AFTER A HARD day at work, Carmen Tsang Ka-man and her friend Cheung Hei-yan are looking forward to some fun. Instead of shopping, going to the cinema or a karaoke club, the duo head for an internet cafe in Causeway Bay. It's not usually a hangout for young women. Local internet cafes have a bad reputation as breeding grounds for crime. Many operate primarily as online gaming centres, and the typical setup featuring packed rows of computers, dim lighting, air thick with cigarette smoke and wall-to-wall noise from virtual battles, puts off most girls. But in the past year, some major operators have undertaken radical makeovers in select outlets to attract female customers to venues that were once the preserve of the male gamers. I-One, which runs the cybercafe that Tsang and Cheung visit, is one. 'The setting's really comfortable,' says Tsang, a 21-year-old merchandiser who began frequenting the place last year. 'My friends and I come here to play online games together, surf the internet and also to chit-chat.' Cheung, a 22-year-old sales assistant, didn't use to visit internet cafes and would only play online games at home. 'My impression of internet cafes was quite negative; they seemed shady and the customers were mostly men,' she says. 'But it's different now. Some internet cafes are smart and have nice decor.' In the VIP room they've booked, for example, there are comfy sofas, flowers and bright curtains that frame a view of bustling Yee Wo Street below. I-One director Alfred Chan Wing-kei says the renovations are partly influenced by changes in the gaming business. 'More games have been developed recently that target female players. There is a demand,' says Chan. But the drive to lure female customers is also vital for survival. The number of internet cafes in Hong Kong has fallen from 312 in 2003 to 209 in April this year as fierce competition forces many operators out of business. Expanding the customer base is one way for cybercafes to boost revenue. While gaming remains a male-dominated market, the culture is evolving as more young women take up online and video games - and business is responding. That Sony released a model of its PlayStation Portable in pink is one sign. Game developers are also taking note, incorporating elements in their products that will appeal to female customers. Among the popular additions is Audition Online, a multiplayer game similar to the old arcade attraction, Dance Dance Revolution. Rather than jump around an electronically linked floor pad as in Revolution, the gamers' fingers dance over the keyboard to create moves in synch with the music. Cheung and Tsang are fans of the South Korean-developed online game. 'It's fun. We can alter the image of the characters and buy hip outfits for them,' says Tsang. O2 Jam, which is similar to Beatmania, is also a hit with female patrons. Gamers can select different characters, instruments (guitar, bass, drum and keyboard), musical genres (from ballads to techno, hip hop, funk and rock), and jam with other players in the virtual world. M System is another internet cafe operator tapping the potential of the female market. M System director Eddy Chen Lung-shing says the company has turned four of its 21 outlets into non-smoking venues to attract women. 'We want to set up a more secure and pleasant environment for them,' he says. Since most women don't like noisy places, the speakers at each computer are set at a lower volume to give a quieter setting, and the lighting is brighter. Such renovations can make a big difference, says Chan. 'The ratio of female customers was really low a year ago' because they didn't feel safe in internet cafes, he says. But since redecorating and setting up non-smoking sections in some outlets, the chain has attracted twice the number of women. Non-smoking gamers may bring in another revenue stream as a new law kicks in next year requiring all work places, including entertainment venues, to be smoke-free. 'We're not sure about the impact of the smoking ban, but it's time to tap the female market as women are mostly non-smokers,' says Chan, who hopes to change the poor image of internet cafes in Hong Kong. Since the first cybercafe opened in London in 1994, such outlets have evolved from merely offering a service to surf the web to providing high-speed internet connections for multiplayer online gaming. And that role is still changing. 'When we first started six years ago, [the cybercafe] used to be a place solely for people to play online games,' Chan says. 'Now about 10 per cent of our customers aren't here for the gaming. Some are here to work, or browse the internet, and it's increasingly a place for people to spend time with their friends.' Christy Siu Choi-ching is among the new breed of customer. Although not a gaming enthusiast, the 17-year-old student hangs out at a cybercafe in her free time. '[My friends and I] seldom play online games. We only surf the internet and use the instant-messaging service. We share funny stories and video clips found on the internet and have some good laughs.' Christy first visited an internet cafe a few months ago after her home computer developed problems. She is now a regular visitor. 'Even if my computer is fixed, I'll drop in. The price is affordable, and it's better than karaoke,' she says. 'I used to think that visiting internet cafes when you have a computer at home made no sense. But now it has become another entertainment spot where I can meet my friends.'