Elegantly dressed and opulently coiffured, four girls sit around a table eating dainty pastries and sipping tea. They giggle coquettishly in their puffy dresses embellished with lace cuffs, tulle accents and oversized bows. The scene could be from an animated version of 18th-century Versailles but, in fact, we are in the Hit the Road café, in Causeway Bay, and these girls – blond wigs and vivid contact lenses notwith­standing – are most definitely Chinese.

Kat Wong, 25, Sammi Wong Kwok-yee, 31, Clare Lau, 26, and Angela Leung Yuen-ting, 30, are devotees of kawaii fashion. Their signature style, known as “Lolita”, hails from the Tokyo youth-culture hub of Harajuku.

The brands and magazines that gave rise to Lolita fashion knew that the Vladimir Nabokov novel from which the style takes its name featured a young, pretty Western girl, but perhaps not that it contained themes of paedophilia. The book itself played no role in informing the look, the aesthetic of which is inspired instead by the 18th-century French Rococo movement.

Having made its mark on the international fashion scene, the style can be found from Los Angeles to London, and even Paris, where captivated girls buy dresses from Japanese labels such as Angelic Pretty and Baby, the Stars Shine Bright.

“I love the details,” says Leung, who first came across Lolita fashion on the internet a decade ago. Since then, she has been an active member of Hong Kong’s Lolita community, hosting events known as “Lolita tea parties” in a range of venues, including The Cityview hotel, in Yau Ma Tei.

“It is really beautiful and gorgeous,” she says. “Before I knew about Lolita, I dressed in trousers and shorts, but then I started to wear dresses – it’s very pretty.”

There are some 500 Lolitas in Hong Kong, according to Leung, a surprising number given that the fashion remains niche even in Tokyo. “But some of them are active and some are inactive,” she points out. “I know some Lolitas and they will dress up one or two times in a year. For me, it is one or two times a month.”

Goth queen: blogger puts a subculture up front

LOLITA FASHION IS JUST one aspect of kawaii culture being embraced in Hong Kong, which has seen installations by Japan-influenced artists in its shopping malls and a proliferation of kawaii characters.

Similar in meaning to the English word “cute”, kawaii references physical characteristics common in babies and animals that provoke feelings of love and the instinct to care for and protect. In Japan, the aesthetic’s influence has been felt across creative disciplines, from fashion and art to design and typography. Its distinctive qualities of roundness and soft, pastel colours are present in archi­tecture, food and, of course, the country’s ubiquitous saccharine cartoon characters.

Since the post-war period, popular manga has portrayed a female ideal that is sweet and endearing but at the same time strong of spirit. With the boom in cute idols from the 1980s onwards, girls not only wanted adorable products, they wanted to be kawaii themselves. In Harajuku, a centre for alternative style, independent labels sprang up to meet the demand. Many in Japan today would rather be described as cute than beautiful or elegant.

The three most outlandish shows at Tokyo Fashion Week

As frivolous as a strawberry-shaped bus stop might sound, in Japan, cuteness can determine the success or failure of almost any product. According to the Bank of Japan, Kumamon, the gormless bear mascot for Kumamoto prefecture, generated an estimated 124.4 billion yen (HK$8.7 billion) in tourism and merchandising revenue for the region in 2013-14. Kawaii mascots have been adopted by organisations as unlikely as the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Force and the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has even appointed Lolita models as kawaii ambassadors – the most well-known being Misako Aoki – to tour the world promoting Japan at expos and J-pop events. Alongside sushi, samurais and ninjas, kawaii is one of Japan’s most recognisable cultural exports and the term was entered into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2011.

A stroll through Causeway Bay confirms the popularity of Japanese street style among young Hong Kong girls. Tokyo brands such as Liz Lisa and Cecil McBee are well represented, and bookstores carry a range of Japanese fashion magazines aimed at teenagers, such as Popteen and ViVi. Japanese cosmetics on offer include fake eyelashes and pastel blushes, sold at stores such as Sasa and the aptly named 759 Kawaiiland.

For Kat, Sammi, Angela and Clare, who all travel frequently (each visits Japan at least twice a year), Hong Kong is one of the best places in the world to be a Lolita enthusiast.

“Most Hong Kong people are looking down and playing with their mobile phones,” Leung says. “But they are also opened-minded to other fashions.”

This is not necessarily the case elsewhere. At the 40th anni­versary celebrations of Hello Kitty, held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles over a weekend in late 2014, enthusiasts complained they often experienced verbal abuse when dressed in kawaii costume. And when Kumamiki, a popular YouTube personality from Harajuku, was asked at the event why kawaii culture is so prolific in Japan, she answered, “Maybe it’s because Japan is … safe?”

“When I travelled to Canada wearing Lolita,” says Leung, “I thought the people would be more open-minded than in Hong Kong, but it is not so. Most of them dress in just trousers, and if they see you in Lolita they will take your photo without permission. It’s the same in China.

