For the past two years Edmond has confined himself to a remote camp in Sai Kung, where he lives with scores of other youths who have strayed from the law. The heavily tanned 17-year-old has stayed beyond the 18-month period expected of each resident at the rehabilitation camp for delinquents. At his new home, down a narrow lane from the Lady MacLehose Holiday Village, he has kicked his drug habit and picked up valuable skills. Happy to be in a serene environment, he has no plans to leave soon. The farther away he is from his previous home in Kwai Chung, the better it seems. His past reflects the situation of many at-risk youngsters today. A school dropout, he used to be impulsive, bad-tempered and worst of all, violent. Gang fights were part of everyday life. 'We pounded on anyone we did not like even if that person had not done anything against us,' he recalls. 'We felt excited while we punched and hit. Once five or six of us started a fight inside a fast-food restaurant with the other gang; we joined in because someone from the other side had 'taken' one of our girlfriends. We wanted to talk things over with them initially but a fight erupted just a few minutes after we reached the scene.' Lunchtime customers fled the scene, not daring to intervene. The youths were so caught up with what they were doing, Edmond says, 'we could not care if there were plain-clothes police around us.' Fortunately, no major injuries resulted. But this wasn't always the case. Edmond and his fellow camp residents sometimes engaged in triad-related warfare - at the request of their peers living in the same estates, who provided them with weapons such as knives and iron bars. He never incurred serious injuries in fights with others, but in retrospect, he said: 'There were so many times when I could have killed others or destroyed my own life.' Many more are less fortunate. One case that sent shockwaves through the community last month was the horrifying murder of 15-year-old Luk Chi-wai. The Form three student was beaten to death by youngsters at a public housing flat in Block 39 at Sau Mau Ping, Kwun Tong. His attackers then covered his body with thinners and petrol before setting it alight. A day later, they dumped his remains in a nearby landfill. On the night of the murder, the victim had received a call from the group asking him to meet at the flat. Unfortunately, he agreed. To date, police have arrested 18 youths aged between 10 and 17 in connection with the case. Fourteen, three of them girls, have been charged. Up to 20 people converged on the flat on that fatal night, according to Chief Superintendent of Sau Mau Ping, Kerry Pearce. 'They all know each other; many have grown up together in the estate,' he said. The fact that the attackers and their victim were childhood friends makes the latest case even more shocking. Though a few of the accused have links with triad members, Mr Pearce does not think the crime was gang-related. The triggering factor, he reveals, was Luk's attempt to persuade his friend and a key witness to the murder, 35-year-old cleaner Chan Muk-ching, to report an alleged attack on Chan by one of the youths arrested. An immigrant from China, Luk - whose father was a hawker and mother had done odd jobs - had long associated with school dropouts in his neighbourhood. To senior clinical psychologist at the Correctional Services Department, Lu Chan Ching-chuen, local youths are at increasing risk of resorting to violence to settle disputes. 'All the contributing factors are present, like heavy portrayal of violence in comics, television series and films, video games, a rising number of broken families and school drop-outs,' says Mrs Lu, whose job includes counselling young inmates with weak family ties. Youngsters' propensity to use force is exacerbated by triads, whose influence has resulted in the proliferation of youth gangs within and outside schools. 'Environmental factors play a large part in shaping a person's behavioural tendency,' says Mrs Lu. 'Only a minority of people are born with an aggressive nature. Many have come to see violence as an acceptable method of resolving conflicts as a result of their socialisation process.' Those who have grown up in a family plagued by domestic violence or have had little opportunity for communication are more likely to confront problems with force. This is only enhanced when one becomes part of a vengeful gang. 'It is part of gang culture to achieve a goal without paying attention to the means involved,' warns Mrs Lu. 'It is like the popular quick-cash mentality in Hong Kong that emphasises gaining money by whatever means available.' Most cases of youth-related violence involve attacks by groups rather than individuals. The reason is simple: even an unwilling attacker is prompted to join in an act of aggression should the people around him have initiated the attack. Not just more prone to fights, youngsters today are perhaps far tougher too. When Mrs Lu showed gruesome pictures of victims of violence to young inmates in an attempt to help them understand the consequences of their actions, many were unperturbed. Her conclusion is that young people today have a lower level of empathy for victims. According to police statistics, the number of serious assaults committed by people aged between seven and 15 rose to 783 in 1996 from 675 the year earlier, while 182 such cases were recorded in the first quarter of this year. It is little wonder educators are concerned about this potentially worrying trend. School principal Frank Ng, who is also chairman of the Kwun Tong District Fight Crime Committee's sub-committee on triad influence and crimes among students in schools, warns that the growing number of single-parent families could exacerbate the problem of youngsters falling prey to the triads. In Sau Mau Ping, a high-density district populated with low-income households, it is common for male family heads to spend most of their time working in China. 'Many have set up a new home there,' says Mr Ng. 'And there is little supervision for their children here.' In other run-down districts, too, it is common to find households in which both parents go out to work, leaving their young children in the care of grandparents who often have no idea about imposing discipline. Hark Tsai, 20, who was caught by police while taking drugs at his estate three years ago, used to while away his time in amusement games centres. 'That's where my Big Brothers [a triad term for senior figures] would go to look for me,' he said. Keeping youngsters with no interest in school from mingling with the wrong crowd can be a difficult task. Every year, almost 2,000 Form One to Form Three students break the rules by staying away from classes, hanging out instead at seedy venues infiltrated by triads. Co-operation from parents is no doubt crucial in ensuring that youngsters return to normal school life. But in reality, it is questionable how many act zealously to prevent their children from going astray. Mr Pearce, chief police superintendent from Sau Mau Ping, has detected apathy among some parents in his sprawling district. 'Many of the 10- or 11-year-olds we picked up in the early hours of the morning for various offences were not reported missing by their parents. The parents just didn't care what they were up to.' Citing the rise in number of armed robberies by youths in his district, he says youngsters who turn to crime are often drug addicts with links to triads as well. Even as the overall crime rate is on the decline in Hong Kong, Mr Pearce faces a massive task in fighting triad infiltration in Sau Mau Ping, an area with a huge student population of 50,000 and yet limited recreational facilities. Of concern to him, he adds, is 'the relative ease' with which youngsters become involved in violence. 'My heart goes out to the family members of the 15-year-old victim,' he says. To many, the ubiquitous groups of purposeless youths hanging around public housing estates deserve attention. 'I have always been worried about such gatherings,' declares 51-year-old Kwun Tong District Board member Lam Kin-kwok. 'These youngsters are usually low achievers at school and it is easy for them to turn to vice. Youths are full of energy. They need to find a way to unleash it.' Perhaps he is rightly concerned about Sau Mau Ping, a redevelopment area with a lot of empty flats in yet-to-be demolished residential blocks. More hideouts are now available to gangs engaged in illicit activities such as drug trafficking; while they mingle with members of the underworld, they are exposed to the violent gang culture. 'More professional workers are needed to prevent them from going astray.' Psychologists have warned that frustrated youths are easily drawn to their peer group if they do not feel a sense of belonging at home. Yet in the long run, life on the streets may result in more regrets than a real substitute for personal fulfillment. Edmond, for one, is glad to have had a second chance, or more important, a new outlook on life. 'No one taught me how to handle my emotions before,' he said. 'When I was down, my friends told me to take drugs or lose myself in amusement games. But now I have learned to vent my emotions through music or talking to people. I have learned to be calm and look at the good side of even people I don't like.'