For some students, the worst homework they can get is art. It takes hours to finish, and the grades they get are mostly a matter of opinion.
But for Ashley Chung Hoi-lam, winner of last year's Student of the Year (Visual Artist) Award, drawing has always been stress-free. It's her favourite way to express herself.
"Words may also be a medium to express, but there are so many constraints. You need grammar and vocabulary ... But with drawing, it's relatively free, and you can have your own style," says the 17-year-old, who studies at G.T. (Ellen Yeung) College. Although she had reached Grade Eight in piano at age 10, even music was too limiting for her, with all the theory involved.
"Since I was tiny, wherever I went, I wanted to draw - even on the wall," says Ashley, occasionally peeking at a notebook on her lap with notes of what she had prepared to say in the interview.
Her mother adds: "She used to be very quiet, and didn't know how to speak."
Even when she was competing for the SOTY Award, the biggest challenge was explaining to the judges the concept of her artwork called Celebrating Hong Kong. It's a watercolour painting of a bauhinia against the backdrop of the city's colourful skyline. The flower is sprouting from a pot pieced together with people of different occupations, and nourished by pebbles imprinted with symbols representing various sectors of society.
"I wanted to stress that Hong Kong is united, with stakeholders from all walks of life supporting the city," explains Ashley. She thinks she won the competition because her painting was relevant to the theme, and she had a record of art-related social services.
But visual arts is not one of the electives Ashley, a Form Six student, is taking for the DSE. "Art's one part of life, but there are other things to learn, too. I don't know much about economics or liberal studies," she says.
Her career choice, though, is art related. She wants to start a "real" art school like the institutions she attended during summer holidays in Beijing and Russia, where students spend several days studying art and other subjects.
"Everyone has a potential for art. They have their own thoughts and ways of expression. In this financially driven city, though, there aren't many channels for people to express themselves," says Ashley. "Art, like satirical comics, can be an indirect way of expressing discontentment. It's not as forceful as words or violence. In the Occupy protests, when people use art as a softer way of expression, it shows their value of peace."
Ashley was enlightened by her art teacher, from whom she's been taking lessons since she was four.
"He taught me to balance real and abstract drawing, and the unique style of mixing Eastern and Western techniques," says Ashley. His wide network also played a role in helping her to hold exhibitions round the world.
Spinal problems in her early years meant avoiding too much pressure, so she didn't compete until three years ago. Her teacher got her to take part in a summer art exchange camp in Beijing, where she won a drawing award.
Since then, the awards have kept rolling in. But "what's most important", Ashley says, "is that I see myself improving".