Secondary School in a Limbo

Secondary School, Tammy Cheung's latest documentary shown in the Hong Kong Art Centre, is a work that is sure to cause repercussions, and which will come from two sides: the title education sector, and the cinema-going cultural sector. As a member of both, I sometimes find myself at a loss for words.

To the former, they may find the arrangement too chopped, especially on two aspects: first of all, Secondary School does not offer the students' perspectives, thus showing them being put through the mould but not how students, having seen through the examination system, walking around it. The absence of which is all the more glaring, as the two schools being portrayed are renowned top schools in Hong Kong. The failure to see or understand students' ways of breaking the establishment results in rigid images. Just as Lui Tai-lok so aptly says, 'These students (those who see through the system) understand that the examination syllabus does not constitute learning or knowledge; they know the difference between reading for self-betterment, mind development and knowledge pursuit and reading for examination. They refuse to be confined by textbooks, but do their own pursuits from books, on the football field and from extra-curricular activities.' One of the schools the director picked, Ying Wa College, happens to be my alma mata, and I have to say that it is an old school with a very liberal system that puts great trust in students' ability for self-discipline. We used to play ouija board in the darkroom, and soccer in the classroom, and once forced a classmate to climb out of the first floor toilet window and jump for his escape. We were not afraid to post criticisms of school policies on the school billboard. I cannot guarantee that things have not changed in more than ten years, but I do think that the true representation of 'school life' has to have a balanced portrayal of in and after class, otherwise, it would give the wrong impression that local secondary students (even those in elite schools) have as much fun in school as in death cells.

Reading of the Education Sector

Another point of controversy may lie in the choice of teachers' perspective as the main focus, which leads to footages of their classes, disciplinary staff meetings, morning assembly speeches, and even pleads and bargains with an unrepentant student. I have to admit that some parts are far from dull, especially the incident in which a Ying Wah mistress has to persuade a student to accept punishment from another teacher. She has to pacify him while engaged in a mind-guessing game with him. It is a fascinating psychological tug-of-war that ends in reconciliation with no admittance of wrongdoing. It is a snapshot of a more eventful school day and a vivid example of individualized education. However, following the teachers' point-of-view may easily lead to misinterpretation, as the edited footages offer no historical perspectives for their occurrence. The director stressed that, with no prior researches, they simply went to the schools and started shooting, as so doing would allow a close and personal perspective. What I mean by historical perspectives is why teachers, as seen through the camera, have to teach in such a way (as the director informed us, a Mathematics teacher of St Catherine's School for Girls was not filmed because he did not use English as the teaching medium in his classes), and what specific conditions lead to such an outcome (such as St Catherine's is a highly disciplined school and its historical background), and why, at this specific time, the school is so open as to allow free shooting( is it related to the overall re-evaluation of the education reform or as demanded by Quality Assessment Inspection). By ignoring these historical backgrounds, it easily leads to the reinforcement of the impression of school as a conservative institution. But, in fact, just by considering how many commercial organizations would allow such free roaming of a camera crew, which sector is the more distrustful is made very clear.

The Prison Interpretation

Despite the director's claim that the selection of material was based on personal intuition, segments of Secondary School, as I see it, still follows the central theme of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison as its fundamental approach, that is, the school as a metaphor for prison. The selected materials clearly revolve around discipline, such as the speech on morning assembly, the disciplinary staff meeting's argument on uniform and appearance, parents and teachers' interchanges on disciplining children on Parents' Day, and expatriate teachers and local teachers' heated argument on protest and demonstration. They all have something to do with disciplines and restrictions. It is mot surprising that, after the premiere, the impression of many were that school was not so different from prison and 'so it is still the same after these tens of years'. Such reactions fall in line with the facets the director chose to present.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with using Secondary School as a metaphor for prison. There is truth in it and it is universal; otherwise, Foucault couldn't have made his now famous classic analytical observation. What I find to be a shame, though, is that the film fails to promote the mutual understanding between the cultural and education sector. What the film does, as its content is concerned, is essentially a repetition of the bias held by the cultural sector against the education sector: conservative (no improvement in teaching method), protectionist (as seen in the argument between local and expatriate teachers), frivolous (long discussions on whether P.E. t-shirt should be tucked into the shorts) and far from being student-based (no helps for students who do not care for studies). In other words, it is a reconfirmation of the common prejudices against Secondary School. I respect the director's rights in picking his material, and, in fact, I do not know if other perspectives had been filmed. My impression is based solely on the finished product and from it the above said conclusion is reached.

By Tong Ching Siu

(Translated by Teri Chan)