PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 September, 1999, 12:00am

'I envy not in any moods the captive void of noble rage' Alfred, Lord Tennyson 'You can't always get what you want' Mick Jagger IN a stress-fuelled city in a mad, mad world, it is worth paying heed to the musings of the ancient bard. And Tennyson probably had a point, too. Such pearls of wisdom, however, may be of scant consolation when the irritations, vagaries and vicissitudes of modern life have massed ranks against you; when you're being peppered by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Rage, you see, has become all the rage. And in Hong Kong, perhaps more than in most cities, keeping one's cool can prove a daily struggle.

Worldwide, the ascendancy of the irate is such that the more common ways to blow a fuse are neatly categorised: Road rage, Air rage, Desk rage, not to mention Train rage, Hotel rage and even Surf rage, when a surfer pinches your wave.

And then there are the less glamorous, more localised reasons to get mad, that have not yet earned a catchy media tag - such as trying to hail a cab at rush hour (Meter rage?), watching your lunch break rapidly evaporate as you stand behind some haggling miser in a bank (Queue rage?), or the viscid squish of just-shined shoe piercing the meniscus of a freshly hawked pavement oyster (Phlegm rage?).

Anyone who has spent time in the simmering cauldron of ire and angst that is the SAR knows there are times when taking a deep breath and counting to 10 just won't cut it.

Be honest. When was the last time you fought down (or gave into) an overwhelming urge to punch someone in the face, kick their shins or at least tweak their nose and call them names? Chances are it was not in the dim, distant past.

Rats thrown into crowded confinement are known to rip each other to shreds within hours. With humans, it takes somewhat longer - although anyone who has suffered a shredding from the scything elbows of little old ladies on the MTR may dispute this.

Hong Kong may be a relatively safe city, but - as regular newspaper readers would attest - there is an almost daily diet of 'rage' crimes, where ordinary people stretched to the limit by overwork or unemployment, stress, traffic, smog, stifling heat, annoying neighbours, extended families and shoebox dwellings finally snap. Often, it is the most trivial-sounding incident that sparks the tinder of long-suppressed anger into a raging conflagration.

Dr Julian Lai, a lecturer in psychology at City University, believes the chief cause of rage is frustration - something certainly not in short supply in Hong Kong.

'Frustration usually arises in two ways,' he says. 'People may have inappropriate needs or impulses, or there may be environmental obstacles which stop people getting what they want.' Some people are more adept than others, says Dr Lai, at handling frustration. And for those who do not handle it well, there are two main responses. 'Some people behave aggressively to remove obstacles, others turn their anger inward and suppress it.' The former can be healthy, in small doses. The latter, he believes, is where the seeds of full-blown, explosive fits of rage are sown. 'If you suppress anger for too long, it can result in hypertension, depression and various psychosomatic disorders,' Dr Lai says. 'And if you bottle it up long enough, you can explode.' New research in Britain suggests irrational anger could be a reaction to the violation of a set of rules that choreographs our every waking moment: the unwritten, unconscious system of personal body space. Mounting evidence shows that we all need this space to stay sane.

'We walk around in a sort of invisible bubble,' says Phil Leather, head of Nottingham University's social and environmental research group. 'An entire language is expressed via the amount of distance we choose to keep between each other.' In northern Europe and North America, he says, the bubble is between 60 centimetres and one metre. In crowded Asian and Latin American countries, it is far smaller. Popping the bubble can lead to mild annoyance and tension, a pounding heart, raised blood pressure, sweating and severe anxiety. Frequent invasions can lead to an explosive build-up of anger.

One of the first places pent-up ire is vented is on the roads. Cars have a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde effect on some people - the most mild-mannered of individuals can change into a slavering beast the moment they get behind the wheel.

'Rage, rage against the dying of the light,' urged Dylan Thomas. An apt update might be: 'Rage, rage against the changing of the traffic light.' Road rage first reared its head in the United States, where the cult of the car reigns supreme. On the notorious freeways of cities like Los Angeles and Miami, cutting off the wrong driver may well result in a wild-eyed 'lane ranger' chasing you down and levelling a shotgun at you.

Now it has become a full-blown global phenomenon. The lexicographers behind the New Oxford Dictionary Of English even trumpet its inclusion in their tome - 'a violent anger caused by the stress and frustration of driving in heavy traffic'.

A recent study published by the Automobile Society of America says US drivers are as likely to carry spare bullets as spare tyres in their cars, citing a 51 per cent jump in aggressive driving incidents since 1990. These are incidents 'in which an angry or impatient driver tries to injure or kill another driver after a traffic dispute'.

