Handcuffed Hong Kongers play out escapist fantasies

In this picture taken on January 28, 2013, participants (R) get ready to play Freeing HK in Hong...

In this picture taken on January 28, 2013, participants (R) get ready to play Freeing HK in Hong Kong. (AFP PHOTO/Philippe Lopez)

Relaxnews

, Last Updated: 11:58 AM ET

Being blindfolded, handcuffed and locked in a dark room under the gaze of a surveillance camera is not everybody's idea of fun.

But a new game in high-pressure Hong Kong is playing on people's escapist fantasies.

Freeing HK is a "real escape game" in which players are pitted against a ticking clock as they desperately try to work their way out of the room by finding clues, cracking codes, and solving puzzles.

The phenomenon originated in Japan, and has spread to China, Taiwan, Singapore and the United States.

But the creators of the Hong Kong version say it has struck a nerve in the ultra-crowded city of seven million, as highly stressed students and over-worked young business people look for a literal - and metaphorical - way out.

"I think Hong Kong is the most stressed city in Asia," said Freeing HK creator Instant Wan.

"There are long working hours, everybody is always talking about money, and there is little entertainment -- we only have films and karaoke.

"People want to find something new and escape from their stress in the money-hungry city. Here, they come from reality into the game."

Wan, 27, a member of the high IQ society Mensa, author, and part-time lecturer on love and relationships, opened the game centre in November along with three young business partners.

Wearing an open-necked white shirt and black blazer with a silk handkerchief tucked into his top pocket, he fits the role of charismatic games master.

The centre is on the fourth floor of an anonymous tower block in the heart of Mongkok, one of the most populated areas on earth, an appropriate location for people looking for a portal out of the city's frenetic hustle-bustle.

For HK$128 (US$16.5) each, players in small teams can take on one of three rooms -- "Prison Break", "Lost", or "Dr Alpha" - where they face scenarios that include being handcuffed to your teammate, or having to negotiate a Mission Impossible-style laser maze.

Only about one in five successfully find their way out within the 45-minute countdown, pressured by the ticking of the clock and looping piano music drifting through the speakers.

Asked about what she was trying to escape, Amy Chow, 21, a university student, sighed.

"Oh, study, work, Hong Kong's stressful life. We need to spend a lot of time studying and working, so today is a very happy chance to do something different, something challenging and exciting."

High-school student Michael Wong, 17, came straight from his end-of-term exams with a group of friends.

"Hong Kong is a very busy city and we all have to rush our lives," he said. "We just didn't have the time to rest, but coming here to live a life we may never know, being trapped in a small room, it's an extraordinary experience."

Freeing HK takes inspiration from "room escape games" that can be played on the Internet, and also has similarities to films such as "Cube", "The Game" and the "Saw" series -- but without the risk of a painful death.

In less than three months, about 5,000 people, mostly aged 15-35, have already taken up the challenge, drawn to the chance for a more intense, interactive experience.

The success of the venture means the company is expanding, with two new centres due to open in the coming months.

And Wan hopes that soon the phenomenon of real escape games in Hong Kong will itself be impossible to escape, as more and more people trapped in their fast-paced city lives choose to get locked up for a bit of adventure.


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