Hong Kong thrill-seekers think their way to freedom

A new form of entertainment, meant to provide a creative escape from reality, is catching on in Hong Kong: people are locked in a small, dark room and have to solve clues to escape before the clock runs out.

Bored and stressed-out students and workers play escape-from-reality game

Tom Wong, left, and Barry Lee are about to be led blindfolded into the Prison Break room at Freeing Hong Kong, a popular new entertainment venue where players are locked in a room and have to solve puzzles to get out. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

Stressed-out students and young professionals in Hong Kong are looking for an escape — literally — and are relying on their wits to find it.

They are walking into dark rooms, locking themselves inside and solving puzzles and clues to get out while creepy music plays in the background. This is the latest, and hottest, form of entertainment in Hong Kong.

Freeing Hong Kong opened its doors in November, and already about 7,000 customers have walked through them. One of its owners, Wan Instant, said in an interview that it’s a place where people can come to escape from the pressures and monotony of everyday life in Hong Kong.

"We want to create a place [where] they can escape from real life to a world we create, and they can have fun and have a different experience," he said.

The concept allows for participants to feel like they are characters in a video game or movie. Each tiny room at Freeing Hong Kong has a different story, a plotline, and they are changed periodically so that repeat customers have fresh experiences.

Freeing Hong Kong is like the room escape games people play online, but it’s experienced live instead of on a screen. In the Lost Chamber room, people are told they were abducted while walking through a park and rendered unconscious. Now they're waking up in this room, handcuffed, and have to scour their surroundings to detect clues, then solve them, all while racing against the clock that is counting down in the corner.

If they're stumped, they can press a button, and a staff person will come and give them a hint, then lock the group of friends inside again.

CBC in Hong Kong

Meagan Fitzpatrick has been posted to Hong Kong to bolster CBC's coverage of a dynamic region of the world. Hong Kong is known as an international financial centre, but there is much more to it than that, and it has close connections to Canada. The city of seven million hosts nearly 300,000 Canadians, and about 500,000 people of Hong Kong descent make their home in Canada. Meagan is a senior online writer who covers national news and federal politics in CBC's Ottawa bureau. Follow her on Twitter @fitzpatrick_m

In the Prison Break room, escape-seekers are told they are in the underground prison of the evil Dr. Alpha, and they have to help free a group of scientists he’s kidnapped for psychotic experiments. There are prison bars dividing the small, dark room in half, a small wooden chest, a safe, and numbers scrawled on the wall.

In one case, the participants failed to escape in time, but a group of hyper and giggling teenagers spilled out of one room with huge smiles on their faces. "Wow," is how Phoenix Law described his experience. "It's really exciting."

Another group of people heading into one of the other rooms had heard about Freeing Hong Kong through a friend, and after checking out the website, they decided they had to come try it.

"Hong Kong is a really small place with stress and pressure," said 18-year-old Mia Chan. "I think this place can provide a good environment to us to release our stress."

Freeing Hong Kong is doing so well after only a few months of operation that it has two new rooms under construction that almost look like mini-movie sets. It also plans to offer English versions of the game to attract a wider audience. Instant says the target demographic is between 15 and 35 years old.

At about $16 per game, it's an affordable form of entertainment and is something unique compared with the usual karaoke or movie outing for friends, he said.

Since life can be so routine and predictable, he thinks people like that the unknown is offered at Freeing Hong Kong — people don't really know what they're getting into until they're locked in the little dark room and told the scenario.

If they can't figure their way out in time, they pose for a photo afterwards holding up a sign that says "We Failed" and that can go up on Freeing Hong Kong's Facebook page. Win or lose, it's all part of the fun, said Instant.