Hong Kong is a Chinese territory, just off the South Western border. It includes the island, which everybody will think of, but also a part of the mainland. So, I’ve been living in Shenzhen which is the neighbouring city in China. There isn’t much hockey where I am, but we are really close to Hong Kong, where there appears to be a fairly strong infrastructure. I’ve arranged to watch a number of games across the top two tiers of the Hong Kong Hockey Association (HKHC) league structure.
The journey from my home to the rather posh multi sports facilities at Hong Kong Football Club should normally take around three hours of travelling, but today took a bit longer as I realised that I had forgotten my passport when I was at the border. As soon as I arrive in the former British Colony, it becomes very clear how vibrant and diverse a region it is. There seems to be a broad range of ethnicities and religions mingling easily and freely, something not seen as much from what I’ve seen in Shenzhen. The official langue here is Cantonese (different from the Mandarin spoken in most of China), but many people also speak English, a remnant of British rule. Street signs are bilingual and even many district and road names are quite Anglo-Saxon – the main thoroughfare running through Kowloon, for example, is Nathan Road.
I turn up early for a Women’s Premier League game on the Saturday at a private members multi sports facility, called Hong Kong Football Club (HKFC). The match itself is between the HKFC B and Dutch Hokey Club A teams. As I arrive at the pitch a second tier match between HKFC D and Rhino (a team made up completely of ethnically Asian players, instead of the more usual mix of ex-pats with a few local players) is about to start. Talking to a few of the players between matches there seems to be a number of people working in technology, accountancy, and information technology. The pitch itself is situated within a massive sports complex. A racetrack – which I believe is run by the Hong Kong Jockey’s club (according to Wikipedia, the territory’s largest taxpayer) – circles the perimeter of the venue. Behind the fence and off to the left hand side is a fairly well attended set of rugby matches in progress and to the right of that are two 11 a side football pitches with plenty of players milling around there.
The spectators for the hockey seems to be generally friends and family of the players, with a few club mates, perhaps. As the HKFC B vs. Dutch A game starts, some members of the Rhino team from the earlier match has stayed behind for the first quarter. I also hear one of the kids who are playing n the top right hand corner of the stand shout, ’Go on, Mummy!’
HKFC take a 1 – 0 lead in the first quarter with a ball moved in from the left hand side and an attacking player finding enough space to bobble it in. Both teams seem to be quite well organised. Defenders are not allowing the opposing forward lines much of what the want with quite a few passes inside, or towards the circle being cut out and the game has been a bit more even that I thought it would be, given the two teams respective positions in the league. The game remains 1 – 0 until the end. HKFC has had a few more chances to score, including a glorious one at the back post, but can’t convert. It was a decent standard, especially with the defensive side of things.
Liesbeth van der Zee, the captain of the Dutch HC spends a bit of time either side of the match talking to me. Originally from the Netherlands (not surprisingly given her name and club), she has been in Hong Kong for three years. She came over for a four month internship and enjoyed it so much she got herself a job at an accountancy firm. The Dutch are one of the smaller clubs in Hong Kong these days, but Liesbeth tells me that it is one of the oldest clubs in the territory, helping to set up the original league. She seems moderately proud of the club’s heritage and culture of friendliness. They don’t have their own club house at this point, but set themselves up as a club that although looks to constantly improve, also wants to be a fun and social set up as well. One of the biggest issues she finds in developing the club is the transient nature of economic migration. Teams within the Dutch club, she tells me, can change dramatically within one or two seasons, thus making consistency and team cohesion harder to come by. The common language within the club is English, due to the varying nationalities. The first team is made up of predominately European looking faces, but she tells me that there are more asian players coming through the reserve teams and that there is a healthy mix at the club.
Before the game, I also managed to have a chat with Lynsey Edgar, who is the HKFC women’s hockey captain and is a committee member of the Hong Kong Hockey Association Women’s section. She is a Scottish ex-pat who moved over to Hong Kong seven years ago and works as a finance lawyer. Originally from Glasgow, she studied in Edinburgh, moving to Hong Kong for six months and much like Liesbeth, enjoyed it so much has never looked back. Lynsey tells me that two of her sports teachers at school were former Scotland and Great Britain internationals Wendy Justice (née Fraser), an Olympic bronze medal winner in 1992, and Rona Simpson.
HKFC is one of, if the biggest hockey club on the island, with eight men’s and eight women’s teams. Their ladies A team is currently top of the Premier League and are normally favourites for the title, with the B team in third place. Lynsey tells me that the A team recently beat the B’s in the Women’s Cup Final 1 – 0. The facilities are obviously a huge draw for the top players, with HKFC being the only club with their own facilities and the set up is lovely. This will inevitably draw players in order to gain a greater pool and more income, as well as those of a high standard.
