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Exploring the media’s fascination with O’camp. Uncovering reasons behind “offensive” activities.

By Charlie Leung and Jennifer Xu

Another summer, another batch of racy headlines about activities related to orientation camps or o’camps of Hong Kong’s universities. From Apple Daily, there is “Stocking Seductions of Chinese University Male Students”, and from its biggest rival, Oriental Daily, there is “Obscene Short Videos Emerge from O’camps Again”.

O’camps are arranged by students for students to introduce freshmen to university life, help them settle in and to make friends. Since the infamous “New Asia Sauna” incident in 2002, when students from Shaw College in the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) displayed banners suggesting that female students from New Asia College were sex workers, there has been intense media scrutiny of o’camp games and activities.

The coverage is overwhelmingly negative and focuses on what are considered to be inappropriate and offensive games which challenge prevailing social mores. But is it true that the students who organise and take part in these activities are crossing a line?

Lee Ka-yiu, a group leader, common known as Jo ma (group mum), of this year’s orientation camp in the Faculty of Engineering at CUHK describes a game which some might find inappropriate. A boy would sit in front of a girl with a biscuit stick in his mouth. The girl was then asked to do sit-ups in order to reach and take a bite out of the biscuit stick. The team to end up with the shortest biscuit would win.

“Some teams literarily kissed during the game. I was shocked and felt embarrassed about it, but they [the kissing team] are perfectly fine with it,” Lee exclaims.

There were other similar games, for instance where a boy and a girl were asked to “share” an apple which was hung from above them, without using their hands.

“Sometimes they [students] don’t even know they have crossed the line,” notes Lee. It is a matter of debate whether such games are inappropriate but they are just one example of the kinds of activities some people might find offensive. In August, Face magazine reported on violent games during one of the o’camps at City University of Hong Kong.

According to the report, freshmen were forced to participate in pillow fights during which girls sat on the backs of boys and fought against each other.

Ryan Cheung, who participated in the orientation camp at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in 2008, witnessed his friend being slapped about with pillows and crying for 15 minutes afterwards.

Cheung explains it was part of a game they played, in which they were blindfolded and required to answer personal questions, such as: do you have a girlfriend? Have you ever watched porn? If the participant failed to answer, he/she would be hit with a pillow.

Cheung understands the purpose of the game was to encourage students to accept a new culture, but he says not everyone is fine with this kind of “special education”.

Dr Edwin Chan Ho-yin, the chairman of the Joint Committee on New Student Orientation (JCNSO) at CUHK, admits it is difficult to ask the student organisation committees (OCs) to change the types of games organized in the camp, as members of the OC enjoyed these same games when they were freshmen. It is hard for them to understand why others might not want to participate in some of the games.

Dr Chan says the JCNSO, which is comprised of faculty and student representatives, has received feedback from freshmen, which shows that over half of the students feel comfortable with the activities, but that some found the o’camp activities meaningless and unacceptable.

Speaking as a former o’camp Jo ba (group dad), Dominic Tse, a PolyU graduate, admits there is peer pressure which forces freshmen to participate in the activities and this may lead to hard feelings.

“Most of the games come in the form of competitions, so students are under pressure to join,” Tse says. He adds the competition among different groups is taken seriously, so some students might force their group mates to do something they are uncomfortable with.

In the face of all the criticism of o’camps, Pete Yeung Pak-yu, a former o’camp organiser at CUHK, thinks society needs to stop being so uptight. He believes that playing offensive games is not a big deal and that young people aged 18 or above should know right from wrong.

“Is our society so conservative as to denounce students for playing offensive games?” He explains that while it is unacceptable for games to involve bullying, the organizers of offensive games are being unimaginative rather than malicious.

Yeung also believes some offensive games are an example of the subculture of universities. “There shouldn’t be only one culture in university, the existence of a subculture is necessary,” he says.

Yeung believes it is simply the case that people of previous generations will always find current issues and people problematic, simply because they do not understand the current culture.

