Adults who stay young at heart

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 March, 2008, 12:00am

He likes wearing body-hugging T-shirts and Converse trainers, spending hours in a cafe playing on his Play Station Portable (PSP) with friends, and collecting his favourite manga Transformer figures.

Every Friday when a new episode of the comic Amazing Weapon VI comes out, he buys a copy.

Vincent Wong looks - and acts - like an adolescent, despite the fact that he will be 33 this year. He is one of the increasing number of Hong Kong's 'kidults' - people in their 30s or 40s who have an intense enthusiasm for pastimes more suitable for children or teenagers, such as playing computer games, watching cartoons, going out to parties or collecting trendy products.

The phenomenon has grown profoundly. Many say pop stars like Eason Chan Yick-shun, or celebrity DJs, such as Eric Kot Man-fai, are typical kidults. They look trendy, fun, carefree and somehow confrontational. They may be immature, but they enjoy themselves - at least they seem to - and stick to this lifestyle with little care for criticism.

One of the factors of this trend is the vast popularity of computer games. Take a train during rush hour and you will see people with heads bowed, staring at the tiny monitors, their fingers flashing over the controls. Some of them are full-suited workers.

Many kidults are enthusiastic collectors. Businessmen and the advertising industry have undoubtedly taken advantage of the trend. Nike Dunks limited edition, Mickey diamond watches, Hello Kitty vacuum cleaners, or gold-plated Gold Lightan robots are not without markets even though they can cost thousands of dollars. There is a growing number of stores selling nostalgic toys.

Furthermore, a 'crossover' trend has emerged as manufacturers blend these sub-cultures with established, high-end brands. Last year, fashion and cosmetic brand Anna Sui released a special series of Hello Kitty products.

The kidult trend is not limited to Hong Kong. A recent survey in Britain found the average age of video game players is 29, compared to 18 in 1990. At the same time, publishers have observed that children's books which appeal to adults - the Harry Potter series is a prime example - attract more readers older than 18. Some academics also say Hollywood cartoon blockbusters like Shrek cater to this trend.

One factor causing the kidult phenomenon is the progress of society. Education has been prolonged, and people now have far more choices than past generations. These days, most 18-year-olds are still studying, whereas a few decades ago, most were in the workforce.

Sociologists like Frank Furedi, of the University of Kent, suggest there are too few incentives to grow up. Modern society does not have any cultural identity for adults. Most entertainment or cultural activities, such as heavily promoted pop concerts, are relevant only to young people. From a positive perspective, being young means being energetic, curious, unconventional, opposed to authority and having fun. It is a carefree lifestyle where people have few worries and are apparently free of responsibilities.

Nevertheless, critics say kidults celebrate the inane, spending their time and money on virtual things like cartoon figures or video games.

Their refusal to grow up is associated with insecurity and a fear of responsibility.

Chung Kim-wah, assistant professor of the Department of Applied Social Sciences of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says kidults change the way families function. He says fewer people under the age of 25 move out of their homes. With so many adults not making any long-term plans, society as we know it today may be unsustainable.

But he added that the increasing popularity of video games was not entirely a kidult effect. 'Playing video games used to be seen as childish, but the perception has changed. Adults are not embarrassed to play them in public any more.' This, he said, was partly because technology made games more accessible and the game industry targeted wider age groups, introducing sophisticated, realistic games.

Chui Yat-hung, Dr Chung's colleague, cites other reasons why adults behave like children, suggesting society's stability might be at fault.

'Most of them have not encountered hardships. Yet society has become more competitive. Today's adults face too much pressure. You can say these people are escaping from reality by engaging themselves in childish things,' he said, adding this trend was also a way to relieve stress.