In the five years to 1997, 218 people were killed and 12,610 injured in road-rage clashes. In 37 per cent of cases, offenders used firearms, 35 per cent used cars as battering rams and 28 per cent used other weapons or projectiles including knives, car jacks and tins of food. Just four per cent involved women.

According to the study, 70 per cent of US urban freeways are clogged during rush hour and the average metropolitan driver spends at least 40 hours a year in traffic jams. In Britain, Lex Research found that of 2.8 million company car drivers, 83 per cent have been victims of road rage. A study in Australia estimates that half of all traffic accidents are due to road rage.

Universities now have road-rage experts. At the University of Hawaii, Professor of Traffic Psychology Leon James says: 'Drivers are reeling from sensory overload. There are simply more cars, and more behaviours, to deal with. What's common is the feeling of hostility. When that's generated among millions of drivers, you have the potential for urban warfare.' Others point to 'Arnie Syndrome' - a reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger's hulking Humvee - and argue that tank-like cars make drivers feel invulnerable and trademark statuettes or logos on a car's bonnet become metaphors for gun sights. One psychologist from - where else? - California recently published Overcoming Road Rage - The 10-Step Compassion Programme, complete with instructions on 'Zen' driving and offers of 'in-car, on-highway therapy sessions'.

The Internet teems with a proliferation of road-rage sites, ranging from the serious to the silly. These include urgings to purchase 'Carmageddon II - Carpocalypse Now', a 'bone-crushing, blood-spurting, downright disgusting' road-rage video game designed to 'satisfy your bloodlust'. And then there is the Road Rage Pillow, 'an aromatherapy buckwheat hull headrest to ease the stress that causes road rage'; and the Road Rage Protection Package, that promises protection for doors, tyres and windows from 'repeated blows or small- to medium-powered hand and shotgun rounds'.

One site called Road Ragers encourages drivers to vent their frustrations on the Net rather than on the roads.

There is no shortage of high-profile road-rage practitioners. Beverly Hills Cop star Judge Reinhold is being sued by actor Clifford Dorfman, who claims Reinhold chased him and ran his Ford Expedition off the road before reaching inside the car to punch him.

Two years ago, Jack Nicholson found himself in court after jumping out of his car at an intersection and beating a Mercedes with a golf club. Convicted rapist and erstwhile pugilist Mike Tyson was sent back to prison in February for a year after punching a 62-year-old in the face and kicking a 50-year-old in the groin after a minor three-car collision. And Friends star Courtney Cox is far from friendly behind the wheel. The self-confessed road-rage sufferer says: 'Bad drivers make me yell. You'd think I was a 110kg man who goes to Gold's Gym every day the way I scream at people behind the wheel. I'm horrible.' Of course, such base behaviour would never occur in Hong Kong, right? Wrong. Road rage is on the rise. In the past three years, a taxi driver rammed a car into an ambulance in Wan Chai after a punch-up over lane changes, a priest was punched and kicked by three men in Princess Margaret Road after he knocked on their car window to complain about the way they had overtaken him, one taxi driver stabbed another with a screwdriver after a chase down Austin Road, and a man was forced to cling to the bonnet of a taxi in a white-knuckle ride of terror after the driver drove straight at him in Causeway Bay.

Last November, Hong Kong's first road-rage killer was jailed for two years. Light-goods van driver Au Kam-fai, 33, was struck first by taxi driver Ng Ping-to during an argument at a busy section of Lion Rock Road. Au retaliated with two or three blows to the head. Ng fell to the ground unconscious and was dead on arrival at Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

Mr Justice Michael Murrell described Au's behaviour as 'completely inexcusable' and likely to 'scare off other road users'.

A second road-rage fatality came before the courts in May this year, when a motorist accused of knocking down and killing a pedestrian after an argument was jailed for 18 months. Tam Wai-lam, 33, a decorator, was found guilty of manslaughter after his car knocked down Ng Koon-wah, following a heated argument about driving the wrong way down a one-way street.

A Transport Department spokesman, however, describes road rage as 'academic' and not of any great concern in Hong Kong. And Hong Kong Automobile Association spokesman Jackson Ho is adamant that local drivers are a well-behaved bunch. Moves are under way, however, to start a 'driver improvement school'. 'We believe in driver education, not punishment,' he says.

Garnering perhaps even more publicity than road rage in recent years is air rage, which reached its apotheosis in 1995 with the now-notorious case of the loose-bowelled investment banker.

