Getting tickets to the world-famous Rugby Sevens at Hong Kong Stadium is not an easy task, but if you are looking for a real challenge then you do not need to look further than Wan Chai. A few times per year a long queue forms around Southorn Stadium. With no pre-sales, the only way to obtain a ticket is to get in line by early afternoon and wait there until the gates open in the evening. Even bad weather or the fact that it is a regular working day won’t hamper the demand.
But this isn’t for rugby, or football, or any of the other sports we normally associate with Hong Kong. It’s for the basketball highlight of the year: the local derby between South China and Winling. This year the encounter fell on 14 June, with fans in yellow and red waiting patiently in the sweltering summer weather. As usual, the match was a hot-tempered affair with a deafening atmosphere, where acts of kindness were as rare as on the city trains during rush hour.
Basketball may not be the most prominent sport in Hong Kong, but in terms of its historical legacy it is not far behind football or rugby. However, compared to the leisure activities driven by British colonial tradition, basketball was mainly spread by American missionaries of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). In fact, the YMCA played a crucial role in popularising the game across Asia, and especially in China, where they were allowed to settle in treaty ports starting from the late 19th century. The first official branch was opened in Tianjin in 1895; the one in Hong Kong followed in 1901 and had a separate Chinese chapter to accommodate local youth in a highly segregated society.
While British schools generally promoted physical education in Hong Kong, the American missionaries remained particularly influential in the mainland, where they set the foundation for the future National Games and organised China’s first appearances at international sports events. Meanwhile in Hong Kong, Queen’s College and Ying Wa College were among the first schools to install proper courts, and other institutions soon followed. The first league tournament started around 1919, and South China, the first all-Chinese sports club of the territory that was about to gain fame with its successful football team, did not hesitate to establish a basketball squad as well.
Nonetheless, it was only after World War II that basketball gained greater popularity. In addition to its football team, China also sent a basketball delegation to the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, but in the end the two squads did not arrive on time to compete. Interestingly, basketball has remained a hugely popular sport in China ever since, regularly challenging football for the crown as the country’s most watched spectator sport.
The Hong Kong Basketball Association was established in 1957 and by the 1960s local games were already attracting a few thousand spectators on a regular basis. With Hong Kong boosting its leisure infrastructure—particularly to soothe social tensions following the 1967 riots—basketball also turned into a favourite pastime across the whole territory. In contrast to football, cricket, or rugby, a basketball court could easily fit on rooftops, within courtyards, or small leftover pieces of land, offering a much more space-efficient solution to the necessary provision of recreational facilities in and around residential areas. According to SLAB HK, a local organisation that aims to bridge design, basketball, and communities, the public housing estates of the 1970s played an important role in promoting the sport: “The basketball court is one of the key elements in the estate. Kids can just grab a ball, go downstairs, play with their friends, and even meet new people.”
If you are familiar with the rise and fall of Hong Kong football, the fate of domestic basketball reads a bit like a déjà vu. The golden era of football famously came to an end when the Football Association decided to ban foreign players in the late 1980s, which eventually led to the withdrawal of the big shots from the league, including company-owned teams Seiko and Bulova. Roughly a decade later, local basketball followed down the same path, with newly established clubs such as Regal and Seapower all losing interest without the possibility to sign foreign stars. The ban was eventually loosened again, but it was too little, too late to stop the negative trend. Meanwhile, the encroaching and aggressive marketisation of the NBA throughout Asia further siphoned off value from the domestic league.
That said, basketball has been sharing the resilient character with football as well, with traditional teams and a small but dedicated fan community keeping the game alive ever since. Currently, the cultural fabric of local basketball is woven into the very heart of Hong Kong, where Southorn Stadium remains an unlikely refuge in the midst of a rapidly developing city, occupying a prime location in what would be some of the most valuable real estate, right on top of Wan Chai MTR station. Named after a Colonial Secretary, Southorn Playground was one of the first public playgrounds in the city and it formally opened in 1934. In 1951, a covered basketball court was added at the eastern side. Ever since, the playground has remained a social focal point of the district, bringing together Wan Chai residents from all walks of life. The current stadium was built in the 1980s and has been hosting most of the local basketball games since then.
Despite the stagnation of the league, another thing has remained an important constant: the local derby between South China and Winling, also known as the “red and yellow rivalry,” referring to the teams’ jersey colours. While the South China basketball team has been around for nearly a century, Winling were only established in the 1980s, but soon became one of the most serious title contenders. In contrast to the short-lived teams of the 1990s, Winling were here to stay, having collected a total of 11 top-division titles. In recent years, Eastern Long Lions have become another force to reckon with, and they are currently the only local team that also participates in the regional ASEAN Basketball League that features clubs from Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Macau, China, Thailand, Taiwan and the Philippines.
For the domestic schedule, however, the matches between South China and Winling remain the biggest highlights and usually never disappoint in terms of drama and atmosphere. Canadian professional Tyler Kepken has joined Winling in 2013, where he has become a key player for their title-winning endeavours. For him, the derby is one of Hong Kong’s best kept secrets. “The rivalry is special,” he says. “Unless you are from Hong Kong or been to one of those games, you won’t understand. There is huge support on both sides, so every time there is a game it’s passionate and competitive.
To catch this important game, some planning is recommended, because the season is unusually short. It all starts with the so-called Silver Shield in April, followed by round-robin league matches between May and June, before it all ends with the play-offs in July. This year, it was South China who clenched their 14th league title on 30 July, after beating Tycoon with three consecutive wins in the Best-of-Five finals. Winling were just four points away to qualify for the final where they would have met their arch-rivals once again, but in the end they only finished third. This means the next proper will only take place in 2020.
Even though football, rugby, and horse racing remain Hong Kong’s most visible sports, the city’s clandestine love affair with basketball deserves more attention.