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The Tutor's Hustle

Keith Wong arrived in Hong Kong to tutor when he was 22 years old: slender, bespectacled, with a stiff black gelled hairstyle that accentuated his serious demeanor. His dour expression matched his appearance perfectly. Never did his pursed lips crack into more than a polite half-smile. A full grin would have created wrinkles in his smooth, boyish cheeks like ripples on the surface of Victoria Harbour on a windy day.

Keith knew the role of the diligent tutor well, and the grave expression was a key part of the persona. He had prepared his look before leaving his hometown in Guangzhou. He couldn't risk smiling too much (knowing he'd have to deal with demanding Hong Kong parents), and it was a risk he could not afford to take. He maintained this stern facade so that even in moments of relaxation, it was with restraint.

That first year, he had to prove himself. Commanding authority was new to him, and he wielded it more forcefully than the experienced tutors, who had the technique down pat. His strictness earned him sullen looks and defiant eye rolls from the stressed teenage students he tutored, but the hard-nosed approach was all he knew.

But with the following school year, Keith returned a changed man. After a summer working at his uncle's business in Guangzhou, he had grown into his lanky frame and looked every bit the 20-something professional, clutching his sleek briefcase and wearing a well-cut suit as he navigated the bustling MTR stations en route to his students.

One should not assume that Tutor Wong was inhumane—a tiger parent in tutor's clothing. Such souls exist among Hong Kong's tutoring legions, but they are few considering the academic pressures the students face. Keith had simply not yet learned to strike the right balance between firm and encouraging. It is, after all, a skill honed only after being in the trenches with the city's overworked, under-rested students. Allowances must therefore be made for Keith, who could not be expected to master this on day one.

Keith's confidence grew as the months passed, filling out his once tentative presence. To structure a lesson, he no longer relied solely on textbooks and worksheets but drew upon games and activities he discovered worked best. The more he taught, the faster his confidence accelerated; success begot more success. By the second term's end, people remarked that the tutor had "blossomed"; indeed he had.

Keith made his own terms the following year. When school resumed, he informed the skeptical parents who employed him that he would now tutor using his own methods and materials. They then began quibbling over his proposed rate increase, but something in his composed manner made them relent. Something had sharpened Keith's edge, polished it, tempered it over the long humid summer; and they were wise enough not to contest the man he had become.

Behold our friend, now risen as high as one in his station could hope—his tutoring prowess established, his hours amendable to his liking, and the good word about him spreading such that he could be selective with clientele, favoring the less neurotic families. Keith thought of the cramped subdivided flat he once called home and the cup noodle dinners eaten hunched over student essays; now a distant speck in his rear view.

Keith Tutor was at once the most eligible bachelor in his Hung Hom neighborhood, his black-framed glasses and tidy appearance an irresistible draw to many an unmarried professional woman, who saw him as a stable prospect amid Hong Kong's volatile dating scene. Whether his heart belonged to any of these admirers was a riddle he enjoyed not answering definitively. He preferred allowing his mystique to grow rather than be pinned down.

It was at a primary school spelling bee that Tutor Wong first basked in the awestruck gaze of Miss Tiffany Tang, a young heiress returned from boarding school in England. She sat in the audience, fanning herself demurely, captivated by his effortless command of the event. For in the academically cutthroat world of Hong Kong's elite, what attribute was more appealing than a keen mind?

"Won't you join me for milk tea sometime?" Miss Tang entreated after the contest, her voice a musical lilt, her eyes two prominent moons.

"Perhaps I shall, if my schedule allows," Keith replied, not wishing to seem overeager. But he nearly leaped out of his Italian leather loafers at the prospect of being seen with a woman of her standing.

One can only imagine his exhilaration in the following weeks: The flirty WhatsApp messages that buzzed on his phone at all hours, the strolls with Tiffany along the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade, the knowing looks from fellow tutors who had gotten wind of his skyrocketing social status. Keith felt himself the talk of Hong Kong, and he relished the notoriety.

But for all his reveling, a troubling development soon rattled Tutor Wong: Tiffany began taking a more assertive role in their budding romance, flooding his phone with heart emojis and links to engagement ring websites. So bold was her interest that she scarcely concealed it even when Keith tutored her little brother, sneaking furtive winks at him over the boy's workbooks. Keith realized with rising disquiet that their courtship was accelerating faster than a Kowloon minibus with a devil-may-care driver.

And then one fateful tutoring session, Keith reached for his bag to retrieve his materials only to discover a stack of unfamiliar notebooks—Tiffany's diaries, he realized with a shock, documenting her infatuation down to the timing of their future nuptials at the Peninsula. At that moment, Miss Tang herself materialized like an overly made-up apparition, cooing his name.

Keith quaked in his polished oxfords. For the first time, all his cultivated poise abandoned him. He fumbled for an excuse—a staff meeting, a family emergency, an onset of SARS—and fled before Tiffany could protest, notebooks in hand.

The scandal rippled across Hong Kong's gossipy tutoring scene like a large pebble hurled into a koi pond. Keith read the tabloid-esque posts on the online tutoring forums with a pang. So much for his climb to the top. The palatial estates with private pools where he once held court now locked their ornate gates to him.

Stewing in his chagrin but determined to rehabilitate his image, Keith applied his strategic mind to spinning this debacle in his favor. He would stage a press conference, he decided, and frame Tiffany's actions as a gross violation of his privacy, a trampling of his boundaries. In a city that valued discretion, this would cast him as the aggrieved party.

Keith Tutor summoned his most solemn face as he stepped up to the podium to address the gathered members of Hong Kong's scandal-hungry press. He cleared his throat and began, "Thank you all for coming..."

It was then that Tiffany burst through the conference room doors wielding Keith's own datebooks, her eyes wild beneath troweled-on eyeliner. "Here's who violated boundaries!" she cried, waving the journals in the air. "Keith fantasizing about marrying rich in his diary!"

The room erupted. Cameras flashed. Reporters clamored. Through the tumult, Keith locked eyes with his former admirer, and a look of weary defeat passed between them. For a fleeting instant, all of Hong Kong glimpsed the schoolmaster without his polished veneer.

And that, in this status-obsessed city, was the true scandal.

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