Turf recently sat down for a chat with Claudine Ying of Bebegarten, an innovative early childhood education centre based in Wong Chuk Hang. We discussed Claudine’s passion for learning, the challenges of finding suitable space in Hong Kong, and how she maintains a work-life balance (hint: it involves really loving what she does!).
Please give a brief overview of Bebegarten, your number of staff, and where your centre is based?
Bebegarten is an early childhood education space, dedicated to nurturing and guiding children as unique and creative individuals from the age of six months up to six years. It has been my long time dream and an attempt at creating a better alternative for our children, parents, and community and it represents a bold idea to establish a new paradigm where children and parents can re-imagine education and fall passionately in love with learning.
At present, we have a total of 30 staff at our centre at One Island South in Wong Chuk Hang, and of that, 18 are early childhood teachers.
Please tell us a bit about your personal background?
I was raised and educated in Hong Kong up to primary school level, then continued my secondary studies overseas in both Beijing and America. I came full circle, returning to Hong Kong at 18 to attend The University of Hong Kong and I haven’t left since.
I was fortunate to be blessed with loving parents who gave me amazing opportunities to travel, to study in a wide range of schools, and to have a loving extended family who always supported me to try (and sometimes fail!). All of this enabled me to meet some truly special people who helped to shape my formative years.
What made you decide to get involved in early childhood education here in Hong Kong?
Education is very close to my heart and Hong Kong is my home. Education lives at the core of my beliefs as one of the most effective tools in bringing about positive change in our community, and it is something that should be in constant evolution. Keeping up-to-date with best practice, new research findings and the most current educational schools of thought is difficult, but in my mind, entirely necessary.
When I examined the educational landscape in Hong Kong, I questioned whether it had kept apace with the times and came to the conclusion that it hadn’t. I felt that if we were to start, we should start with young children. I also feel that too many parents are held hostage by the stressful battle of enrolling their children in schools due to a severe lack of choice, and this inspired me to do something to help.
Thinking about your space: how did you go about identifying a suitable property and what made you choose this district for Bebegarten?
Let’s be frank, Hong Kong is not famous for its spacious and affordable properties! I started with identifying educational hubs throughout Hong Kong and Kowloon, and narrowed it down from there, keeping in mind, space, safety and security, atmosphere, price, convenience, and potential.
Wong Chuk Hang is a quiet, recreational, safe hub that’s coincidentally also an education hub too, with CDNIS, SIS, and the Police Academy just around the corner from Bebegarten. Since we have moved into the One Island South development, we see even more education-related initiatives moving to the area – the more, the merrier!
What are the specific challenges of launching a business in the highly competitive education sector?
I’ve been engaged in the education sector since 2006, starting out with non-profit education that has done very well and is continuing to do so, increasing in the number of schools we build in China year after year. Whether you operate as a profit-making or non-profit organisation, in Hong Kong or elsewhere, it is always hard work.
What is the key to standing out from the crowd in this sector?
There are so many variables such as student-teacher ratio, the quality of your teachers, your track record, good marketing, school location, etc., but in my opinion, the core of it is how much you genuinely care about the children. All else will follow.
What new trends do you see emerging in the Hong Kong education market?
In the past, the major trend was after-school tutoring programmes, with a very strong focus on academic support only. However, today the trend is shifting, and we are increasingly seeing specialised after-school programmes that are focusing on enhancing children’s creative sides; be it through sports, arts and crafts, or even app and web development classes. I believe Hong Kong has now recognised that we have to be more proactive on the creative front in order for us to maintain our status as one of the world’s leading cosmopolitan cities, and it is through education that we can achieve this goal.
Please give examples of some specific challenges that you have faced at Bebegarten?
There have been plenty of challenges, as you would expect when you start something from scratch, but overall there were a few key lessons that I learned the hard way, namely:
• A business is not a democracy;
• Establish clear roles, responsibilities, and processes from the beginning;
• Don’t be ‘penny-wise, pound-foolish’;
• You will make mistakes, so try to make your mistakes big, fast, and early on!
What is the best advice you received on starting your business?
To have purpose is everything.
What advice would you give to people looking to launch in Hong Kong?
Because rent is so painful here, one must have the virtue of patience and the ability to think outside the box. For example, I know people in the F&B industry who decided to make good quality takeaway food, but instead of paying for restaurant space, they’re getting people to stand and eat, or take out. Over time, they’re changing people’s behaviour with creative solutions and still making a business out of it!
Describe an average working day for the Bebegarten team?
Morning briefing before class, teaching, communication with parents, lunch, and class preparations.
How do you unwind at the end of a long day?
Catching up with my girlfriends, swimming, and yoga.
How do you maintain the work-life balance?
There’s no such thing! Honestly, if you love your work as I do, the two can become one, in which case it’s just about achieving something, as opposed to deliberately separating the two.
What are your favourite bars and restaurants in Hong Kong?
For food, I love VBest Tea House, Mana, Yardbird, Ronin, Catalunya, Da Domenico, and Mott 32. For drinks, you can’t beat either Lily and Bloom or Quinary!
A version of this article was originally posted by Monica Wong on Turf, Hong Kong’s new office lifestyle blog.
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