“City hunt” may well be the climax for Hong Kong students during the orientation week, but what freshmen remember most afterwards is probably the cheer slogans that their seniors teach them.
University students in Hong Kong usually call this group activity “dem cheers” or “dem beat”. Participants shout rhyming slogans to talk themselves up or berate others. This is usually accompanied by a set of gestures such as clapping their hands or thumping their feet on the floor. The purpose is to give freshmen their group identity and sense of attachment. It is so popular on university campuses that it has virtually become a tradition over the last decade.
“You can say that ‘dem beat’ is like a battle cry from the past, with drums playing and military marches to boost the troops’ morale,” says CUHK student Alan Leung Wai-kit. “But I don’t think there is any significant meaning behind it. . . Actually it reminds me more of what primitives used to do.”
Carmen Ng Kar-men from the University of Waterloo in Canada says freshmen have to come up with their own slogans instead of learning it from their seniors and there is no hand clapping and foot thumping or at least much less than that seen in Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, Professor Saskia Witteborn at the CUHK finds it striking that students do so many things in groups on campus, including the collective singing and clapping.
“Those were things that were new to me because the little bit of orientation that I’d seen in American campuses was quieter. There was definitely no singing and clapping and games going on campus, but here [in Hong Kong] it seems to me it is very important to engage people to become comfortable with each other,” says Witteborn.
Another highlight of the orientation week apart from “city hunt” is “Wu Pin” (literally meaning mutual slashing in Cantonese) or exchanging insults, which is more prominent at CUHK. It is an occasion during which opposing groups, usually from the different colleges, take turns at shouting slogans to insult and taunt their opponents.
There have been controversies over the obscenity and vulgarity of the slogans during “Wu Pin” in the past.
The verbal battle is a way for students to heighten team spirit over a short time by establishing enemies.
Having said that, there is also a harmonious side to local “o’camp”.
In Hong Kong, as elsewhere, freshmen are usually divided into groups, each headed by seniors who act as leaders. What makes the local o’camp unique is that the newbies are told to address their seniors as Jo ba and Jo ma (meaning “group dad” and “group mum”).
CUHK student Alan Leung Wai-kit feels comfortable calling his group leaders by these names. “Compared with ‘group leader’, I think ‘group dad’ sounds friendlier. ‘Group leader’ itself feels more administrative while “Jo ba” really gives you a sense of family.”
Leung adds that these Jo ba and Jo ma take care of the freshmen as if they were really their sons and daughters, citing instances of them helping their exhausted “children” to carry their belongings.
Professor Joseph Bosco from the Department of Anthropology at the CUHK finds the borrowing of the motherhood idea in the student domain “very interesting”.
“They [the senior students] are like a mother, in a sense. They have to take care of the child who has to be taught how to behave in this new environment, like bringing a child into the world, the university world,” says Bosco.
He also attributes it to traditional Chinese hierarchies. “Across the Chinese, you don’t say just tongxue (classmate). You usually say xuemei (school sister), xuezhang (school brother). You always have a clear sense of hierarchy.”