieda’s husband is Paul Chan, who, since co-signing vicious emails, has gone from being a legislator to a government minister.
I declare the weekend open with the satisfaction of knowing Frieda must be so proud.