Top guns: Hong Kong's thriving business in replica weapons that are still classed as 'toys'
Kwong Wah Street in Mong Kok is known to enthusiasts as Cheung Gai - Gun Street in Cantonese. In the warren of side lanes and covered arcades that radiate from the street, stores bear names such as Gun Heaven and Top Gun. Shop windows are crowded with rows of pistols and walls inside are festooned with sniper rifles and sub-machine guns alongside posters of American soldiers and Hong Kong police.
Even on a week day, the stores are full of people of all ages. An older man inspects an American-issue rifle from the second world war; young men take turns feeling the weight of an AK-47. Just ask and shop assistants will cheerfully show you to the back of the shop, where they keep the handheld grenade launchers; one store even offers what looks like an RPG-7, an anti-tank missile launcher.
Beyond the press of shoppers, two young boys, no older than 11, loiter outside a convenience store. One is wearing camouflage pants and at their feet are two block boxes instantly recognisable as rifle cases.
Of course, none of the weapons is real. Every item, from the rifles to rocket launchers, is an airsoft version - replicas that are designed to use electricity or compressed gas to shoot projectiles (usually tiny plastic beads called BBs). Typically used in war games and target practice, they are classified as toys in Hong Kong.
Still, you could be forgiven for mistaking them for the real thing - airsoft manufacturers spare no expense to make their weapons as real as possible. They are made of metal, have the weight of a real gun and look, feel, and work almost exactly like regular firearms. As much as is possible, the airsoft guns even fire like real weapons.
At WGC, one of biggest global suppliers of airsoft gear, showroom manager Brandon Fung says: "People who play with real steel are trying all their best to lower the recoil, but with toy guns we are trying our best to increase the recoil."
The greater the knock-back when an airsoft gun is discharged, the more authentic the feel. With the focus on realism, expensive materials and craftsmanship, airsoft replicas are not cheap. You can buy an airsoft gun for about HK$1,000, but some high-end versions can set you back more than HK$20,000. In fact, airsoft guns are often more expensive than actual guns.
On Cheung Gai, a replica AK-47 goes for HK$1,200, but, according to a 2007 study by Geneva-based research project Small Arms Survey, the actual assault rifles are available for as little as US$40 in Asia and US$12 in Africa.
Airsoft weapons weren't always like this. A decade ago, most were made in Japan; generally of plastic and looked more like toys. Then an increasing range began to emerge from manufacturers in Taiwan, where consumers wanted the imitations to be as realistic-looking as possible. Today, even Japan is creating ultra-realistic toy weapons. Tokyo Marui, a Japanese airsoft gun manufacturer, has its company motto emblazoned on coffee mugs; it may be in broken English but the meaning is clear: "To the real thing as possible".
Airsoft, a sport that involves players trying to eliminate opponents by hitting them with pellets fired from replica guns, is popular around the world. Suppliers count Britain, Germany, Russia and the US among major markets, but the pursuit has become an especially big in Asia.
Fong says this is because people have almost no access to real guns in jurisdictions such as Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
"In Hong Kong it is so hard for us to even touch real steel, so more and more people buy toy guns," he says.
Stanley Leung, a shop manager at eHobby Asia, one the city's biggest suppliers, suggests the fascination with airsoft is also because Hong Kong has never had its own military. Many people are drawn to the glamour of being a soldier, playing tactical and war games with airsoft is the closest you can get to being in combat in Hong Kong.
It may sound like a macho obsession, but you would be wrong in assuming airsoft is primarily a male pursuit. Despite a plethora of airsoft adverts featuring impractically clothed women that are clearly aimed at male customers, vendors estimate that 30 per cent or more of local players are women.
Enthusiasts can be roughly divided into three categories: those who enjoy target practice, those who play war games and collectors. Collectors spend big bucks on precise replicas of historic firearms. Weapons related to the US Navy are the most popular, especially rifles from the second world war, Leung says.
