Amazing Race Asia winner Sam Wu finds his stage in the classroom.
Reporter: Stephanie Cheng
Standing in front of the classroom is a dapper young man in a fitted grey flannel blazer. He is Sam Wu, an English instructor at the City University of Hong Kong (CityU). From his appearance, few would guess that this Singaporean dandy is a former winner of the world-renowned brutal reality show – the Amazing Race Asia.
In 2008, Wu and his local comedian buddy Vince Chung took part in the third season of the show. According to Wu, the selection process for the show included a physical, psychological and personality tests. “There were hundreds of teams applying and I didn’t expect to be in the final 10. The truth was, we were the back-up team. We weren’t even in the first 10,” he says.
Perhaps it was destiny; one team was disqualified. Wu and Chung were the last-minute back-up team. “They called me on a Monday and I had to leave in two hours,” Wu recalls.
Wu and Chung did not even have time to take official leave from work. Since Wu was under a confidentiality agreement at the time, he could not explain to his boss the reason for his sudden leave.
Wu remembers clearly how his boss replied: “Okay, but be prepared to lose your job.”
The race lasted for a month, during which Wu and Chung competed against nine other teams and travelled 21,600 km across Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, India and Oman.
The Amazing Race Asia is famous for its gruelling and challenging tasks. “I had to get a tattoo, it’s my only one. I had to do bungee-jumping, clean an elephant, eat cockroaches, centipedes, and frogs,” says Wu. “I did everything that I’ve never done in my life.”
Wu, who peppers his conversation with Cantonese words, describes himself as a “very gwai [well-behaved]” person; he does not do things that are “extreme or stupid”.
“I like safe. I love a safe and familiar environment,” he says. For Wu, joining the Amazing Race Asia was a significant step out of his comfort zone. “I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to see what I could achieve basically.”
Despite his determination, neither his family nor friends believed that Wu could actually win.
“My sister thought I would be eliminated in the first episode,” Wu says, giggling. While Wu has never been athletic, he somehow managed to survive the challenges.
As much as he prefers to stay on the safe track, Wu says his life is full of surprises and accidents. After graduating from the National University of Singapore with a double degree in linguistics and sociology, Wu thought he would start a career in the United States or Canada.
“But my parents didn’t want me to be too far away,” says Wu shrugging his shoulders. “So, Hong Kong is a nice compromise.”
Wu arrived in Hong Kong in October 2003, when the city was still under the shadow of SARS. Despite the gloomy economic outlook, he was offered a couple of jobs. In the end, he chose to be an English teacher in the CityU.
“My parents were pleased because it was a respectable job, one that geen duc dou gwong [respectable],” says Wu semi-fluently in Cantonese. “I stumbled upon it [the career of teaching]. It was accidental.”
Since childhood, Wu had aspired to become a reporter, singer or DJ, something related to communication.
As a little kid, he would dress up as a pirate or Superman and perform skits in front of relatives. The self-professed “natural performer” says: “I’m an extrovert and I live for the stage. I live for the attention and the applause.”
Being a teacher for the past nine years has not dimmed Wu’s passion for the stage, he has just found a new one. Wu says the only way to make boring teaching materials seem more interesting is to make them come to life.
“I feel like I have to perform. You know, I feel like the classroom is like my stage. Everyone is my audience and I should make sure my audience connects with me.”
Wu teaches in an almost theatrical manner. Everyone is drawn in by his timely jokes and animated expressions. His classes are never short of laughter. Those who have been to his classes agree that Wu is different from other teachers.
“He has great interactions with students,” says Lai Tsz-king, a third-year student at the CityU who speaks highly of Wu’s enthusiasm for teaching. “He remembers everyone’s names,” Lai adds.
Even though Wu has never been good at names, he believes that learning the students’ names is crucial to engaging the class. “I need to know who are the weak or strong ones. I always give the weaker ones more attention,” he says.
Apart from spending time remembering names and making detailed notes, Wu also makes an effort to look the part. On the day he spoke to Varsity, he was wearing a typical outfit for work, which includes a nicely fitted blazer, a shirt with a tie and, he deliberately points out, “a pair of red socks.”
He says his attire is one way he shows his respect for his profession. “I find that students evaluate teachers on how they look, so I try to look my best,” Wu says.
His efforts have not gone unnoticed – he was shortlisted as one of the finalists for the university’s Teaching Excellence Award two to three years ago.
Wu’s dedication to his job and to his students extends outside the classroom. Apart from teaching, he has also been assigned to be in charge of student affairs, which includes organising internship and exchange programmes for the entire English Department.
This involves a lot of mundane administrative work but Wu thinks it worthwhile because he benefited greatly from overseas experience when he was a student.
He remembers how his semester as an exchange student in Canada and a short-term English education programme he did in Australia gave him an edge over other job-seekers when he first came to Hong Kong.
“Students with such overseas experience can ask for 10 to 15 per cent higher than the average fresh graduates,” Wu says.
Wu says his 15 seconds of fame after winning the Amazing Race Asia has helped him a lot. “I think it’s been so meaningful and blessed to use my Amazing Race experience to enhance students’ learning through my media contacts.
Given Wu’s devotion to his students both inside and outside of the classroom, it is hard to see how he manages to make time for himself. He highlights the importance of balance. “Once it [work] starts affecting your personal life, then you need to pull yourself away.”
During his leisure time, Wu enjoys going to the movies. “But I never, ever go to watch a movie on my own.” Wu finds it “pointless” if there is no one to share the joy and experience with. As a result, he never drinks alone, dines alone, or travels alone. But he prefers more intimate settings of four to six people, where he can talk to everyone properly, to large crowds.
Having lived in Hong Kong for almost 10 years, Wu has made plenty of local friends, with whom he practises his Cantonese. “I don’t speak Cantonese very well but I am not the kind of foreigner who comes in and feels like I don’t need to learn any Cantonese,” Wu says. He believes that in order to get the most out of the local culture, he needs to learn the language.
“About a year ago, I had my first dream in Cantonese,” says Wu excitedly. “I felt so much more like a Hongkonger. It made me feel like I have lived here long enough to be part of the culture.”
Wu calls himself a “Hongkongporean” and considers both Singapore and Hong Kong home, at different times. When he is travelling, he always thinks of the apartment he rents with his roommate in Sheung Wan, the very first home he has ever had to himself.
Wu loves to travel for leisure but he is doing a lot of work travel these days. He says he will be flying to Amsterdam, Stockholm, Singapore, New York and Oxford to accompany his students this summer.
As much as he loves to travel, he admits it is a totally different experience when travelling for work. “I’m actually working.”
Wu says positive feedback from students is what gives him the energy to keep going. “Their journals make me happy,” Wu says and his smile shows he means every word.
Looking back at his achievements, Wu regrets not giving himself the opportunity to become a DJ, a career that he long aspired to. However, he cannot express how “lucky and blessed” he feels to have stumbled upon education, a career that happens to fit him so well. “It feels right. I know my destiny is [to be] an educator.”
Although life has turned out to be vastly different from what Wu originally imagined, he is living his dream. Like a professional performer, he continues to put on a good show with confidence and charm, regardless of where his stage is set and who his audience is.