Clair Chan Pang-wong protested when he was asked to show off his Putonghua public speaking skills at a Young Post photo shoot. "I told you, I'm a really shy person," says the Form Four student, sporting his Cheung Sha Wan Catholic Secondary School uniform. But he relents, and launches into an improvised speech:
"What is happiness? Being successful? Getting the perfect grades? True, an exam certificate shows much more than what grades were achieved - it also reflects good time management and self-discipline …"
Having recently won the Student of the Year (SOTY) award for Linguist (Putonghua), Clair has been thinking quite a bit about success. With his love for languages, he's considering pursuing a university degree in global business studies, but questions whether that is the only route to success.
"My parents don't have jobs that require them to wear suits and carry briefcases around Central. They're successful, too, only in a different way," says Clair.
He pauses for a moment before agreeing that his success comes from his achievements in Putonghua competitions. "Because I was really happy in the process," he reflects.
In Form One, Clair was asked by his Putonghua teacher to join a verse-speaking competition organised by Hong Kong Youth Cultural and Arts Competitions. None of the 16 students who entered from his school scored well. But struck by how talented his peers were, the aggressive Clair refused to accept defeat. His logic was: if others could do it, he could do it too.
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So, he practised. He spent hours doing intense drills to perfect the pronunciation and emotion of the poem he was reciting, sometimes staying at school until 8pm. In his spare time, he listened to songs and watched TV dramas in Putonghua.
The following year, he came second in a verse-speaking competition, and after that the awards kept rolling in. Never the slacker, he comes up with new ways to practise. Weeks before the SOTY finals, he would only speak Putonghua to some friends.
Clair says his true passion for Putonghua was the reason he, and not a candidate from a more prestigious school, won the award. "And of course, my smile helped too," he adds, laughing.
"Sometimes I used to think I'd have achieved more if I studied at a top school, because I'm aggressive and get complacent without competition. But I really like my school now. I get more opportunities here."
Learning languages may be a headache for many students, but Clair was inspired by a story he heard in primary school: one man mastered several languages just by waking up half an hour earlier each day to practise. For nine months last year, Clair did just that. He got out of bed at 6.30am every day, and read the subtitles of English newscasts on TV aloud. He only stopped when his school workload became too heavy.
He now combats that pressure caused by studying by jogging every Sunday because it helps him sleep better and keeps him healthy. "Imagine if you got sick during your DSE exams. Everything would be lost," he says.
But Clair still tries to make the best use of every minute. "You never know when you have extra time to learn new stuff," he says.
"If you arrive five minutes early for a meeting, instead of just waiting, you can use that time to learn five new words to add to your vocabulary. Now wouldn't that be great?"