Underage Drinking Among Expat Youth in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is oft described as a vibrant ‘city that never sleeps’. A sea of skyscrapers illuminates the night sky and the steady hum of fluorescent lights, air conditioners, and taxi engines keep city-dwellers from lulling off for the few hours of sleep they attempt to get between returning from a night on the town, and the early start they have awaiting them the next day.

Drinking is almost an after-work requirement in this city, pencilled into daily schedules between handing in the last report of the day and eating whatever is open after the bars close. With 3 main districts in this relatively small city attracting workers out for a drink of an evening, it is no wonder that so many of Hong Kong’s expats are partial to a beverage or two several nights a week. After all, what better way to spend your limited time off than unwinding from the stresses you’ve built up throughout your copious time on the job.

Wednesday and Thursday nights are ladies’ night in Wan Chai and Lan Kwai Fong respectively, meaning women drink free, and a lot, whilst the men flock to the bars in the hopes of wooing them. (Do people still woo?) For those not based on the island, Knutsford Terrace and other famous Tsim Sha Tsui haunts are occupied for post-work boozing. Wan Chai also draws the old retired contingent of Hong Kong’s expats, as well as an abundance of the expat schoolkids, university students, and recent graduates out for a mid-week drink. On any Friday or Saturday night you’d be hard pressed to find a bar in these areas not packed to capacity.

Basically, Hong Kong likes a drink. It likes several drinks, on several nights a week, followed by a greasy feed and a taxi home. But with a social culture so encapsulated in drink, what message is being handed down to the youth of Hong Kong, both local and expat? Is the drinking culture of Hong Kong having a negative impact on the youth? Does Hong Kong have an underage drinking problem?

The short answer is, yes. Just like the over-worked business contingent of Hong Kong, the youth of Hong Kong are under regular stress through academic responsibilities, after-school engagements, extra-curricular lessons, tutoring and so on. This leads to them looking for outlets to relieve said stress, and with Hong Kong’s drinking culture and lax laws regarding the purchase of alcohol, many kids are turning to a night on the town to relieve their stress.

Though Hong Kong bars are required to ID people and cannot sell alcohol to persons under 18 years of age, there is no age limit placed on anyone buying alcohol from convenience stores such as 7/11 and Circle-K, nor from supermarkets such as the Park’n’Shop or Wellcome. On an average ladies night in Wan Chai, the street is littered with drunken expat youths gathered around one of the many convenience stores on the main bar street (Lockhart Road) that provide them with easy access to cheap alcohol. This occurrence isn’t limited to expats, but in fact has been found to occur for young people throughout the whole of Hong Kong. A Child Health Survey conducted in 2005/6 found that, of those surveyed, 5% of children aged 11-14 confessed to being regular drinkers, with 0.3% being classified as binge drinkers. A survey of secondary school students found 65% of pupils admitting to having consumed alcohol, with 25% having done so within the past month. A study by the Youth Research Centre in Hong Kong has found that the number of youths consuming alcohol here has risen over the past 2 decades, and is continuing to do so.

While this phenomenon is not unique to Hong Kong kids, it does shed light on a prevalent problem with growing up here. We could attribute the rise of underage drinking to the typical teenage moan of there being ‘nothing to do’, but  also that children whose parents, teachers, or of-age friends spend considerable amounts of time in the drinking districts around town may not see anything wrong with their chosen method of relaxation. And they certainly do not appear aware of the dangers of underage drinking, or drinking in general. Underage drinking can impact a child’s health in several ways. Furthermore, drinking at a young age can impact a child’s social life and academic performance negatively. A lack of focus in school can lead to slumping grades and more stress from wanting to do well, which only helps to propagate the problem of drinking to deal with stress.

Underage drinking has been found to be responsible for more young deaths than all illegal drugs combined. Health problems that have been associated with underage drinking include the compounding of depression and stress. Suicide is the third leading cause of death amongst people aged between 14 and 25, and heavy drinking has been strongly linked with instances of suicide in young people.

Alcohol consumption among young people has also been shown to affect their memory. In a study of 15-16 year olds, those who had consumed alcohol and suffered alcohol withdrawal symptoms were found to perform significantly worse at short-term memory tests than those that had never had a drink before.

Finally, early alcohol abuse has been shown to have longer reaching consequences. Those who begin drinking before 15 have been found to be 4 times as likely to develop an alcohol dependence in later life than those who first drink as an adult. While the early consumption may not be a cause, but rather demonstrate a vulnerability to alcohol problems, it shows that more information and preventative methods need to be taken to stop underage drinking.

The earlier intervention can occur to prevent young people from drinking alcohol, the more they will be helped, but preventing minors for drinking is not enough on its own. They must also be educated about the dangers of drinking. This is best done by being honest with schoolkids rather than yielding an authoritarian hammer that has so often been shown to merely cause further rebellion. Appreciating the dangers of drinking at a young age and understanding the problems that come from alcoholism and binge drinking will allow the young expats of Hong Kong to realise the true dangers they put themselves in on a Wednesday or Friday night in Wan Chai or Lan Kwai Fong. An open discourse between parents, children and even their teachers will bring more information to light and allow children to make an informed decision about whether or not to drink. With such an emphasis on letting loose and enjoying yourself in Hong Kong, it is unreasonable to assume that people will not drink alcohol at all. What can be effected, however is how much they drink, and at what age they are influenced to start drinking.

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