Kay Lam, a newspaper columnist and the founder of the blog Plastic Hong Kong, also looks at the phenomenon of today’s o’camps from a cultural point of view. He thinks the offensive and sexual elements found in the camps have their origins in traditional Chinese culture.

According to Lam, traditional Chinese families are repressed. Parents are not willing to talk to their children about sex, as sex education terrifies parents. They always try hard to control their kids and protect them from getting hurt.

Unfortunately, once the youngsters get into university, they may find it hard to handle their sudden freedom, and this may eventually lead to acts that society finds outrageous.

Kursk, who teaches liberal studies in a secondary school, says students  are like ballons; the greater the pressure inside, the greater the pressure is to release it. He suggests it is sexual repression in Hong Kong youths, especially the “good” students, that may give rise to the inappropriate games in orientation camps.

Kursk believes the power imbalance between seniors/leaders and freshmen in orientation camps is another cause of offensive games. He says the freshmen have to follow the instructions of senior leaders and their personal dignity is not respected. “The freshmen are the ones who have to play the game, that’s why the leaders think [the game] is funny!”

While Lam and Kursk are sympathetic to the students, Ivan Choy Chi-keung who teaches government and public affairs at CUHK, accuses society and the media in particular of hypocrisy.

“You cannot say the orientation camps held 30 years ago were morally right, but the ones held in recent years are wrong,” says Choy. He believes the rise of offensive games in recent years is due to the changing mindset of university students.

Choy says that in the 1970s, university students saw themselves as members of an elite with a responsibility to contribute to society. But with the expansion of tertiary education in the 1990s, the number of university students greatly increased. The students’ sense of their elite status weakened, drawing university students closer to mainstream culture.

The  games that are condemned for crossing a moral line are just reflecting mainstream culture. Therefore, Choy believes society, and the media, can hardly blame students for playing offensive games.

He cites the example of newspapers which emphasize the social expectation placed on university students and which also criticize them for being immoral and playing inappropriate games. These same newspapers, says Choy, publish photos of pseudo-models with sexually suggestive headlines on their pages to attract readers. This is the same media, says Choy, that have been influencing the students from a young age.

Dr Chan Ho-yin of CUHK’s joint committee overseeing o’camp activities agrees that students are easily affected by advertisements and television programmes. He mentions the popular TVB game show series Super Trio as an example, as many of the games played in orientation camps are copied from the show.
Dr Chan points out that the public is fine with celebrities playing these sexually provocative games on TV, but it becomes unacceptable or inappropriate when university students play them.

Former journalist Louis Li Chun-wai laments what he says is the deterioration of media standards. Li says it is a media strategy to single out university students, because most newspaper readers are parents and members of the older generation who are more conservative. They have high expectations of university students as the future pillars of society, so they are concerned about negative stories involving university students.

Li says cut-throat competition has led to less in-depth reporting. Unbalanced or unsubstantiated stories are splashed on front pages under sensational headlines.

One example was Apple Daily’s front-page lead which accused the orientation camp of the physics department at CUHK of causing a 19-year-old girl’s suicide. The story did not offer any evidence for the claim. “I heard that the journalist who was responsible for reporting this case in Apple Daily, also says he does not know [the reason for suicide],” Li says.

The story caused great anger among CUHK students, some of whom threatened a boycott of Apple Daily. The students’ association of the physics department complained to the Hong Kong Journalists Association about the case. The association ruled the report was misleading and asked the paper to apologise. The Apple Daily stood by its report, but it acknowledged the headline was debatable. It did not apologise.

Today’s o’camps arouse strong feelings and opinions from those who take part in them and those who observe and criticize from the outside. One person’s subculture is another person’s proof of moral decay.

According to David Wong Chun-tung, a former director-general of the Hong Kong Press Council who now teaches at CUHK, both the students and the media need to be careful not to cross the line.

The orientation camp organisers should be careful not to pressure freshmen into doing things that make them feel embarrassed and uncomfortable, while the media should report fairly and without making value judgements.

“It is very important to respect each other,” says Wong.