Blinded by delight

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 September, 2010, 12:00am


There's no need to feel sorry for the blind, says Patrick Cheung Shui-lam, founder and managing director of the Hong Kong division of Dialogue in the Dark. 'They're not unfortunate victims; they don't need our help.'

In fact, to hear Cheung speak it is sighted people who need help to overcome their preconceptions and prejudices about blind people, which is the stated mission of Dialogue in the Dark.

Cheung says the group is about flipping the script - with the blind leading sighted people around. The concept for the so-called social-franchising company was developed in Germany in 1988 by former journalist Andreas Heinecke to promote tolerance towards marginalised people in society.

'It's about giving blind people the power, as opposed to painting them as victims who need to be helped,' he says.

Paying guests of Dialogue in the Dark exhibitions, which take place at its warehouse in Mei Foo, are plunged into complete darkness. Blind workers then guide the guests through a series of themed areas representing different parts of Hong Kong - a street market, harbourfront, for example - with the use of sounds and smells. The company also runs executive workshops and educational activities.

Since its inception, the concept has spread across 30 countries, making its way to Hong Kong after Cheung met Heinecke in 2008 and became intrigued by the concept.

'I wanted to take the idea, localise it and do it here,' says Cheung, who studied management development at Harvard and was in the printing industry before becoming involved with DiD.

Localisation includes adding Hong Kong-specific sounds (street-crossing beeps), smells (street market) and tastes.

Cheung stresses that DiD is not a charity, but a profit-making business that makes its money from ticket sales. It charges adults HK$120 and under-18s HK$60 for guided tours in the darkness at its 10,000 sq ft converted warehouse.

Executive workshops start at HK$30,000 and consist of a three-hour session in the dark room. Each session can cater to up to 24 people. Cheung says many chief executives have participated in the workshops. Regular wine tastings are also held in the dark, with participants paying HK$550 for a session. DiD would not reveal how much its blind staff members are paid.

Cheung says guests take the darkness tours for a unique sensory experience. 'People are not buying tickets to experience [Dialogue in the Dark] because they want to show sympathy for the blind,' he says. 'They're paying for a service, a form of entertainment, something that's never been offered in Hong Kong before.'

The DiD team is constantly looking for new ideas to promote its service. Cheung says the ideas are often quirky, including Dancing in the Dark and Dating in the Dark experiences.

DiD has also been approached by outsiders with ideas. Local wine expert Jennifer Luk Kit-shan, who writes and runs workshops about wine, suggested the joint Wine Tasting in the Dark project.

Luk says tasting in the dark is an enlightening experience for wine drinkers. 'They dismiss wine because of how it's packaged, or by its colour,' she says. 'Without vision, they pay more attention to the smell and taste of wine.'

She held two successful sessions in July, and with two more coming this month, Luk says it's become a regular event.

Another event DiD organised recently was Concert in the Dark, a joint venture with music production company People Mountain People Sea. With Canto-pop stars Anthony Wong Yiu-ming and acoustic duo at17 leading the way, the sold-out show successfully incorporated sound, smell (fresh flowers) and touch (audience members sat on carpeting made to feel like grass) for a concert experience that drew rave reviews for innovation.

Cheung has won praise from social welfare and community groups such as the Hong Kong Sports Association, whose director, Grace Chan Yuet-ming, says DiD is helping the public understand what it means to be blind. But Cheung stresses that the company isn't interested in social welfare, but rather in operating a successful business. 'We are selling innovative entertainment to the people,' he says. 'We have no government aid and we don't ask for donations, so we have to sell enough to sustain our business and make a profit.' He adds: 'We're not here to help blind people. That's the government's job.'

As harsh as that may sound, it's part of DiD's empowerment attitude. Cheung says that the services benefit sighted people rather than the blind.

'We have CEOs and VPs of big companies come try our exhibitions all the time,' Cheung says. 'And these confident, powerful men get into a dark room and they become helpless and scared. They can't even do a simple exercise without the guidance of a blind person.'

These people, he says, come out humbled and with a new perspective.

Still, DiD's services have attracted former social workers such as Antony Pang Won-kei, who is now the company's general manager.

'I joined because DiD gives blind people the power to become the helper, as opposed to the helped,' says Pang, who worked with the blind for more than 10 years in welfare groups.

For Katie Fung Kai-tuen, who suffered from a disease that slowly impaired her vision until she could no longer see, working for DiD has given her new meaning in life.

'This job makes me believe that everyone is equal again,' she says, explaining that having the power to guide people makes her feel empowered. 'It makes me realise the world can understand us.'

It's a new attitude from Fung, who was initially in denial about her disease ('I'd bump into things while walking but refuse to admit my vision was getting bad') and became resentful and bitter after her vision was gone.

Fung's revelation is what makes DiD worthwhile for him, Pang says.

'We want to make blind people a part of our normal Hong Kong society,' he says.

Cheung and Pang are both working to add new ideas to keep DiD fresh. But one of their signature events, Dinner in the Dark, is a constant hit.

'We cater our services to Hong Kong needs,' Cheung says. And what sums up Hong Kong's needs more than eating?

Dialogue in the Dark events take place regularly, check for schedule. The next Wine Tasting in the Dark sessions are on Sep 11, 18 and 25.