Gerard Finneran, 58, irked by being refused a glass of wine on a United Airlines flight from Buenos Aires to New York, clambered on to the first-class food trolley, dropped his trousers, let nature take its course and proceeded to wipe himself with the snowy linen napkins. To gasps and heaves of disgust, the banker then decided to spread his business about by strolling around the cabin. He was fined US$50,000 (about HK$387,000) and put on probation for two years.

In January, in one of the worst cases of air rage, Hong Kong electrician Lee Thresher, 29, took a tranquilliser and three double shots of Jack Daniels whiskey before going on the rampage on a flight from Heathrow to Bangkok. He smashed a window blind, bit a woman's headphones in half and grabbed an elderly passenger by the head and began shaking him. It took six people to restrain him. In April, he was jailed for 15 months in London.

As in the case of road rage, there has been no shortage of celebrities ready to jump on the air-rage bandwagon. Cathay Pacific last year banned Oasis bad boys Liam and Noel Gallagher, and the rest of the band, after they became drunk and abusive towards cabin staff and passengers on a flight from Hong Kong to Perth.

Former Stone Roses singer Ian Brown spent eight weeks in prison after threatening to chop a flight attendant's hands off then trying to get into the cockpit of a British Airways plane last Christmas. Not to forget one-time football genius Paul Gascoigne, ringleader of a rowdy England team which paid Cathay Pacific $60,000 in compensation after continuing their China Jump spree on board.

A study by the British College of Aeronautics found air-rage incidents had jumped 400 per cent in the past three years. Professor of aerospace psychology Dr Helen Muir cites smoking bans and alcohol and drug abuse as prime causes.

The effects of a glass of alcohol are doubled in the air, she says, due to reduced cabin pressure and the lack of oxygen in recirculated air. She also believes extensive media coverage may have produced a 'snowball effect'.

Airlines are not taking the air-rage epidemic lying down. British Airways has introduced a system of soccer-style yellow and red cards, while Virgin Atlantic boss Richard Branson is pushing for a worldwide blacklist of air-rage offenders after a flight attendant on one of his planes required 18 stitches after having a bottle of vodka smashed over her head. And the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations has called for a co-ordinated global strategy involving 'tougher laws, training and a policy of zero tolerance'.

According to Cathay spokesman Katherine Wang Tyng-shan, there is room for improvement in Hong Kong's laws. She believes tough new laws which took effect in Britain this month - which ban airborne acts of violence or insulting or abusive language - may be the answer.

The Civil Aviation Department, however, is happy with the existing air navigation order, which outlaws 'reckless or negligent behaviour' likely to endanger a plane, its crew or passengers.

Six people have been prosecuted for air rage in Hong Kong in recent years, resulting in fines ranging from $600 to $2,000 - but they were fined under common law, not the navigation order.

Airport Authority spokesman Chris Donnelly says some passengers lose their cool before they even get off the ground. 'I guess you'd call it terminal rage,' he says. 'We have by-laws that cover unruly behaviour and from time to time we have to enforce them. Usually it's people getting irate about delays.' Now it seems road rage has spread to the information superhighway. In the past month or two, desk rage - also known as computer rage or work rage - has come to the fore. The rapid advance of technology in the workplace had led to an outbreak of occupational angst.

A British study carried out by Mori pollsters for Compaq - drolly titled Rage Against The Machine - found four out of five workers had seen colleagues swearing at or attacking their computers. A quarter of workers admitted to acts of aggression such as smashing keyboards, throwing their mouse across the room and kicking in monitors. One frustrated City high-flier threw his monitor through a first-floor window.

According to Professor Robert Edelmann, a British clinical psychologist: 'Frustration with IT is a serious issue and is affecting both our work and home lives.' In the US, a report by the Society of Industrial Security found that angry workers committing acts of sabotage were costing businesses millions of dollars a year. Says a spokesman for the society: 'Aggression, sabotage and bullying are becoming a huge problem. Work rage can involve anything from deadly duels over car parks to carving initials in the boardroom table. In one case, a hidden camera caught a company vice-president scrawling graffiti on the marble in the executive lift.' City University's Dr Lai admits desk rage is a new one to him. But he says Hong Kong is a prime environment for the acting out of rage in its myriad forms. 'All the factors are there,' he says. 'Stress, pressure, crowdedness. These are major contributors.

'Rage is often displaced or stored anger. You might feel helpless or impotent at work and you cannot do anything about it. Then on the way home, someone bumps into you and you explode, just go crazy.

'I think in Hong Kong there is a lot of stored-up anger bubbling away beneath the surface.'