“I am lucky to live in Hong Kong.”

ALONGSIDE THE FASHION, just as it is in Japan, kawaii design is one of the most visible aspects of cute culture in Hong Kong. The K11 shopping mall, in Tsim Sha Tsui, is one of several to feature character installations; themed restaurants such as Pompompurin have appeared; and Gudetama (the popular egg-yolk cartoon character) have popped up promoting super-cute café cuisine.

By far kawaii’s most popular character, Hello Kitty’s bulbous white head can be spotted on everything from shopping bags and pyjamas to toasters and laptop computers. The cute kitten’s appeal has been attributed to both its lack of a mouth – expressionless, the face offers a wide range of emotions – and a simple design that licensees can use on everything from aeroplanes to aerobics equipment.

Perhaps the best known of Hong Kong’s kawaii-themed eateries is the Hello Kitty Chinese Cuisine restaurant, in Jordan, where the kitten adorns chairs, lanterns and bamboo baskets. Even the food cleverly integrates the feline design, its mouthless visage depicted on a variety of buns and dumplings.

“I spent a lot of time and a lot of money,” explains owner-manager Maurice Man Kwong. “It took 1½ years, because we are not just talking about one piece of merchandise, we are talking about a whole dining concept.”

Hello Kitty has had a presence in Hong Kong for almost 40 years and it’s not uncommon for three generations of a family to dine at the restaurant. “The kids like Hello Kitty because their mothers like Hello Kitty,” he says.

Talking to Man, it’s clear a sense of escapism plays a big part in the appeal of kawaii. “In Hong Kong, people are so tense – most are not happy,” he says. “Everything is so expensive in Hong Kong, they work all day long and there is so little resting time.” Man believes Hello Kitty’s simple design imparts a sense of peace.

“Luckily, I have this chance to do something for the Hong Kong people,” he says. “I can help people have a short moment of happiness.”

Top 6 Places to Explore in Tokyo After Dark

In Japan, the psychological and therapeutic benefits of kawaii are widely recognised. Cute robots resembling baby harp seals, known as Paro, are used in day-care centres for the elderly across the country and were deployed in rescue centres in the Tohoku region after the 2011 tsunami.

“Humans have a lot of memories,” says Paro designer Takanori Shibata, talking at his lab in Tsukuba Science City, about 50km northeast of Tokyo. “Interacting with Paro is like going through an old medicine chest with various drawers. The brain is invigorated, and the process is close to remini­scence. Not all memories are good, but by remembering things, the soul may be calmed.”

The desire to unwind is a motivation for Hong Kong’s Lolitas, too, Leung included.

“Dressing as a Lolita releases pressure from work. My work as a project executive is very serious, I need to work in detail, and rush the timeline for every project. When you dress as a Lolita and walk in the street, you feel more relaxed. There is a different dimension. It is a different personality to my work life.”

Leung’s three friends all lead double lives. Each has two Facebook accounts – and all agree it is their Lolita identity that represents their “real” self. Their colleagues are mostly unaware that they dress as elaborate marionettes at the weekend. Sammi Wong, a civil engineer who wears typical work attire during the week, says that just thinking about her make-up and coordinating her dresses provides an “escape from reality”.

FOR OTHERS IN Hong Kong, kawaii offers more than a diversion; it is a way of challenging the status quo.

Sheema Sherry, 25, arrived in Hong Kong from Indonesia with her engineer husband two years ago and the couple have settled in Tuen Mun. What began with her husband encouraging her to start dressing in pastels eventually led to her integrating kawaii fashion into her everyday dress as a Muslim. Today she describes herself as a “kawaii hijabi”.

Why China singing sensation Shila Amzah prefers life in Hong Kong

Through her blog, www.sheemasherry.com, which details her love of what she calls “powerful and indepen­dent” char­acters, such as Japanese anime’s Sailor Moon and “girly princesses”, she has become an unlikely role model for Muslim youth.

Sherry dresses in pinks and purples, her hijab – the headscarf worn by Muslim women – accessorised with flowers and ribbons framing her pink-blushed cheeks.

“What makes me happy is that people even interview me on radicalism, because they see me and say, ‘You are a Muslim and you look so warm, kind and cheerful. You don’t represent anyone’s idea of radicalism,’” Sherry says. “I didn’t know I could make people see Muslims in a better light.”

Her sweet ensembles are presented on her blog while her Instagram account, which features photos taken by her husband, has more than 5,000 followers. It’s a humanising window into the life of a regular Muslim millennial who enjoys fashion and make-up. Comments left by visitors are almost entirely positive. “You’re so cute and inspirational,” writes one fan.

Sherry says that dressing kawaii has ultimately made her life better. “I have been more positive and I have started to care more than before. I have started to know more about myself. I learned to know myself – what people want to see from me and what makes me happy, too.”