Is Hong Kong Falling in Love With Skateboarding?

Last year, when Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee declared the promotion of skateboarding would be a priority in the city’s future sports development, it was also the first time in the history of policy addresses that skateboarding was officially mentioned. Since its early days of subcultural rebellion, skateboarding has come a long way, but it has also become a perfect illustration for the contrasts and contradictions that are such an integral part of Hong Kong.

The density of a place like this — paved, plastered, and almost too generously equipped with rails, curbs, stairs, and back-alleys — should make for an exciting playground for roller sports. But traffic regulations, local by-laws and architectural deterrents have kept the skate-friendliness in check. 

The restrictions go back many years. In the 1970s, when skateboarding was gaining popularity across the world, people in Hong Kong met in parks to practise jumps and tricks amid curious onlookers. But a real local scene only started evolving in the 1980s and 90s, when street skateboarding finally arrived, and with it a niche market of decks, fashion, magazines, and memorabilia. Skate shops such as BFD, and later 8five2 and HKIT, became focal points for the community, developing the sport locally, and connecting with brands and personalities abroad. 

But even though skateboarding became a common sight in public places, that did not translate into a warmer welcome from authorities. Wong Jing’s 1993 movie City Hunter would suggest otherwise. The movie features Jackie Chan as a private investigator who is looking for the missing daughter of a Japanese CEO. At the beginning of the film, dozens of skateboarders cruise around the amphitheater of Hong Kong Park in bright daylight. However, reality in those days looked rather less glamorous. One skateboarding hotspot in those years was the area around Immigration Tower in Wan Chai, affectionately referred to as IT, which had a set up of rails and benches that were basically made for street skating, although the weekly meet-ups regularly ended in cat-and-mouse chases with security personnel. The street skating atmosphere of that time was probably best captured in the film “That’s I.T”, as well as a short documentary by Nigel Ong about the BFD skateshop

In the early 2000s, the government banned skateboarding in that area. Meanwhile, so-called skate stoppers, small objects that were placed on rails and benches to deter their creative use, had put an even harsher end to the illegal fun. 

20 years later, skating is still prohibited around Immigration Tower, but some stigmas of the past have faded out. Of course, skateboarding’s recent legitimacy boost is closely tied to its newly claimed status as an Olympic sport, making its debut at the 2020 Games in Tokyo. This also seemed to be the logical conclusion for the sport’s ongoing efforts to embrace athleticism and professionalism, a development with which not everyone in the community is happy with. 

The institutionalisation of skateboarding has become a point of contention, both globally and locally. The community is already a far cry from being homogeneous, and some fear the sport will be even further detached from its subcultural roots and significance that created its appeal in the first place. In the 1990s, street skating was synonymous for a rebellious youth that cherished values of freedom, non-responsibility, risk, and creativity – a response to an ever more conforming and restrained society.

Paul O’Connor, a sport sociologist at Exeter University who has participated in and studied Hong Kong’s skateboarding scene for many years, emphasises that skateboarding must be understood as a culture. “The thing with culture is that it has boundaries and these need some form of self-policing in order for those in the culture to recognise they belong, and for the culture to remain distinct enough to be preserved,” he says. “In some ways culture is quite tough in this process. So, yes there are lots of conflicts but these are actually remarkable for the extent of debate we have within the culture.”

But while some reject the new pandering to sporting legitimacy altogether, others try to come to terms with it. A turning point for Hong Kong’s skateboarding culture was the opening of the city’s first public skatepark in Lai Chi Kok in 2004. Before that, only a handful of basic facilities existed across the city, among them the playground at Morrison Hill, a skateground in Tin Shui Wai and The Warehouse Teenage Club in Aberdeen. 

