Kelly Mok’s face graces magazines, billboards, and bus decals throughout Hong Kong. She makes more than $128,000 annually. She owns two luxury cars and wears shoes that cost a third of Hong Kong’s average monthly salary. The 30-year-old is living the high life — all because she helps teenagers pass exams.
Mok is among Hong Kong’s “tutor kings and queens,” a class of local celebrity forged in the frenzy surrounding high-stakes standardized tests that determine students’ college eligibility. Cultural expectations of academic achievement, as well as legions of affluent families, have made private tutoring big business — to the tune of $132 million in 2014 alone. Over 85 percent of high school seniors receive private supplementary education, often at one of about 900 tutoring centers that promise to teach students the tricks they need to make the grade.
Mok works for one of the most popular centers, King’s Glory Education, and has made a name for herself by catering to elite students hoping to ace their way into the Ivy League or Oxbridge. Every year, she says, over 80 percent of her students pass an English-language exam; dozens go on to top universities. Mok is also attractive — slim build, bright smile, doe eyes — which for King’s Glory is a big advantage in the competitive world of student recruitment. “[The students] ask whether I’m single or married. I don’t tell them, of course,” she says. “It’s like how some celebrities don’t answer because it affects the number of fans they have.”
Her services are expensive — a 30-hour course costs $3,600 — and Mok admits that she’s paid merely to teach to the test. Yet she takes her work seriously, and her fame too. “We need to have a good image,” Mok told Foreign Policy in January. “A lot of students see tutors as their idols.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the May/June issue of FP magazine.
Lozenges — I go through at least five boxes of 24 lozenges a month. Talking as much as we do, all tutors lose their voices. Being in the classroom is like being on a talk show. I have to be engaging. If the students find me boring, they won’t come back next month.
Laptop — I hook this up to a projector during sessions and teach using PowerPoint slides. I also use it to occasionally update the center’s Facebook page. It has thousands of followers, and it’s one of the main ways we tutors communicate with students.
Red Bull — I know it’s a lot, but I have more than 10 of these a day. Coffee doesn’t work anymore. Before we get famous, we have to spend a lot of time studying the exam ourselves while preparing our materials. For two years, I just slept three hours a night.
Dresses — I often look through magazines to see what the students like to wear. Especially when we shoot advertisements, I want to wear something that lets me stand out from the crowd. Every teacher has a particular image; mine is very girly.
Roger Vivier heels — Some girls that I teach will ask, “Where did you get your shoes?” The shoes are sometimes too expensive for them to buy, but I use them as motivational tools to get them to study. I tell the girls that if they work harder, then they can get their own.
“Tutor Queen” advertisement — Every three months, my company books a studio and stylists, and we make these fliers to recruit students. During my first photo shoot, it took probably about 100 takes to get a good one. Now I’m more used to it.
Pens — The students have seen my photo in magazines, online, or around town and often want autographs, so I carry a marker all the time. I sign leaflets for them. They’ll come up after class and ask to take photographs together too.
Microphone — For the biggest classes we actually connect multiple rooms together. The class can have over 200 students, and you have to make sure everyone can hear. During the summer, when it’s peak season, I can spend six days a week inside these rooms.
Textbook — I literally wrote the book myself. It’s exam-oriented, so it’s all about test-taking skills and tricks. It tells you the most commonly asked questions and how best to answer. I’ve studied the exams for years and know what the examiners are looking for.
Car keys — I usually drive the Mercedes-Benz, which I bought last year. I also have a BMW — I got that one about two years ago. These cars are as fancy as I’ll get, though. Anything nicer would be too much for me; I’d be worried I’d crash it.