Lynsey feels that there is a gulf in talent between the Premier Division and the 1st Division, which acts as the second tier of Hong Kong Hockey. Even within the Premier division she thinks that there is a significant gap between the top and bottom of the table, but there has been significant development recently. This year the Hockey Association enlarged the top flight from six to eight teams in order to give lower ranked teams more exposure and to generally improve the standard of hockey, which she thinks is working as the two teams who have come up have put themselves in a strong chance of survival.
Generally, the standard does appear to be fairly decent. I find out that the captain of the HKFC Men’s 2 XI is former Hong Kong national team player, Chris Marshall. Having been born in Hong Kong, to British parents, he had the opportunity to play international hockey for the former colony and went to the Asian Games in 1998, 2002 and 2006. Alongside the goalkeeper of that same squad, Vincent Cheung, they are still playing together within the league structure, which shows the experience and strength in depth that the club can wield. Chris actually puts Cheung down as a trendsetter in goalkeeping. When playing Pakistan in the 1998 Asian Games he started rushing Sohail Abbas at short corners as an impromptu tactic to deal with his drag flicks, with some degree of success, preventing further goals being conceded.
The game has historically been a sport dominated by ex-pats and foreigners, Lynsey explains that is changing. There are two teams in the Womens Premier division which are predominately made up locally sourced players (Coyotez Hockey and Kowloon Cricket Club) and there are many more Asian players to be found amongst the other clubs, in the lower divisions. This opinion is backed up by other people that I have spoken to. She has also noticed more local players taking the sport up at university level. A barrier to participation though, seems to be a lack of school hockey, meaning that if younger players want to take up the sport then they may have to go to one of the clubs with an established youth set up, rather be introduced to the game at school like a kid might be in Europe, or other parts of Asia. The HKHA has recently looked to change this and has sent their Womens Head coach Arif Ali (who also plays for the HKFC men’s teams) into schools to develop the sport further. There is also a HKHA development team within the league structure, called Bauhnia Youth (Bauhnia being the national flower of Hong Kong), in order to give new players game time and to further their development. This is helping to make the sport more popular with the locals and reduce the dependancy on the ex-pats. A common observation from people that I talk to, is that their has been a reduction of foreigners coming to Hong Kong since the British administration left, meaning that if the league structure and Association is to continue to grow then local Hong Kong and Chinese populations will need to start to take on more responsibilities and gain more experiences within the sport.
So, I’m back again on the Sunday, for a men’s 1st Division (second tier) game between the Hong Kong Football Club C and Hong Kong Cricket Club A teams. It’s a moderately high tempo affair from the off and as it goes on, one or two meaty tackles are put into the game. Today, as there was yesterday, there is a broad range of activities happening around us at this rather plush sports facility. Women’s rugby is happening to the left and some junior rugby occurring on the football fields. Sunday joggers are lapping us around the racetrack that circles the venue. In the fifteenth minute of the second half the deadlock has finally been broken. HKCC work the ball well up their right hand side commit the HKFC keeper towards the near post and score at the far post. Four minutes later we have an equaliser and now HKFC are on a roll, scoring their second goal in quick succession, with an attack down the right. This is how the game ends, with a 2 – 1 for the hosts.
The game of the day has to be between HKFC A and Singh Sabha Sports Club A (SSSC, a team of what seems to be predominately Punjabi ex-pats). This is a fairly high standard fixture in the Hong Kong Men’s Premier League. It’s an end to end match, with quick movements of the ball, good technique and some nice passing moves, with the intent of moving the opposition about. All of the people that I have interviewed over the last two days have gone to some lengths to emphasise the fairly high and improving standards within the league structure, as well as the top flight, which, especially considering this game, has something to it more than just workman’s pride. One thing that has struck me over this weekend is the general level of hockey intelligence from the players on the pitch, in terms of defensive positioning on and off the ball movement. HKFC equalise well into the second quarter, with a free flowing move and shortly after a controversial decision not to award them a penalty stroke. It’s exciting. In the fourth quarter SSSC take a 3 – 2 lead, after HKFC have missed a penalty that was given this time. It looks like the game is theirs, but with 39 seconds remaining, the HKFC team find a dramatic equaliser from a short corner. It has been a very entertaining game, played at a good tempo.
I’ve turned up today, partly to talk to some members of the Honk Kong Cricket Club (Hockey Section). As their club’s name suggests, they were not originally a hockey establishment and have only been fielding teams since 2006, after a number of the club members decided that they would also enjoy playing a bit of hockey. Genevieve (Gen) Rowe, the Head Coach, is here to tell me bit more about hockey in Hong Kong and has been joined by the Club Convenor Matthew Deayton and the Men’s First Team Captain, Dan Clarke.
