'I HAVE reluctance to use the word celebrity,' says Yue Xiaodong, the assistant professor at City University's department of applied social sciences and an expert on idol worship in Hong Kong and on the mainland. 'Actually, it's star worship and luminary worship. Idols in Hong Kong are pop stars, movie stars and sports stars. Real luminaries are people such as Albert Einstein, Deng Xiaoping, Isaac Newton. Luminaries are mostly old and mostly male.' And, frankly, they're not very pretty. 'Right. They don't have prettiness, energy or wealth,' he says. 'And Hong Kong's young people cherish the wealthy, glamorous way of life - which is why they like stars. 'They have to find reality, somehow, somewhere. A refusal to leave behind idol worship is correlated with a refusal to go into the adult world.' He suggests that Hong Kong is deeply adolescent. In 2001, the university's social studies department conducted a survey of 1,343 secondary students on the mainland and 298 in Hong Kong. The study revealed that mainland adolescents tend to worship luminaries and Hong Kong students to worship stars, that students in Hong Kong fantasise more about romantic situations with stars than their mainland counterparts do, and also that adoration of star idols tends to increase social anxiety. In this, City University had a finger on the cultural pulse because scientists in the US have since revealed the existence of a disorder called celebrity worship syndrome (CWS). Researchers warn that the disorder can cause depression, anxiety and social dysfunction - which in Hong Kong can be taken to mean a general reluctance to move on to the next stage of personal development, or adulthood. 'It's not an epidemic,' says Yue, reassuringly. 'And there is something that is critically distinctive about Hong Kong and that is the commercialisation.' This has its apotheosis in what can be called the Twins effect, whereby the Canto-pop stars are two grown-up women (who are not twins), who dress like children and are entirely operated from behind by the heavy machinery of consumerism. Yue, who is 44 and grew up in Inner Mongolia to worship Lei Feng (the heroic PLA soldier), is aware of how physical attractiveness is marketed at today's adolescents. 'Lei Feng was a short man, and others we had to worship were truly ugly,' he remarks with feeling. But even Yue, who is used to charting the worship-trajectory of people like Mao Zedong and astronaut Yang Liwei, was perplexed by a professional outing to a concert in Hong Kong by Taiwanese boy-band F4. 'You wonder why such people get such attention,' he says of the pop stars. 'I've liked them since August 2002,' says Wong Siu-fun, 51, a primary-school clerk and member of an F4 fan club, which intends to publish a collection of reviews and short essays about feelings the band inspire, under the title F4 Tutorial Class. 'Especially Jerry Wen, he has a beautiful face,' she adds. 'I think a lot of people of my age are attracted to him because he seems such a well-behaved boy.' If CWS is about social dysfunction, then a married woman in her 50s worshipping a boy band would seem to qualify. But for Wong - as for many of the older female fans who can be seen at Hong Kong concerts - this is a fulfilling inversion: a chance to be an adolescent after less frivolous (and certainly less media-savvy) teenage years. 'When I was 17, I spent most of my time attending seminars and student movement meetings,' says Wong, who adds that her husband is happy she's found a new interest. 'I collected Mao books and badges, I worshipped him as a political leader but that wasn't the same as my feelings for F4.' And now? 'Every day I go on to the internet to chat to other fans, I buy any magazine or paper that has their name or picture on the cover, and our group meets several times a month to look at the F4 merchandise that we've bought and to discuss the latest gossip and watch videos.' Lui Tai-lok, a professor of sociology at Chinese University, says the media has changed the intensity of the phenomenon. 'The commercial aspect makes it a different ball game now,' he says. In January, Lui will teach a course titled The World Of Football, with particular reference to commercialism and the construction of a football star called David Beckham. 'We're bombarded by the proliferation of celebrities, but at the same time people are changing their opinions more quickly,' he says. 'Celebrity has a shorter span of time, there's an unlimited supply of idols - who cares about the Spice Girls now, honestly?' The term CWS could more usefully be applied to the social dysfunction suffered by the celebrity as his or her fame dwindles. One only has to think of the candlelit vigil for Michael Jackson last week. Or there is Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, a concubine of fame. 'Britney Spears - you can see she's struggling to make a final round of profits before cashing out,' says Lui. He believes that Beckham, unlike his wife, ex-Spice Girl Victoria, is pretty, metro-sexual, perceived as a good family man and has room for expansion on the idol front, particularly in Asia. 'One of the interesting things about football, unlike singing or Hollywood movies, is that there is a real dimension to the image,' explains Lui. 'For instance, the footballer really has to score the goal and that really determines the outcome of the match.' Sometimes, real life intrudes too much and the commercial pressures of the outside world intervene to make even the most devoted fan move on. In a couple of weeks, Tommy Ooi, the president of the Elvis Presley Fan Club in Hong Kong, is stepping down from his position. 'I've spent too much time on Elvis, and that's killing my business,' he says of his export company. 'Unlike in the Philippines, where some of my Elvis friends gave up their jobs to concentrate on full-time Elvis impersonation, I can't make a living out of him. 'And I agree about celebrity worship syndrome. People in Hong Kong and Asia spend too much time on that, like my daughter, Julia, who idol-worships Nicholas Tse [Ting-fung] - she gets depressed when she hears unpleasant news about him.' Yue might say that Ooi is finally crossing the threshold into adulthood, but when asked if this stern line on celebrity obsession means his devotion to Elvis is ending, he laughs and says: 'Elvis stays in my heart.'