THINK of a classical composer and the image that springs to mind is that of a straggle-haired, temperamental insomniac who has aged beyond his years - the cliche perpetuated by film-makers and story-tellers over the years. By that standard, Hongkong's young composers just don't measure up. Take Daniel Ma Wai-kwan, for instance. Fresh-faced, and at 27 four years older than you would expect, he favours casual trousers and cotton T-shirts and sips water despite being interviewed at a bar. Fellow composers Wong Kin-ming and Ngai Kai-tai were similarly ingenuous as they watched musicians perform their work at The Fringe Club last week. Their work is featured in the club's Music of the Century series. When not composing, Wong works in book publishing, Ngai is a member of the Royal Hongkong Police band and Ma is employed by record company HNH International. Given the difficulties Hongkong's young composers face, the trio's bashful but proud response to hearing their work performed should come as no surprise. Composing anything other than mainstream or pop music in Hongkong is an uphill battle, according to someone who should know: Richard Tsang, the head of RTHK's Radio Four and himself a leading composer. ''In other forms of art - painting, sculpture, architecture - people can relate,'' he explained. ''But music is all to do with imagining sound. It's even harder than [understanding] abstract painting.'' Talking of Hongkong's Canto-pop-weaned masses, Ma said: ''They don't understand what contemporary music is.'' Ma, who studied at the Chinese University and later received a Master's degree from Indiana University, said his work evolved through a mixture of influences, but had more in common with that of Western composers. Ngai's blends Western and Asian traditions, especially those springing from Buddhism - employing instrumentation such as the guzheng and the piano. Wong's inspiration comes predominantly from Christian traditions. All three find their work sounds foreign to local audiences. A lack of education in schools concerning the development of 20th century classical music, little media exposure and scant critical interest all contribute to this. Then there is the venue problem: Hongkong lacks a middle ground between arenas catering to thousands and small platforms in areas many perceive as regional backwaters. Aware of this, the Council for the Performing Arts has agreed to donate $60,000 towards the Music of the Century series. FROM now until the end of the year, young composers' work will be performed at The Fringe Club on the first Wednesday of each month. Funding has also come from the Hongkong Music Fund, which is administered by the Composers and Authors Society of Hongkong (CASH). The society has 437 composer members, and estimates its membership has increased by about 100 in the past five years. Some, such as Tsang, hope this indicates a brighter future for young composers. ''It [the situation] has definitely improved,'' he said. ''In Hongkong, when I started off as a teenager studying music, the general rule was when you had a piece of work the chance you could get [it] performed was pretty dim. Nowadays, we have composersreally commissioning. Nurturing has improved.''