On Thursday evenings in Fung Shing Street, on the outskirts of Diamond Hill, in Kowloon, you might hear the unmistakable sound of drums and bagpipes being played.
Once a month the Hong Kong Sea Cadets Corps meet here at their headquarters, where they parade in their smart naval uniforms complete with rifles and a marching band.
The organisation, which was originally affiliated to the British Royal Navy, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Today, there are about 2,000 sea cadets in Hong Kong attached to 30 units around the city.
Given its long history, it’s surprising that only a few people know about the organisation.
“My friends at school don’t know about it,” says Keithan Yip Kin-lam, now 16, who joined when he was 11 years old.
Those who have joined the corps, however, are glad they did hear about the organisation.
“The corps is my number one priority,” says Singh Baljeet, 17, who is a part of the guard of honour.
A lot has changed in the past five decades since the organisation was founded. Now, girls march with boys, the rifles aren’t functional (although they still look pretty realistic), and you can see the occasional Sikh turban like Baljeet’s among the uniforms.
Still, the unpaid volunteers who run the organisation say it’s getting tougher to find new recruits, as young people feel increasingly pressured by their studies, and are distracted by the lure of social media and online games.
Regional commander, Lieutenant-Commander Ponthey Yip, has been a member of the organisation practically since the beginning of the corps, and he thinks the sea cadets are more important than ever.
“From being a sea cadet, young people can learn about teamwork and leadership as well as problem-solving and responsibility,” he says.
Millie Cheung Wing-ki, 20, studies Chinese language at Chinese University and still holds a cadet membership, though she confesses she was a very reluctant recruit.
“My father pushed me to join and I admit I didn’t want to at first,” she recalls. But she says her personality has changed a lot since, and is no longer as shy as she was before.
In addition to the weekly meetings, the cadets learn new skills at weekends and during school holidays. There are regular camps where cadets can learn canoeing, windsurfing and seamanship at the Sea Cadet centres for nautical training and water sports activities in Stanley Bay or Sai Kung.
Talking to some of the cadets, it turns out that there’s more to the programme than parading in smart uniforms and learning about sea survival techniques, sailing and navigation. Many admit that one of the biggest appeals of being a sea cadet is the opportunity to go on frequent exchange trips, which allows them to travel and experience adventures overseas.
Athena Fong Hau-yi, 19, is undergoing a one-year instructor training course. She says it’s the travel opportunities offered by the subsidised cadet exchange schemes which she enjoys the most.
Over the past few years she has been able to travel to Portsmouth and Weymouth in England, Vancouver Island in Canada, Beijing, and New York, Boston and Newport in the US. Athena says it has been an invaluable experience for her as she considers her future career plans.
“I have broadened my horizons, I know how to get on with people, and my language skills have improved,” she says.
Above all, Keithan likes the fact that everyone in the corps is treated equally regardless of their gender, age or background.
“Once you join the sea cadets, it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor or what background you come from, you are just another sea cadet, but you have a sense of direction,” he says.