Matthew Deayton, works in the I.T. industry; he is originally from Australia, moved to Hong Kong in 1975 and has been playing hockey locally since 1983, due to his family’s involvement in the game. Mother Deayton is still playing for HKFC Hockey in her 70’s. When Matthew started playing hockey, he says that there was very few people from Hong Kong or China who played the game and that it was predominately the ex-pats who participated. He reckons now, though, that over 50% of the leagues are made up of Hong Kong/Chinese teams and that the local community has really started to embrace the sport. He credits this to the HKHA and the development programmes that they have been putting in place in order to gain more of the local population. He explains to me that because hockey is played in both the Olympic and Asian Games that the sport gets a fair amount of recognition and that the Hong Kong Government, through the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) support hockey. In practical terms this means that there are several state run facilities, in Hong Kong, that also include hockey pitches, as well as some financial support towards the HKHA for them to run the league structure and national team programme. I’m told that the due to the lack of space in Hong Kong there is a fair amount of pressure of sports facilities due to demand for playing time. Regardless Matthew assures me that the standard of pitches are of a high standard and there are enough facilities to go around.
HKCC currently has three men’s teams and three women’s teams. The Men’s A team plays in the HKHA 1st Division (one below the Premier Division), whilst the women’s A team are in their respective top flight. Until recently HKCC ran four men’s teams, but dropped what was their first team from the Premier League, due to lower numbers. Apparently, the club was struggling to compete, with regards the recruitment of players at the top level, against other ex-pat clubs such as HKFC and Valley Rugby Football Club, so decided to scale down in order to consolidate. Matthew explains that their aim was always to remain a small knit recreational club, that aims to play within their ability, rather than being overtly big. Gen Rowe concurs with this, saying that the club look to create more of a family feel amongst their players, where everybody knows each other. One of the reasons why HKCC struggles with recruitment is the lack of their own hockey pitch (due to the size of Hong Kong, there can only be so many facilities). On paper this is their home game, but being played at the away team’s pitch, which seems to be a fairly common situation. Matthew does make an interesting point though, that the home and away advantage that is normalised in other parts of the world, isn’t as prevalent in Hong Kong, because everything is actually quite close to everything else and therefore teams are happy to play at a good facility such as it is at HKFC.
Dan Clarke, is from Guildford in England and like Matthew, also works in the IT industry, selling software. He hails from a cricket family, which is the reason why he originally joined the Cricket Club, but now captaining the men’s hockey team, and has been living in Hong Kong for seven years. He is eager to emphasis the improving quality of the league standard, telling me about the number of ex-pats coming over, who have played to varying levels of representative hockey from county up to junior international level, coming to play for various different clubs. Apparently, HKCC used to field the Hong Kong Men’s National Team captain. He tells me that there is an element of professionalism with the top flight, with a few players being paid to either play, or coach in some capacity, which is helping to improve the standard here.
He also makes a further point from what Lynsey Edgar of HKFC had told me earlier on, that there has been a decrease in the of ex-pat community in Hong Kong. He puts this down to a change in business and economy. Shenzhen, in mainland China is a fairly new city (roughly forty years old) and has taken on a lot of the technology and business industry jobs. Also, he reckons that a lot of foreigners are going to Shanghai, Beijing and Singapore in order to work at their company’s headquarters, instead of coming to Hong Kong. This, obviously, has the potential for long term consequences of hockey in the region. The implication of his point here is that clubs have a responsibility to increase the popularity and develop hockey amongst the local population and Dan emphasises the work that HKCC have been putting in place, with some success. A few products of the club’s youth system are working their way through the senior set up, which is a good sign for the future.
Gen Rowe hails from Johannesburg, South Africa and came to Hong Kong to take up the role of Head Hockey Coach of the HKCC, six years ago. Her job seems to keep her busy, as her remit includes everything from the men’s and women’s senior teams, down to the junior sections and community programmes. Gen, comes from a hockey family and has been playing for around twenty years. She is another person who emphases the improvement in the standard of hockey in Hong Kong, putting the standard of HKHA Premier League on a par with that of top flight in South Africa. Even as a club, the ladies A team are aiming to place their highest league position in their history. Gen puts an emphasis on getting the basics right, strong teamwork and enjoying the game, which seems to feed into the wider ethos of a social club atmosphere.
Having spoken to a number of different people involved in hockey in Hong Kong, there does seem to be quite a progressive attitude. People are friendly and willing to give their time freely to talk about hockey. There seems to be an attitude amongst all the clubs and up to the Hockey Association that they are all in it together and in order for one to improve that the others need to be brought along as well. Clubs, players, coaches and administrators seem open to new ideas, perhaps this is a symptom of the transient nature of the Hong Kong economy, and has had a positive effect of the recent developments in the sport of hockey. The future looks bright for the sport in this part of the world, although the national team may not be challenging for Olympic medals any time soon, the last one or two generations of players have overseen a period of improvement and stability for the next to improve upon. Watch this space…