For target shooters and war gamers, there are venues all around Hong Kong. Indoor arenas tend to be converted warehouses where people play what are called "close-quarter battles". The largest indoor arena, Impact Force in Diamond Hill, takes up 35,000 square feet and features three playing zones based on the Amazon jungle, Cambodia, and something called the Lost City which combines ancient Chinese and Egyptian motifs.
Many war gamers, however, seem to prefer outdoor arenas such as those in Sai Kung, Tuen Mun and Yuen Long.
Christopher Hay, an English tutor, got his first airsoft gun when he was just 11 years old - a gift from his mother.
"It's great exercise and it's super fun," he says. "It feels very realistic when you start to apply real-life war tactics to the game."
Hay also recently started conducting airsoft retreats with his co-workers and says it has been a great team-building exercise. Like most enthusiasts, he is keen to emphasise how safe the hobby is.
"Getting shot is not as bad as it sounds, it stings for about a minute but you usually forget all about it … The pain from getting shot is bearable about 80 per cent of the time."
As for the other 20 per cent, Hay says: "Last time I got shot three times right on the same spot on my forehead and it started bleeding … that hurt like hell."
Many manufacturers and retailers encourage users to treat their airsoft equipment as carefully as actual weapons and always use protective gear in case of accidental misfiring.
"My friend took off his goggles - only for a brief moment - but still managed to get shot in the eye," Hay recalls. "Luckily, it was from far away and didn't do any serious damage; just left him in pain for about 10 minutes."
Hong Kong gun laws are famously strict, so it can be a surprise to find a community of dedicated gun enthusiasts flourishing here. But even so-called toy guns are closely regulated.
All airsoft guns must have a muzzle energy no greater than two joules of kinetic energy. By comparison, paintball guns, the most popular form of simulated weapons in the US, have between 10 and 13 joules of muzzle energy. Anything more powerful could be considered a controlled weapon under Hong Kong law and get the owner into real trouble: a fine of up to HK$100,000 and a prison sentence of up to 14 years. To be on the safe side many airsoft guns sold in Hong Kong are significantly under the two joule limit.
The other obvious danger with airsoft guns, especially now that they are mostly indistinguishable from real guns, is that owners may use them to intimidate people into doing something against their will, such as giving up their money in robberies. To guard against this, the US government requires toy guns to have a bright orange tip on their muzzle.
Because real guns are such a rarity in Hong Kong, there is no equivalent regulation. In any case, most vendors say that this danger is exaggerated. "The only people who can be robbed [with an airsoft gun] would be stupid people," says Fung. "You can see from the gun, especially the barrel that it's a toy."
But the police disagree. In 2013, a spokesman says, there were six robberies staged with pistol-like objects, a category that includes airsoft guns, but none with actual firearms. In 2012, there were nine instances involving pistol-like objects; last year, there were three.
Walk around Cheung Gai and it's clear many Hongkongers are enthralled with guns. At one shop, a female sales assistant asks an American customer if he has any real guns at home. When the man says he has a collection of more than 30 guns, the saleswoman offers an open-mouthed grin. "Wow," she says, eyes wide.
That's a kind of fascination, however, that Fung doesn't understand: "I'm quite afraid of real steel. Toy guns are very safe. Real guns make me feel a bit [in danger]. I'm an airsoft lover but not a real steel lover."
A beginner's guide for would-be urban warriors.
Where to get your kit:
WGC, room 1407, 14/F Park-in Commercial Centre, 56 Dundas St, Mong Kok, tel: 2783 8300, wgcshop.com
eHobby Asia, B/F Lai Sun Commercial Centre, 680 Cheung Sha Wan Rd, Cheung Sha Wan, tel: 3165 1541
Where to play:
Impact Force, CQB, 25 Tai Yau St, Diamond Hill, tel: 2574 9008, impactforcecqb.com
Hong Kong's largest indoor arena.
Gulf War Area, DD 395 Tin Fu Tsai, Tai Lam Chung, Tuen Mun, tel: 2410 8166, gulfwargame.com
A large and popular outdoor arena.