Would you offer strangers a hug to brighten their lives? The idea, which started in Sydney, Australia three years ago, is catching on in Hong Kong, mainly among young people. An idealistic few, keen to bring human contact back to isolated urban lives, have been staging Free Hugs events across the city over the past few months. The next takes place on Sunday, when interior designer Brandy Yuen Ching-fung and other volunteers will gather in Mong Kok and Causeway Bay to reach out to strangers. Like many converts to the cause, Yuen, 31, was inspired by a crusader using the pseudonym Juan Mann (one man). A video of Mann dispensing hugs in the Sydney CBD posted on YouTube just over a year ago sparked an international drive (freehugscampaign.org) and similar action in cities such as Chicago, Geneva, Singapore, Taipei and Tokyo. 'There's no dialogue, only music in the video, but it's touching. I had to give it a try,' says Yuen, a member of indie band Libido. 'It's the most audacious thing I've done.' Natasha Unaphum, who offered free hugs as part of an English secondary school project, says: 'It struck a chord with me because I saw that there's not a lot of interaction between people.' Unaphum, now studying at a US college, adds: 'They're listening to their iPods, talking on the phone, or just speed walking. I was inspired by Mann's philosophy.' Chinese people tend to be more reserved and less physically demonstrative than westerners, so it takes considerable nerve and determination to be a hugger, especially when Hongkongers are often in too much of a hurry to have time for others. 'It's sad people are too busy making a living and do not pay attention to what's going on around them,' says Benny Yuen Chun-wai, a 20-year-old design graduate inspired to launch his own hugging foray in Causeway Bay in April. The two Yuens are not related. Benny acts on his own while Brandy now organises monthly hugathons with a group of about 20 people. Both volunteers also are learning that they can't stereotype others. Venturing into Sham Shui Po because he believes 'people there are most in need of support and help', Benny was surprised by a tough-looking spectator. 'I thought he was a chain-smoking junkie,' he says. 'Then, out of the blue, he said to me: 'Hey kid, you're doing well. I'll join you once I'm done with this cigarette.' How could I judge him by his appearance? It's people like him who keep me going and that's when I realised my efforts would not go down the drain.' Brandy has had memorable encounters, too. 'A woman came up to me and other volunteers and thanked each of us, then held us and wiped the sweat off our faces.' But the campaigners must also put up with crude remarks from the occasional mean-spirited spectator. 'I'm getting used to being called crazy and silly,' says Brandy, recalling how one woman taunted him, suggesting he pay her for a hug. Passers-by are often suspicious of their motives, so female volunteers are accepted by both sexes more easily. 'Girls make more popular huggers; they can hug both men and women ... some men don't want to hug other men,' says Brandy. Margo Chiu Lok-hang, who joined Brandy's events three months ago, doesn't worry about being groped. 'I just keep it in perspective,' says the 18-year-old design student. 'My mother is very supportive. And you can always tell when someone has bad motives.' Brandy adds: 'Gropers dare not try anything in public; it's too open. Besides, we look out for each other.' Huggers have devised their own code to keep their activities above board: no giving out phone numbers or other personal information. The two Yuens have revealed their identities and contact information, but say that's only to help publicise their actions. 'I don't want to bring any attention to myself, but if what I do can lead people to rethink their relationship with others and reflect on their lives, then it's more than enough for me,' says Benny. 'I am glad some kids have started to do it in schools. It's hard to pick up hugging if you're grown up, but it's good to start from an early age,' says Brandy. Since a few people in Shanghai were detained for public hugging last November, Brandy has been careful to avoid trouble with the authorities. 'I once staged it at an MTR station and was told to stop because it's a private area. Now, I restrict our activities to public spaces and keep the number of people to fewer than 10 so police won't charge us with illegal assembly,' he says. Not everyone embraces the idea of promoting love and understanding through public hugging. 'I think it's going too far. It's too staged,' says Ricky Yau Cheuk-kwan, a truck driver who saw Brandy's group in action in Mong Kok. Although well intentioned, the drive is unlikely to win widespread support because many people are uptight about their bodies and are taught to be wary of strangers, says cultural commentator Bottle Shiu Ka-chun. 'Hugging means an invasion of personal space and makes them uncomfortable.' And with regular campaigns warning the public to be on guard against street fraud, it's not surprising that people mistrust strangers, says Shiu, a social work lecturer at Baptist University. The campaigners have to take cultural differences into account. But despite having hugged hundreds of strangers, Chiu and Brandy haven't been able to extend their embrace to beloved family members. 'It's very hard because you see them every day,' says Brandy. 'I'm still persuading myself; I can't muster the courage yet.' Benny has tried to adapt his drive to local sensibilities by shouting slogans, setting himself apart from other huggers who usually use signs and stay silent. 'I feel I have to be aggressive so people know what it's all about,' he says. Despite criticism of the movement as a passing fad, local campaigners plan to stick it out. 'We know society won't change just because we do this maybe 20 times, but we'll try our best,' says Brandy. 'I won't give up easily,' says Benny. 'When you hug someone, you put a smile on the faces of onlookers. The joy is infectious.' Shiu shares their view that there's something powerful about a hug that can't be replicated with a pat on the shoulder. 'At times, I long to be hugged, especially when I feel alone in the crowd,' he says. 'People have emotional needs and a human touch is sometimes better than a thousand words.'