Big ideas for HK youth

TWENTY years ago, with Hong Kong enjoying the fruits of economic success, a group of young professionals became worried about growing materialism and how young people could be helped to protect themselves from its negative influences.

They acted on those fears, forming Breakthrough, a multi-media organisation now serving a wide spectrum of the population and which is constantly adapting to cope with the changing problems facing the youth of Hong Kong.

''Youngsters face stiffer competition today; they may get frustrated at schools. The 1997 issue was not felt by youngsters in the 70s,'' says Dr Philemon Choi, general secretary of Breakthrough.

''But it [1997] has an immediate effect on the ones today. They witness the leaving of their close friends or even one of their parents who choose to emigrate. Some they do feel very lonely.'' The group of concerned people started with the now widely-known monthly Breakthrough magazine. It was a rarity when it was launched in January 1974, being more educational, though not academic, than anything else available in Hong Kong.

''We felt that there was entertainment for youngsters, but very few publications for them. We thought words were a very good channel of communication, through which we could discuss issues with them. We also invited them to write to us,'' recalls Dr Choi.

In the beginning, the main magazine work was done in rented space in Kowloon's St Andrew's Centre. The two core founders, Dr Choi, a medical doctor, and writer Josephine So (who died of cancer in 1982), wrote and edited in their spare time, helped by about a dozen volunteers who shared the same goal of producing something meaningful for students to read.

Indeed, no one would have expected a small magazine to become a profit-making publisher, an audio-video production house and a youth organisation owning a 16-storey building on the borders of Tsim Sha Tsui and Yau Ma Tei.

''We always work under tight budgetary constraints because of the constant expansion of our work,'' says Dr Choi.

The group bought its office building in 1985, when Hong Kong was beginning to worry about its scheduled return to China.

''Of course, we didn't have enough money to buy the block. We appealed for help. Within a short time, the money came along,'' said Dr Choi.

He says the purchase signifies the group's commitment to not just the youth, but to the whole of Hong Kong.

And he feels comfortable with the organisation's ''aggressive approach''.

''Much needs to be done. We are only contributing a little. We can never do it all.'' Teachers, parents and social workers cannot, without outside help, develop a strong character in every child, he says.

''It's best to have two-way communication. The young people can write to us, phone us, or talk to our counsellors,'' says Dr Choi, whose deeply rooted Christian faith encouraged him to commit himself to full-time youth work.

A year after its flagship magazine entered the market, Breakthrough was approached by Commercial Radio to produce a radio show for young people. Its format has changed several times since then, but the show goes on.

A counselling centre takes up one whole floor in Breakthrough's office block.

''Whatever their cultural or social background, all youths are vulnerable to similar emotional and family problems. But today in Hong Kong, they tend to have a weaker sense of security, poorer self-image,'' Dr Choi says.

Along with that are poorer personal and family relationships, he adds.

In recent years, Breakthrough has published between 30 and 40 books aimed at people of different age groups.

The publishing business only helps finance a small portion of overall expenses, including salaries for 130 staff.

''Revenue from our books, magazines and videos cover about 50 per cent of our expenses. The rest is financed by donations by individuals, churches and sponsorships,'' Dr Choi says.

Breakthrough supplies local television and youth organisations with video productions on thought-provoking topics ranging from Asian youth to the disintegration of Eastern Europe. The latest deal is with Cable TV to present a series of programmes dealing with different topics, among them environmental protection.

After 20 years, Dr Choi remains as convinced as ever of the value of his work.

''It gives me great satisfaction. Young people can be moulded more easily, and have great capacity to learn.

''We have done a lot, in terms of quantity. But it's difficult to judge the actual impact of our work. There are all sorts of negative influences from the media. They offset the effect of some of what we do,'' he adds.

But at least there's recognition from the Government, which led to the granting of a 8,700 square foot site for the construction of a youth village.

When completed in 1995, the Ma On Shan site will become a venue for youth camps, offer exposure to information technology, outdoor activities and even provide refuge for troubled teenagers - all managed by Breakthrough.

''We have already started recruiting staff, both in Hong Kong and overseas. The response is good. Many people seem to be interested. Everything should be okay,'' Dr Choi says.