AT A TIME when everyone is talking about the economic downturn (locally) and a possible war (internationally), this year's Hong Kong Youth Arts Festival (YAF) must come as a breath of fresh air, if not a welcome relief, for many. Into its ninth year, the YAF is as rich and diverse as ever, boasting more than 15,000 young participants and a month-long lineup of drama productions, dance shows, art exhibitions, workshops and pop and rock concerts. Kicking off the festival on November 7 is the bilingual stage adaptation of Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. YAF founder and director Lindsey McAlister has, with the help of musical director Scott Gibson, transformed the literary classic into a colourful musical about young love and magic, featuring a cast of 80 - aged five to 25 - from different cultures and backgrounds. Other stage highlights include the wacky musical Little Shop Of Horrors, also directed by McAlister; Twelfth Night, directed by Shakespearean drama specialist Clare Stearns, as well as a cultural exchange series called Theatre 4 All. There is also a thought-provoking production from Aspiration Family, which is billed as 'a performance for sensitive women in town'. 'The story of Memories Of Heart is adopted from real life,' said first-time director Tancy Tong. 'We collect information from [our everyday experiences] and some stories happened in different restaurants. Scary movies, maybe, feminist plot, definitely.' On the dance front is an exciting show staged by the Hong Kong Dancers. Formed by a group of Hong Kong International School students in 1995, the troupe will be participating in the YAF for the fifth year. Their latest show features 30 students who will be performing 'Latino sways, Jazzy turns and MTV style hip-hop' that promise to give contemporary dance 'a new and individual style'. Other dance performances include Kennedy Kinetics' Dancing Night, Tang Shiu Kin Victoria Government Secondary School's Dance! Dance! Dance! Dance! and two shows by the Mongkok Children's Dance Group. Album, a five-member youth band, will be giving a concert that promises 'a lot of good music and absolutely no swearing'. Guitarist Chan Lap-chi says: 'We are not really a punk rock band. We are more like, err, easy listening.' And, last but not least, there are some eye-opening art exhibitions, including Picasso - Installation (a show that promises to unveil 'Picasso's Cubist World') and Esquel Picasso Wardrobe, which features artwork by a group of young designers influenced by the legendary artist. There is also a sombre note to this year's festival as one participating group is determined to remind us of all the atrocities happening around the world. In The Returns, a student theatre group, Matchstick Figures, attempts to make sense of the horrendous terrorist attacks in the United States. 'What happened to the World Trade Centre was horrible,' said director Kitty Kong Sin-ying. 'Many people die in Afghanistan each year and we think that the idea of revenge won't solve anything.'