Polly Ng Po-yu has cast aside her karaoke microphone for a more traditional form of entertainment - mahjong. The IT assistant is among a growing number of young Hongkongers flocking to clubs for fun nights on the tiles. Mahjong clubs offer a great way to socialise with colleagues, says 26-year-old Ng. 'It's better than karaoke because not only is it cheaper, it's also more fun as you play together. In karaoke, only one person gets to sing and other people can be quite bored,' she says. The new generation of venues is casting off the seedy image associated with old-style mahjong parlours. While gamblers frequent the city's 66 licensed parlours that operate from noon to midnight, office workers, students and families can enjoy round-the-clock social games, meals and karaoke-box comforts at 300 mahjong clubs. Mostly based in Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok, the clubs provide clean, comfortable private rooms with en suite bathroom, TV and plenty of food and drink. Admission is restricted to people above 18. Such venues have mushroomed in response to a demand for hassle-free mahjong entertainment, says Alex Ko Kin-luen, chairman of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Mahjong Shops Association. Increasing numbers of mahjong lovers are willing to go out and spend money in the economic boom, he says, but 'these clubs are for socialising rather than gambling, so they're very different from mahjong parlours'. Mahjong clubs are licensed as recreational outlets under the Clubs Ordinance in the same way as karaoke bars and internet cafes. While mahjong parlours are legal gambling venues that make money by taking a cut from customers' winnings, the clubs simply provide mahjong tables, tiles and chips. 'These clubs are part-restaurants,' says Ko. 'And you have to bring your own partners, unlike in parlours where patrons usually go alone and the main objective is to gamble.' The clubs offer more sophisticated menus, hotel-like services and value-for-money packages. KC City, one of the most established mahjong club chains, has restaurant outlets specialising in western cuisine and also offers snooker and internet services. Two-year-old Cheung Kam Recreation Club, which is in a mall basement in Tsim Sha Tsui East, serves Japanese food, and caters to office workers during the week and families on Sundays. For between HK$100 and HK$400, depending on the menu, patrons can enjoy a few games together and forget about the hassles of entertaining guests at home. Hong Kong people are less inclined to shuffle tiles in public these days, says Denny Ho Kwok-leung, an associate professor of applied social science at the Polytechnic University. 'Now people are more privacy conscious and only invite guests for games at home during holidays and on festive occasions,' he says. Decor upgrades help draw more trendy patrons to the clubs. After revamping some of its branches, KC City found that half its clientele in the Mong Kok area were under 30, including university students. 'They usually come late at night after a day of classes, shopping and other activities like karaoke. But mahjong is still one of their favourite pastimes,' says Andy Lam Kin-wa, manager of KC City's Jordan branch. However, gambling parlours are also sprucing up to stay in business. In the Yau Tsim Mong area, many once dingy, smoke-filled joints have cleaned up their act to attract a younger clientele. Ho Kong Mahjong Company spent HK$10 million to renovate its Portland Street premises two years ago. Now its customers are greeted with hot towels and offered unlimited food and drinks served by uniformed staff. 'It's not like what you think any more,' says Ho Kong manager Eddie Ho Kwok-leung. 'Those days of crime and violence are long gone. We want to adopt a higher degree of transparency and a more sophisticated image. We want people to come to us even if all they have is half an hour. It's just a form of recreation rather than gambling.' Some parlours have hired university graduates as standby players to make up the quartet needed for a game. Even so, parlours are well down from their peak of 144 outlets 20 years ago and industry insiders say the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority is tough on issuing permits for new operations. 'They apply strict rules to control the business because the government feels they should not condone gambling,' says Ko. The parlours are also not as profitable as they were 20 years ago. 'We're struggling to survive because people have so many entertainment options such as internet cafes or games arcades,' Eddie Ho says. For gamblers, 'there's football betting, computer games, and they can go to Macau', he says. But the parlours have found new high-stakes clientele from the mainland, where gambling is banned. Operators of parlours such as Ho Kong say they have increased their revenue by 30 per cent by offering the mainland variation of the game which is easier and quicker to play. 'It's interesting that while many Hong Kong people go to the mainland for massage and karaoke, mahjong is the only thing that the mainland can't offer and it's to our advantage,' says Ho. Mahjong is a unique institution, says the Polytechnic University's Denny Ho. 'It's one of the few ancient games that remain popular today. There's a great universal appeal and camaraderie to this game. And where else can you find a game everyone wants to play?' That's why he suggests the age restriction be lifted in clubs. 'My nephew is allowed to play the game during recess at his high school in Canada,' he says. 'If the western world can treat it like a recreational game, why can't we? As long as gambling isn't involved, I don't see why children should be barred from those clubs. 'You can observe a lot more about a person during a mahjong game than a dinner gathering because people are likely to reveal more about themselves in an informal, highly interactive atmosphere.'