IF YOU PUNCH Fok Siu-yee, she laughs. She's an average-sized woman with toned, muscular legs and ripped arms. But it's the fierce look in her eyes peering from beneath a furrowed brow that conjures up a feeling in my stomach that can only be described as terror. My trainer, Jay Lau Chi-yuen calls out to begin my first boxing bout. I charge out towards my opponent and start throwing punches, few landing anywhere near their target, as Fok deftly slips her head from side to side. Trying to remember what I learned an hour ago, I finally land a blow. It's the first time I've hit anyone and I feel strangely detached from myself, and a little excited. Fok is going easy, but, encouraged by my trainer, I chase her round the ring in an attempt to land more blows. Suddenly, I'm exhausted, my stomach is cramped and all strength is gone from my arms and legs. I lean my forehead against the ropes in an effort to regain my breath, eyes closed, sweating and panting heavily, before starting again. And then it hit me . . . Lau's the head trainer and Fok's instructor at DEF Boxing, a gym in Wyndham Street. And, like many trainers in Hong Kong, he's expecting to be inundated with calls from wannabe Hilary Swanks following the local release today of Million Dollar Baby, the Oscar-winning film about a poor waitress from a trailer park who tries to cut it in the male-dominated world of boxing. Alex Tsui Ka-kit, who chairs the Hong Kong Boxing Association (HKBA), says female boxing in the SAR was unheard of a decade ago, but now there are up to 200 women (some estimates say 500) regularly going to gyms to lay into punching bags and go toe-to-toe in the ring. And it's not just conventional boxing that's taking off. Increasing numbers of women are taking up Thai and kick-boxing. Tsoi Tung-hiu, boxer and owner of The Ring, a Thai-boxing gym in Lan Kwai Fong, says 60 per cent of its clients are female. 'After Sars, people became more concerned about their health and we got 100 calls a day - about 80 per cent from women - about boxing at that time,' he says. Women's boxing first took off in 1996 when the HKBA, noting the emergence of female boxing in the US, began offering classes for women. It was given a further boost when Laila Ali, the daughter of heavyweight boxing legend Muhammad Ali, received worldwide coverage of her first professional bout in 1999. The slimming and fitness craze has also translated into rising numbers of women taking up boxing. The Ring has 300 female students and Tsoi says up to 30 more women are joining each month. Today, many Hong Kong gyms are catering to female boxers and even some old-style, male-dominated gyms established on rundown rooftops are opening up to women. Tsoi says the trend reflects the changing attitudes of women, and towards women, in Hong Kong. 'Girls are different today,' he says. 'Before, no women played football, for instance, but now men and women are becoming equal, and women feel they can play a man's sport.' Lau says there are other forces at play. 'Women now find it 'in' to try boxing,' he says. 'Sometimes when their friends call them, they would say, 'I am boxing now'. It's a way of appearing cool.' Lau has trained more than 200 women to box - from secretaries and clerks, to doctors and lawyers. At first, he says seeing women hitting each other broke his heart, but his attitude has changed. 'Women should learn boxing, they should learn what they didn't expect to - and fighting helps them to see a man's mind,' Lau says. 'They can feel fear. It's a mind-changing experience for women.' Fok, who disconcertingly has barely broken a sweat during our bout, says many women see boxing as more than a sport or hobby, but a personal challenge. 'There's no such thing as a man's sport or a woman's today,' says the 27-year-old adult-education officer who fell in love with the sport two years ago, after reading about it in a magazine. 'I treat it as a challenge to myself. I've become more confident.' Fellow fighter and accountant Venus Wong, who took up boxing to build up her strength, says the sport has helped her break barriers. 'I have become more open-minded, confident and happier,' she says. 'After I broke into a man's sport as a female, I realise that as long as I try, I can do anything new and try things that looked impossible before.' For most female boxers, their sparring goes only as far as working out with a punch bag, but about 30 local women compete in the HKBA's amateur bouts. Fok, who has had her share of swollen knuckles, bloody lips and black eyes, is soon to join them. She trains three times a week under Lau - sometimes sparring with male opponents to sharpen her up. Fok says she still finds it hard to punch others in the ring. 'Sometimes when I hit somebody in the face, I feel bad and worried that I've hurt them,' she says. Tsui, 57, says most of the women who choose to go into competition are strong-minded, with some fighting much harder than their male counterparts, perhaps having a point to prove. 'They go into the ring very focused. They are like professionals, with a strategy.' Thai boxer Polly Wu has fought three times, for two wins and a loss. Recalling her first match last year, the 26-year-old marketing manager vividly recounts how she slammed her opponent in the nose. 'Before, I said sorry for hitting an opponent,' she says. 'Now, each time I get into the ring, I tell myself, 'I must win, I must win'. The guys down in the audience were cheering, and although I couldn't hear what they were saying, the more they cheered, the more I was encouraged and the harder I fought.' Women are also fighting gender and cultural prejudice by taking up a traditionally male-only sport. Wu says her female friends all refused to come with her to the gym, and her male friends all find her aggressive for taking up the sport. 'They say boxing is not suitable for women,' she says. Tsui says Hong Kong displays a lot of prejudice against female boxers. 'Just as is shown in Million Dollar Baby, there is discrimination against women boxers.' The possibility of damaging your looks is a discouraging factor, Tsui says. Another is the culture resistance. 'Chinese think that girls should be tender and domestic, and it is completely against these beliefs for girls to be boxing,' Tsui says. Back in the ring, after a rest following my two minutes in Swank's boxing shoes - the most vicious 120 seconds of my life - I recover enough to agree to two more minutes. Fok has so far taken it easy with me, but I want to know what it is like to be punched hard. 'I want a real fight,' I say. It was a mistake.