This is not to say that Hong Kong’s change of attitude towards skateboarding came out of nowhere. It was also the result of persistent and ongoing lobbying efforts, especially spearheaded by the Hong Kong Federation of Roller Sports (HKFRS). Founded in 1980, the HKFRS is the national sports association for all roller sports in Hong Kong, such as roller or inline hockey, inline speed skating, and artistic roller skating. As such it is both recognized by Hong Kong’s Olympic Committee & Sports Federation and the global governing body World Skate. It has officially overseen skateboarding since 2005. 

Hong Kong’s first skatepark, in Lai Chi Kok, which was recently refurbished. Photo by Tobias Zuser

Warren Stuart is not only master trainer at the Hong Kong Federation of Roller Sports, but also often referred to as the godfather of local skateboarding. Stuart, who is now in his early 50s, was part of the first generation of street skaters that helped popularise and develop the culture and lifestyle in Hong Kong, where he co-founded the skateshop BFD. Having earned his fair share of credibility as street skater in those years, he is now the head coach of the Hong Kong Skateboarding Squad and spends most of his weekends at the local skateparks where he works with athletes that want to compete for Hong Kong at regional and international events. 

One of them is Lui Ting. The 25-year-old skateboarder is currently hoping for a spot at the 2023 Asian Games in Hangzhou later this year. She only came to the sport at the age of 15, and has since become a respected athlete and skateboarding coach. It is stories like hers that seem to inspire Stuart to provide the young generation with a better skateboarding environment than what was available to him and his peers in the past. In his official role with the HKFRS, he has also been in the forefront of lobbying for better skateparks in the territory. There are now 14 public skateboard facilities all over the territory, including eight skateboard grounds, five skateparks, as well as the skateboard-friendly Belcher Bay Promenade. Several parks are undergoing significant upgrades, and also new projects are in the pipeline. Even private investors have jumped on the bandwagon and opened commercially-run indoor parks. 

While Hong Kong has been doing well in relying on a system of public-owned skateparks, some work still needs to be done to catch up with the world elite. In Asia, skateboarding is currently dominated by Japan, Philippines, Indonesia, China, and Malaysia. Hong Kong’s most respectable results already date back several years, with two gold medals and one bronze medal at the 2014 Asian Beach Games.  

Local skateboarders missed out on the Olympic Games in Tokyo and according to Stuart, the 2024 games in Paris will also be most likely out of reach. But there is still hope for 2028, especially if new talents are able to come through. There is currently no minimum age for skateboarding at the Olympics, which was illustrated by 12-year-old silver medal winner Hiraki Kokona at the Tokyo games. 

Newcomers to the sport have been getting younger in recent years, but there are still serious limitations. Local skateparks require a minimum age of eight years, and the more advanced ramps and bowls also remain off limits for the youngest. This is also a major concern for Stuart. “In places like Taiwan and Japan, children as young as eight or nine years old can ride vert bowls, and some are even able to perform advanced tricks like 720s and 900s,” he says. “By restricting access to skateparks, Hong Kong is effectively delaying the development of young skateboarders.” 

There is certainly no shortage of interest. The parks are getting busier, not only with enthusiasts but also professionals. Coaching has become a lucrative business, and skateboarding is experiencing all the pros and cons of commercialisation. But no matter on what part of the skateboarding spectrum one finds themselves — anti-establishment subculture or mainstream global sport — there still seems to be a consensus that skateboarding’s values of freedom, creativity and risk-taking are still important. 

For Stuart, skateparks are not only important for practising in a safe environment, they are equally important places for socialisation, where youngsters learn about skateboarding’s etiquette, lifestyle, and identity from watching and interacting with the established skaters. O’Connor, the sociologist, cherishes the inclusiveness of Hong Kong’s skateparks. “For me, as a white expatriate in Hong Kong, the chance to hang out and be friends with a variety of Hong Kong Chinese is often quite limited,” he says. “But through skateboarding I have had a richer experience of [Hong Kong] culture, and skate with friends who are mechanics, delivery drivers, business owners, musicians, and retirees.”

There may be disagreement about what skateboarding is and should be: leisure or sport, amateur or professional, subversive or regulated, park or street. But maybe it’s just all of those things.

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