Bright lights, big risks

AT 16 years old, Jean is already a veteran of the Lan Kwai Fong scene. For several years she has spent most of her Friday and Saturday nights hanging out with friends in the lanes of Central drinking in the bars.

Why? Because there is nothing else to do. When all your friends are drinking, you join in, she said.

Jean goes to high school in Canada and has been introduced to a whole new way of life during her holidays spent in Hongkong.

''I don't drink half as much in Canada as I did here. I don't go out and get completely wasted. In Hongkong it is every time you go out,'' said Jean.

''Here people will do anything, whatever they can get their hands on to have a good time. If you grow up with nothing else to do, it's not looked upon that badly.'' The ''it'' Jean referred to was alcohol, hash, grass, LSD, heroin - ''whatever they can get their hands on''.

Not all young people want to spend the bulk of their spare time hanging out at Lan Kwai Fong. Jean and her friends are bored with spending their Friday and Saturday nights there, but they see no viable alternative.

''There's nothing for young people to do [in Hongkong] there's nowhere else to go except to go out drinking. It has been like that for so long, no one really wants to do anything else.

''And it's so easy to go out . . . there's nothing else people can think of doing.

''People who grow up here grow up fast and they go out from when they are young. Nothing else can compare.'' Mr Derek Pritchard is the executive director of Outward Bound, a school dedicated to offering an alternative to boredom and booze.

He had to agree with Jean's portrayal of teenage life in Hongkong after school hours. He wants things to change.

''Unless schools and parents take the pressure off young people, I think they will always seek some quick fix,'' said Mr Pritchard.

Without real access to an alternative, young people will seek their ''quick fix'' in bars, they will hang out with friends drinking and they will go to games halls. ''That's the way they will get their buzz,'' he said.

''We say, go canoeing or rock climbing and you will get a buzz and it will be a healthy one.'' He sees drinking among young people as a growing problem and he fears little will change without a fundamental reappraisal to Hongkong's education system.

''Hongkong education in general, but primarily among the Chinese schools, is totally focused on academic results and specialisation. Not enough time is given to the other side of a young person's development.

''Schools and parents need to take the pressure off their kids and we need to build in better safety nets for kids who are naturally seeking excitement.

''Academically, I think it is more intense here than anywhere else in the world, except maybe Japan.'' Mr Pritchard said young people should be ''impelled'' to do outdoor and adventure activities where alcohol, cigarettes and drugs play no part.

Parents and schools also need to take a hard look at themselves when it comes to the problem of young people and drinking. He said parents were guilty of not taking the issue seriously.

''Playing role models is a key for parents as far as drinking goes. I've heard it said that drinking is not a problem among the Chinese community, but this is just a head in the sand attitude.'' A fund-raising effort is now under way to raise several million dollars needed to get The Warehouse - an alcohol and drug free party venue for young people - up and running.

Warehouse began as an idea to provide an alternative to Lan Kwai Fong. It has broadened out to a quest for premises offering a music lounge, library, games room and snack bar, with room for live entertainment and professional counselling for all young people of Hongkong who complain that they have nowhere else to go except bars and karaoke lounges.

The Government has come forward and offered the old Aberdeen police station.

While the concept has been praised, the choice of location has already come in for criticism.

For three years, Mrs Tricia Carton has been at the forefront of organising Asylum, which holds monthly discos for schoolchildren in different parts of the territory.

She said her experience has taught her two things: the location has to be accessible and the ideas for activities have to come from young people themselves.

''Fifteen, 16-and 17-year-old representatives from various schools come up with the ideas, do the posters, distribute the information and man the doors on the night,'' said Mrs Carton.

Once inside no one is allowed to leave and come back - a measure to stop youngsters from heading off to the nearest 7-Eleven to buy alcohol. Anyone who is drunk is not allowed in.

On average, 250 teenagers turn up for the monthly Asylum nights, but securing a venue is often a headache, with many clubs not willing to open their doors to young customers.

Providing a convenient location for events is one way the Government could step in and do something positive for Hongkong's young people, said Mrs Carton.

But she says the Government really needs to change the laws.

''We were really shocked to hear that, technically, an eight-year-old can buy alcohol and drink it in the streets. The laws need to be changed so that it is illegal for shops to sell alcohol to kids and that it is illegal for them to drink and it must bedone as soon as possible.''