Parks and playgrounds play an important role in young people's social lives, providing them with a place to hang out with friends. But an increasing number of people feel they are unwelcome in public spaces because they are always under the watchful eyes of security guards.
In March, Hong Kong Christian Service released a survey on young people's experiences of using public facilities. Of the 800-plus respondents, more than 60 per cent said security guards had kept a watchful eye on them or approached them to ask what they were doing.
Service supervisor Phoebe Chu Lai-ying said: "We often hear people complain about being disturbed when hanging out in parks or playgrounds, so we decided to do an in-depth study on the issue. We talked to 40 students about their experiences in public spaces, and found that the social lives of young people were affected because they feel unwelcome in parks. Unable to hang out in parks with their friends, they ended up by themselves at home."
Ar Chao, a Form Four student said he and his friends gathered on a basketball court, waiting for their friend to get a ball so they could play a little three-on-three after school. As soon as they sat down on the bench, a security guard came to watch them. "We were just sitting and chatting and a security guard came to check on us as if we were going to do something bad. It seems that whenever people see a crowd of students, they think it means trouble. It makes us feel unwelcome in the park, but where can we go to hang out, especially for most of us who don't have much pocket money?" says Ar Chao.
Step Yuen Kin-yan, a social worker from the Christian service, accused park management of discriminating against young people.
"We asked some security guards what was wrong with young people gathering in the park and what they had done that had caught their attention," she says. "Their reply was usually: 'Our supervisor asked us to have a look.' I think the managers of public spaces believe the stereotype that young people getting together means trouble. Lots of elderly people gather in the park to play chess and chat, and facility managers never seem to have a problem with them. This is a clear example of a double standard. Young people need a space to meet up and talk; it is an important aspect of their social life, but society itself is stopping it from happening."
Yuen also thinks parks and playgrounds are mismanaged, with rules to prevent users singing and dancing.
"The government has invested a fortune in music and art development, but the local art scene never seems to be as vibrant as other places, because the government lacks insight on how to nurture talent," says Yuen.
"In Hong Kong, you need to pay for a karaoke room to sing or book a studio to play music and dance. Why can't young people do these things in public spaces?"
Ted Tam Chung-hoi, assistant executive director (Outreaching Services) for Youth Outreach, agreed that public resources could be better used to suit the needs of young people. He also puts the blame on the government.
"Not all young people are interested in ballet dancing, piano or basketball," Tam says. "The government needs to provide specific spaces for people to enjoy things like street dancing and skateboarding." These young people are talented artists and athletes that the government has left behind."
Tam hopes the government can build more facilities such as Youth Outreach's The Hangout for young people to dance and play music without having to book a studio. "There is only one hangout, at Sai Wan Ho, in the entire city," he says. "Every district needs to have its own hangout."