WITH a bounce in his step and a contented smile, Oscar Ho Hing-kay wandered down the hospital ward, enthusing about the colourful child-like art painted on the walls. That he was here to celebrate rather than mourn was a personal triumph. Mr Ho, 42, is a cancer victim and it was his experiences eight years ago in the gloomy, basement radiotherapy unit at Queen Elizabeth Hospital that drew him to a project to brighten up hospital walls with art - a project that almost died. As exhibition director of the Arts Centre, Mr Ho was well placed to move things forward when Art In Hospitals was launched in 1994, which he did with great success, brightening up 30 wards in 15 hospitals. But a tussle over funding - the Arts Development Council wanted the Hospital Authority to start sharing the costs - saw the project grind to a halt at the end of 1997. Now, revived by a $700,000 donation from the Kadoorie Foundation, new life has been breathed into Art In Hospitals. This time, Mr Ho hopes to broaden the project from art to arts, bringing in music, poetry, sculpture and other artforms to 'venues of anxiety', such as children's and cancer wards, burn units and wards for the elderly. 'At the time I was ill, I was reading books on the psychology [of illness] and how the state of your mind can help,' he said. 'The radiotherapy unit I went to was dark, yellowish, there were no windows, everyone was depressed. When you walked down there, you felt ill. There was so much pressure, not only on the patients and family but on the staff. I said to myself that if I could, I was going to change this place.' He never got the chance because the unit was moved to a brighter location, but he kept his eyes open for other opportunities. In 1994, he found one at Prince of Wales Hospital. Grace Chung Man-ha was a nurse on the paediatric ward who convinced her bosses to let her brighten up the walls with art, after seeing it done in Canada and Australia. She teamed up with Evelyna Liang Kan Yee-yoo, of the Garden Streams Hong Kong Fellowship of Christian Artists, to recruit volunteers, including Mr Ho, for what was originally planned as a one-off event. Mr Ho involved the Arts Centre and the service was offered to any hospital that asked, including homes for the disabled where arts classes were organised. 'The major [benefit] of this project is that the patients feel it is more relaxing here,' said Ms Chung, standing in a room where mermaids dance across the wall. 'One girl who was four years old had been to the hospital six times. The seventh time she saw the murals and said she was no longer frightened because the hospital looked like a children's world. This is just one example. The staff say the hospital no longer looks like a hospital. They enjoy the murals.' It is colour more than anything that stands out in the decorated wards. Bright greens, reds, blues and yellows are splashed across the dingy white of hospital walls. They are a wonderful contrast to the glare, indifference and monotony of other ward environments. The guiding principles for the murals are that they be soothing, energetic, colourful, lively - and sensitive to their audience. Clowns, mermaids, happy children, animals or apple trees adorn children's wards, while the geriatric wards have more subtle Chinese-style paintings of flowers. Blue skies with clouds are fine in children's wards but taboo in geriatric wards because flying through the sky is associated with death. The work is done by volunteers, from the artists who design the murals to the members of the public, hospital staff and patients who help with the painting. More than 240 volunteers, such as students, civil servants, housewives and families, have registered with the Arts Centre and hundreds of others have helped over the years. The artists in particular needed encouragement to stick to the guidelines and think in terms of the needs of the hospital and its patients, rather than their own artistic ambitions, Mr Ho said. 'Our biggest problem is to get the artists to suppress their egos,' he said. 'Increasingly, more artists are becoming aware of the different type of aesthetic required for a project like this. Self-expression is not the highest value.' Creating art that serves the community makes the project professionally interesting to Mr Ho, a long-standing and well-respected member of the local art scene, because it is so unusual. 'I find something missing from art in Hong Kong, it's so remote from the community,' he said. 'The Government, the art institutions, the Arts Council, they put money into projects that benefit only a few people, but this benefits thousands of people every year - the patients, the visitors, even the hospital staff. For the entire project, there is only one employed staff.' The imbalance left him angry when the project was forced to close after the Hospital Authority refused to put up any money, saying it was not their policy, and the Arts Development Council cut its contribution in half, arguing the project also involved hospitals. There were still wards waiting for a paint job but no one to organise the work. Yet the benefits to hospitals are not just happy pictures on the walls, they can mean an improvement to the whole environment. Ms Chung said the murals inspired them to paint trolleys and other hospital fittings a softer colour to match the walls. One hospital ordered new curtains and some have installed better lighting, with the funds raised through the Art In Hospitals project. The Kadoorie Foundation money will cover costs for about three years, but more money is needed not only for the future, but to expand the programme to include other artforms. Mr Ho said the rights were already secured to publish a Japanese children's book, Pain, Pain, Go Away, and it was hoped more books would be published and other items created, such as cups relating to the themes in the murals. Ms Chung believes friendly images can only help the patients, especially children who are frightened by hospitals. 'All these things will help them to allay their hospital anxiety. We believe it helps to promote their recovery,' she said. To volunteer for Art In Hospitals or for information, call 2582-0284 or 2582-0200. Or fax 2802-0798.