EACH DAY, AS her colleagues go out for lunch, 28-year-old marking executive Lok Chak-yin hurries to a second floor room of an ornate building in Oi Kwan Road, Wan Chai. She wraps her face and neck with a blue shawl and lowers her head. Sitting among other 'sisters' in robes, she starts her daily ritual, resting her face on the carpet, mumbling prayers in a language she does not yet understand. This is a mosque, and Lok is one of a growing number of Islamic converts throughout Europe, America and Asia - many since the September 11 terrorist attacks. In the US, the number of Muslims has doubled since 1990, according to the Hong Kong Islamic Youth Association. Its public relations officer, Bruno Yusuf Ma, says there has been a steady stream of new Chinese converts in Hong Kong, from one or two each year in the mid-1990s to about 20 a year now. There also has been a significant increase in converts to other religions in Hong Kong in the past few years, including Buddhism. The Hong Kong Buddhist Association says the number of local Buddhists has increased from 800,000 in 2000 to one million now. Why are people turning to religion, particularly Islam? One reason may be a rejection of the obsession with materialism, so prevalent during the 1980s, in favour of spiritual needs. As well, religion offers people a way to deal with the stress and uncertainty of life during economically difficult times. 'Hong Kong people are inexperienced and are less able to deal with stress,' says Dr Yue Xiao-dong, City University assistant professor of applied social science. 'When they are stressed, they lose [their] self-advocacy and hope. Religions are comforting. They leave coping to the hands of god, which gives them a sense of tranquility and peace. You just need to pray. Also, they want to feel blessed.' Until recently, the local Muslim community was largely ignored, despite its long history in Hong Kong, which dates to the earliest days of British settlement in 1842. Today, it is more than 70,000-strong - of which some 30,000 are Chinese. They are mostly elderly people who escaped from the mainland during the Japanese invasion and communist take-over, and their descendants. Ma attributes the new-found interest in Islam, or yee see laan gaau in Cantonese, to a combination of factors: promotion by Islamic groups via monthly open days and new websites; an increase in South Asian Muslim migrants; more inter-marriages; and September 11. 'After the 9/11 attack, more people came to our mosques, and called us to inquire about Islam,' says Imam Muhammed Noorudin Yang, chairman of the Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association. 'Schools, universities and other religions invited us to give talks. They saw the western media's untrue and negative reports that relate Islam to violence, and they wanted to find out the truth. After understanding Islam, some of them decided to convert.' The Islamic Union of Hong Kong offers converts and the merely curious a $50 course that takes them through the religion in two-hour weekly classes held over three months. It's not compulsory, but definitely useful, for those wanting to enter the fold. On September 11, when Lok saw the World Trade Centre towers collapse, she mourned for the lost lives. She read that the attacks were related to Islam. Yet, two years later, she converted. 'I read books lent to me by a Muslim workmate and realised what had happened was not Islam at all,' she says. 'Islam is against war and Muslims are very kind people.' Last month, in a simple ceremony in which she said prayers in Arabic, she was formally converted and given a Muslim name, Basma, meaning 'smiling'. But it wasn't an easy decision. 'I struggled a lot. I still don't dare wear scarfs on the streets because people will stare at me, and I am still thinking about whether converting to Muslim means I am giving up my Chinese culture,' she says. For converts, family rejection can also be a problem. Form Seven student Keith Chan Man-ho, 19, recalls with a bitter laugh how he 'came out' about his new faith to his Christian parents. 'When I told my parents I wanted to convert, they were shocked. My father discriminated against Islam, and asked me if I would be called to fight the Holy War. I was angry,' says Chan. He ignored them, and plans to convert next month. 'I have always wanted a religion. Since August, I tried finding information about Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and yoga, but nothing suited me. I want my religion to involve both the existence of god and discipline of men's behaviour, and Islam fits.' Chan says he discovered Islam on a website. But adapting to the rules has not been as easy as he imagined. 'I got sick after several days of no food and drink from dawn to dusk in the fasting month [Ramadan], and was forced to stop.' Misunderstanding by outsiders is another problem. 'My employer accused me of disrespecting the workplace when he saw me wearing a headscarf,' says former merchandiser Yasmin Cheung Yee-man, 27, who converted in 2001, and left her job soon after the incident. Being a Muslim means childcare worker Salsabil Yip Tin-yan, 25, can no longer wear her cartoon T-shirts ('because Muslims say dolls are idols') and has to hide the doll on her keyring when she goes out with Muslim friends. Salsabil says she decided to convert because of her boyfriend, a Pakistani trader. 'He says he can only marry Muslims,' she says. 'His family was unhappy that he dated me. They said they would only accept me if I converted.' Salsabil, who converted last month, confesses that she still goes to karaoke, even though its forbidden. Administrative assistant Haseena Pang, 26, who converted in July, dares not admit to her Muslim friends that she has a boyfriend, even though he is also Muslim, because such relationships outside marriage are forbidden. 'I won't go out alone with him,' she says. 'I bring a friend. He will walk in the front, and I at the back.' Nonetheless, she says she doesn't regret giving up her freedom, and says she is 'much happier' now. Islam allows polygamy, and Pang says that, if she married and was unable to have children, she would not mind her husband taking more than one wife. Cheung is now a public relations officer in the Islamic Union of Hong Kong, where she freely wears headscarves. 'Before, I lacked a life purpose. My religion makes me feel calmer and peaceful.' The new converts say they will keep the faith. 'I am not doing it because it looks trendy,' says Chan. 'I am serious. It is real and reasonable. Islam promotes peace. I will be committed forever.'