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Comic books inspire youth fashion

Cosplay or costumes inspired by comic book characters is the latest craze with Hong Kong youth.

india Updated: Jan 20, 2006 18:06 IST

It's common for young Hong Kong women to take their fashion cues from magazines and the runways of Paris or Milan, but 20-something designer Wong Siu-lun's tastes are a bit unusual. When Wong slips into her white gown with lightning bolts shooting out from the shoulders and tops her outfit off with a spiky blond wig and vertiginous platform boots, she's taking inspiration from a Japanese comic book called Trinity Blood.

She's among the founding members of a growing community of Hong Kong "costume players," also known as "cosplayers," who dress up as characters from Japanese or South Korean comics, anime, and online role-playing games for a hobby.

Cosplay is the latest Japanese craze to hit Hong Kong's youths, who are already immersed in a pervasive culture growing from anime and online gaming. Evidence of the Japanese subculture can be spotted in anything from schoolboys' hairstyles to the innocent, syrupy-sweet images of local pop stars.

Every few months, Wong and other cosplay enthusiasts put on their carefully assembled costumes to gather at gaming shows and comics festivals. Some compete in costume contests _ invariably a highlight of the conventions _ but most are content to display their outfits, exchange tips, and pose for photographs. Their obsession with the virtual characters may seem bewildering to outsiders, but fans contend it's no different from any other hobby.

"I brought this character to life. That makes me feel really happy and successful," raved Jerry Ip, a 17-year-old student at a recent show that organizers said drew 500 "cosplayers." Ip was playing a healer from Ragnorak, a popular South Korean comic book and online fantasy war game.

At the convention, some of Ip's friends _ all students aged 17 to 22 years old _ trimmed their cotton-candy pink or electric blue wigs, while others playing teen vampire-slayers posed and glared through blood-red contact lens. A girl in a provocative velvet gown strolled through the venue with a regal air as another player, wearing a huge cartoon frog head and a glittery suit, lip-synched to Japanese pop on a stage.

Hong Kong has wholeheartedly embraced Japanese pop culture from fashion to TV soap operas, and "cosplay" _ a well-established trend in Japan _ became a niche interest here in the 1990s. But it's a club that's drawing an increasing following, especially among students who grew up with Japanese anime and comic books such as Gundam, Pokemon and Sailor Moon.

"I spend all my pocket money on this, and it's worth it," said Leo Chan, 22, flaunting an expensive monk's costume from the "Pokemon" game. He said his hobby makes him feel like he's part of a large community _ albeit one that exists mainly on the Internet rather than in reality.

But Wong, who said she has played as many as 400 roles during her nine years as a "cosplayer," believes that few of her teenage peers are as serious about it as she.

"Many younger players make do with custom-made outfits ordered from tailors," Wong said. She, on the other hand, sources her raw materials from local textile wholesalers whenever possible, then stitches the costumes herself _ a process that she insists gives her characters "more heart."

"I have learnt diverse practical skills, from makeup to needlework," said Wong, a graphic designer, tailor, and interior decorator.

Tailors offering cheap, mass-produced anime costumes are just one business sector benefiting from the "cosplay" craze. The hobby has also spawned online shopping and rental markets for costumes and props, photography services, and Hong Kong's first "cosplay" cafe, where devotees gather every weekend over dishes with names like "kung fu noodles."

It has even led to the establishment of a related interest group: hoards of amateur photographers _ mostly men _ attend gaming conventions to take pictures of "cosplayers," which they later post online.

Yue Xiaodong, a social studies academic, believes the growing interest in "cosplay" is simply another way for young adults to affirm their identities.

"It's becoming a new subculture for young people to announce their autonomy," said Yue, an expert in youth development at the Hong Kong City University.

"They're just trying to do something different, to declare their identity, and prescribe their own norms."

First Published: Jan 20, 2006 18:06 IST