Inside the caged world of Hong Kong's 'hidden youths'

Young Hongkongers are increasingly isolating themselves for long periods from their family, friends and society, demoralised by the challenges in life

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 March, 2013, 3:43am

With his sporty clothing, love of basketball and gentle yet firm voice, Louis Yip does not fit the stereotype of a reclusive secondary-school dropout.

But the 19-year-old once quit his classes and spent a full year as a recluse, playing video games at home. He joined a growing army of jobless school leavers who are not engaged in education or training - the so-called "non-engaged youths".

While Yip - not his real name - has bounced back, enrolling at a new school, for a time he was a "hidden youth". The term is given to people who spend three months or more isolated from friends, family and society.

The phenomenon is on the rise in Hong Kong and has been associated with an array of personal and health problems, including violent crime.

Lack of job opportunities, difficulty in school and pressure from family are among the reasons for the trend - with Yip blaming many of his problems on the latter two factors.

"My parents would yell at me for very minor issues. I became afraid of everything, and feared trying anything new," Yip said. "I spent a lot of time playing video games so I didn't do my homework, and when I got poor grades, I lost motivation to study. It was a vicious circle."

He dropped out of school after Form Four but returned to his studies this academic year, while sport - he excels as a sprinter - is also keeping him occupied.

Not all young Hongkongers are so busy. While Hong Kong's youth unemployment level remains a fraction of those in the troubled euro zone, it is still high. Some 9.4 per cent of people aged 15 to 24 are jobless - excluding those continuing to study - almost three times the overall figure. That's despite a labour shortage in industries such as logistics and construction.

Those not in employment or training are categorised as non-engaged youths or, in Cantonese, as "double have-nots".

Time spent waiting for a job or a study placement is often stressful, hitting young people's self esteem and potentially leading to emotional problems. In a survey of 15-to-29-year-olds who sought mental health aid from a welfare group, more than half were jobless school leavers. The study - by the Baptist Oi Kwan Social Service, Caritas and the Mental Health Association - found 33 per cent of the school leavers had been out of work for more than six months. Some 34 per cent of respondents overall identified being cooped up at home as the source of the pressure they feel.

It is a feeling that is integral to the problems of the hidden youth. Social work expert Professor Victor Wong Cheong-wing of Baptist University has studied the problem, and says the key factor is that such people are not recognised by society.

While those who quit school or work may feel happy in their first few months, they rapidly become "deskilled".

The key to recovery lies in tapping into the interests of the hidden youth, he says.

That's certainly the case for Lam Tsz-wai, 18. She was straining to even manage a conversation when she first emerged from her two years of isolation.

Lam dropped out of Form Two and spent her days surfing the internet, playing games and watching television. "First I skipped classes because I didn't want to memorise material or I didn't do my homework, and then I started to miss days of school. And finally, I quit school," she said.

A social worker advised Lam to learn a skill, so she took a two-month course in brewing coffee and baking. "I was going to be a waitress, but I was worried I couldn't handle it so I stayed home again," she recalled.

Last year, Lam took part in an animal-assisted-therapy mentorship programme at Chinese Evangelical Zion Church and discovered a new love. The programme, launched in 2010, seeks to help withdrawn young people or those with mental health issues build self-confidence through playing with pets and learning grooming skills.

Now Lam is a paid trainee at the centre, taking care of the resident dog and cats, and some administrative work.

The attitude of sections of the local media doesn't help. Some have taken to using the Japanese word otaku, or "home man", to describe socially awkward young men who shun social interaction and, stereotypically, enjoy video games and anime comics.

The otaku phenomenon began to be recognised in Japan in the early years of the last decade.

Wong says young Japanese at the time started to realise that an education at a decent university no longer ensured a stable middle-class job like those of their parents.

While young recluses are more likely to be middle class than poor, there is a clear link with unemployment. In its Global Employment Trends report in January, the International Labour Organisation said that as many as 73.8 million people aged 15 to 24 were unable to find work worldwide.

"Such long spells of unemployment and discouragement early on in a person's career also damage long-term prospects, as professional and social skills erode and valuable on-the-job experience is not built up," it said.

In Hong Kong, the Labour Department, employers and training bodies have been trying to tackle the problem through the Youth Pre-employment Training Programme and Youth Work Experience and Training Scheme for two decades.

The programme offers pre-employment training to school leavers aged 15 to 24. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying boosted the training scheme in his maiden policy address this year, raising the subsidy for employers.

But one problem, says Anthony Sin Kai-chi, a social worker specialising in youth services for the Hong Kong Family Welfare Society, is education reforms under which all children get six years of secondary schooling, rather than a minimum of five years.

Whereas previously only brighter pupils would stay on after Form Five, there is now an extra year of schooling even for those without the prospect of going on to higher education.

"There are fewer exit points," Sin said, leaving younger people struggling to find work that they see as matching their level of education. Sin says that while there is no shortage of jobs, many young people turn their noses up at posts they feel overqualified for.

Sin says young people will always look for someone to blame for their problems. "I've noticed that young people don't take responsibility for their problems, [they] blame their bosses for their bitterness and switch jobs constantly," he said.

"When they graduate, the parents expect their children to do a certain level of job because of the investment they made in their schooling - this is a great cause of tension."

Wong, the academic, believes job prospects have become dim for young Hongkongers. "In our rapidly changing society, where the skills needed are always changing, it is hard to keep up," he said.

"Job competition is much fiercer than for previous generations, because Hongkongers must compete with the rest of the world for middle - or senior-level positions in lucrative industries like banking, as talent can be brought in from overseas."

Sin admits that entry -level jobs can seem like a "dead end" to young people. "I find that a lot of young people have not been able to grasp the working world, and may not understand that ascending to better work takes time," he said.

Sin advises young people to learn to make independent decisions during their secondary education, including choosing what Diploma of Secondary Education exams to take and what career path they want to follow.

That is certainly a lesson that former recluse Louis Yip learned. "I make decisions independently without my parents' influence," Yip said, citing his return to studies. "I felt that other young people were having a secondary school experience that I was missing out on. I want to prove to people that I can go to school."

Sin says young recluses often turn to video games both for a sense of accomplishment and for a controlled world where they feel safe.

Hsu Siu-man, a supervisor at the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups' Youth Wellness Centre, says young people who spend hours playing violent games can become ill-tempered as the lines between the real and virtual worlds start to blur.

Only in a small number of cases does actual violence occur. "There could be verbal threats," Hsu said. "Sometimes the mothers unplug the computer or throw away the keyboard. The sons would go mad and threaten to stab the mother or jump off the building."

Stanislaus Lai Ding-kee, an instructor in City University's department of applied social studies, says hidden youths have a higher tendency to use violence, especially if they enjoy violent games and movies.

"[Their] main problem is the prolonged build-up of pressure and hatred," he said. "This leads to frustration. When they do not know what course to take, or become discontented … they will use other ways to solve problems - one of them is violence."

As for Louis Yip, he has swapped the virtual world of gaming for the realities of fun on the basketball court.

He also speaks to other young people with similar backgrounds at gatherings at the Chinese Evangelical Zion Church, where he has begun to open up and share his experiences.

"Wisdom comes with experience," Yip says. "I don't let other people's words affect me personally any more because I know they don't know how much their words hurt , as they have never been on the receiving end."

Asked about his dream for the future, he pauses in a moment of insecurity and replies: "Do I have to answer?" But then he musters the courage to say: "I'd like to be a scientist. Their research is so integral to how the world works."