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In Hong Kong, a Beer With a Side Order of Learning

Professor Jason Ng discussing Hong Kong’s food culture at the Kee Club. Photo from Raising the Bar. Use with permission.

Professor Jason Ng discussing Hong Kong’s food culture at the Kee Club. Photo from Raising the Bar. Use with permission.

On a Tuesday night, March 31, 2015, ten scholars came down from their ivory towers to give lectures in ten pubs across central Hong Kong to audiences of tipsy “students”.

The event is part of a worldwide initiative called “Raising the Bar“, which aims at making education a part of popular urban culture. The goal, as stated on the campaign's website, is to raise the bar on the quality of the content people consume in their daily lives.

The event was started in New York City in 2014. Fifty academics gave lectures in in fifty venues, ranging from coffee shops to pubs. One of the scholars was Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who talked about the price of inequality. The initiative spread across the world and Hong Kong is the first Asian city to host this event with ten academics in ten venues on one night:

We want to revolutionise how the city operates and interacts after sundown by embedding education as part of the city’s popular culture and changing the reputation and misconceptions of Hong Kong’s nightlife by raising the quality of content consumed daily.

With the slogan “Revolutionise the City,” it's no surprise that one of topics of the event's inaugural program was “Long Live Revolution! As Seen in Let the Bullets Fly“. Dr. Kristof v.d. Troost from the Chinese University of Hong Kong shared his thoughts on revolution as depicted in the Chinese movie.

With one discussion devoted to revolution, other pub talks carried titles like “Is the Free and Open Internet Dying?” (by Prof Lokman Tsui from the Chinese University of Hong Kong), “Honour, Shame,and Empowerment: The Journey to Equality for Victims of Domestic Violence” (by Prof. Puja Kapai from the University of Hong Kong), “Translating Music: How Computational Learning Explains the Way We Appreciate Music and Language” (by Prof. De Kai from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology), and “Hong Kong Food Culture in the Shadow of Gentrification” (by Jason Ng from the University of Hong Kong).

One night 10 talks in 10 venues. Photo from Raising the Bar. Use with permission.

One night 10 talks in 10 venues. Photo from Raising the Bar. Use with permission.

Global Voices interviewed Elson Tong, one of the event's organizers, who explained why the initiative is important to Hong Kong:

Raising the Bar thrives in the context of a large number of grassroots public education initiatives recently launched in Hong Kong. Naturally, political events have been the main catalyst. Each initiative has its own focus, but they all respond to a growing awareness that the city has the potential to become a hub for culture, education and innovative ideas.

Another important aspect is that we’ve brought the event from the grassroots level up, without a blueprint and without any funding. A lot of generous people have helped us out at different stages. In the end we’ve built ‘Raising the Bar’ around a ‘sustainable consumption’ model, where part of our revenue goes back to the local community, in particular local artists and designers.

Indeed, the organizers of Raising the Bar Hong Kong have partnered with a number of NGOs and start-ups to promote the event and build its community. Among the partner-organizations are EnrichHK, which aims to enrich and empower migrant women in Hong Kong and improve their lives, and Project Little Dream, which is a charity that designs, builds, and runs rural village schools in Takeo, Cambodia.

Professor Lokman Tsui, one of the speakers for Raising the Bar Hong Kong, told Global Voices that he decided to participate because he believes education is a public good and should not be confined to university classrooms.

I believe that a healthy society is one where ideas can freely flow, where people can debate, discuss and learn from each other. I also believe education doesn't have to be formal or stiff, but can be engaging, empowering and enjoyable — so it wasn't a hard decision for me to accept when ‘Raising the Bar’ asked me.

In the long run we need to start thinking of education as a conversation, rather than just a lecture. This is a cultural transformation, and something Raising the Bar is helping us realize and move forward on.

Louie, a participant at one of the talks, said he is ready to embrace this new use of a familiar space:

When I used to think about a pub, I think about drinking, picking up girls, and getting into a fight after getting drunk. I never imagined that a pub could be a place to have intellectual conversations.

It is events like this that make a truly dynamic and creative city stand out. Hong Kong, despite the troubling news that recently filled the airwaves, is a city that still shines at night with exciting ideas and inspiration, especially from young people.

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