Sean Colfer talked to some players on the Hong Kong team about their aims for this tournament for developing the sport in their unique corner of Asia.
Hong Kong Ultimate has long been in a strange situation. Due to the nature of the city, with a large number of foreign nationals coming from across the world to live and work in such a vibrant, thriving place, many of the players involved in the scene there are expats.
This has two, largely counter-balancing, effects. The first is that there is almost always a number of experienced, seasoned players who are keen to play Ultimate and keep involved in the sport. That means that Hong Kong teams are often competitive and can find enough good players to make international tournaments. However, it also means that much of the playing population tends to be older, less available for trainings and less able to contribute to the development of younger players due to work and family commitments.
“Hong Kong Ultimate was established by expats,” explains Kevin Ho, who is the president of the Hong Kong Ultimate Players’ Association, “and I think for most of its history it has been powered by people coming into Hong Kong. Hong Kong is such a transient place. You have people that come here on three to five year stints, so they have been focused less on local development and more on sort of either playing competitively or going to as many tournaments around Asia as they can. In Asia you have about one tournament per week – hats, mostly. Team tournaments, I’d say, happen about once per month.”
Another aspect to consider is the working patterns that are so prevalent in Hong Kong. Typically, people there work until much later in the evening than is usual elsewhere in the world and take longer lunches. So people generally aren’t out of work until past 7pm, which makes it tough to train.
“Most of the expats that come to Hong Kong are professionals and so they typically don’t have time to put into the sport. We practice two to three times a week and it’s always weeknights from 9pm onwards because that’s when people get off work.
“Another thing is that Hong Kong is a very small place. We’ve got seven million people in Hong Kong but it’s mostly mountains, and space is at a premium. And so there aren’t going to be a lot of places, like big parks, for people to throw in. So we’ve got to book soccer or rugby pitches and that means competing with sports like rugby and soccer for space. Rugby is an institution in Hong Kong and soccer is very popular too, so that’s one of the many challenges that we face.”
Those challenges are more immediate ones, the kind of issues that teams in other big cities where people work hard and common areas are concreted over for homes and offices deal with too. There are also the challenges that an ageing Ultimate population full of people who were born elsewhere bring – chief amongst them the difficulty in retaining locals and bringing young people into the game. Kevin was born in Hong Kong but moved to Australia at a very young age and returned to the city recently having been exposed to a huge amount of sport Down Under.
“Culturally in Asia, academics, especially amongst kids, is pushed much more strongly than playing sport. Growing up in Australia, playing sport is encouraged so it’s completely different.
“We probably have around 40 or 50 locals, people who were born and raised here, in our association out of a total of about 150, and we’re trying to encourage more. We have identified that the key to growing is targeting high schools, and we’ve done that in the past two years. We’ve worked on getting teachers into high schools, building up school teams and then organising school tournaments.”
So far, that approach has been working well:
“The growth has been astounding,” Kevin confirmed. “We now have at least 300 kids playing, which would like triple the association’s size. Hopefully that will translate into kids signing up to clubs at universities and then hopefully look after the next generation.
“There’s so much potential, especially I think with programs running their initiatives I think we will see a much stronger growth in the next couple of years which will hopefully lead to a bigger association and more resources in the community. Hopefully with this strategy and this focus we’ll be able to make some big strides in the coming years, and it’ll be sustainable.”
Turning to this tournament, Hong Kong have performed quite well. They pushed Great Britain, at one point taking three points in a row to claw back their deficit to 10-5, but eventually GB’s class and depth made the difference. They played Portugal in a game to reach the top 16 this afternoon but unfortunately fell 15-8 to drop into the bracket below.
Captain Tommy Fung said that the increased physicality was something they would need to overcome, but the cohesion of the team is a real strength:
“The team is the majority of the club team from Hong Kong, Junk. We also had a sign-up process followed by a tryout. The thing was, we didn’t have enough women because we’ve also brought a Women’s team. So, here we only have four women from our club, and we really had to look outside. We have some ex-players that used to play in Hong Kong with us, but have moved away along with players that we know from other regions in Asia. I would say that 80% of the team is from the club team. Most of us have played together for around four years and played together in Lecco so we know each other well. That helps coming into a tournament like this.”
Before the tournament, Tommy was confident in their chances – he was aiming for top two in the pool, which they achieved, but their power pool proved a tough one – but keen to emphasise that their main focus was on their own performances, rather than their results.
“Winning is important, but we always say: ‘performance first’. Whatever the result is we need to just be happy with how we perform and that’s the mentality that we’re gonna take into each and every game.”
“I think our goal is to really play well. We talk a lot about results and performance in our team meetings, so we have identified that you can’t really control your results because that’s affected by how well your opponent is playing, but you can control your performance and that’s one of the things we’re focusing on.”
Their performances here have been strong, and they’ve made a positive impression on the tournament. They’ll be hoping that their focus on youth development can bear just as much fruit in the years to come.