Bowled over by the stars
The game had been in deep decline. At first a mere novelty in Hong Kong, 10-pin bowling was all the rage by the 1960s and 70s, with regular competitions and enormous centres opening in Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay. A decade later, it became passe, along with polyester shirts.
But it seems the fortunes of 10-pin bowling have come full circle. Perhaps boosted by a retro revival in youth culture, bowling is also enjoying a rebirth of sorts.
That pop stars such as Andy Hui Chi-on and Andy Lau Tak-wah have taken it up in a big way no doubt helped generate interest among the trend-conscious.
Lau is such a keen bowler he hopes to brush up his skills enough to become a member of the Hong Kong team and sent Christmas cards (right) featuring himself in striking form.
And one man is doing all he can to fuel that interest. 'Our first task is to revive the game,' says Vincent Au Kwok-chuen, managing director of AMF Bowling Centres, which operates a chain across the territory.
'I want to transform the bowling alley into a centre integrating all sorts of entertainment facilities for teenagers.' Although he has been a recreational bowler for about 20 years, Au concedes the game had long been regarded as a 'dying sport'. Indeed, he confesses to being sceptical when first approached to head the AMF operation about four years ago.
But the more he learned about bowling, 'the more convinced I am about its hidden potential. It could definitely be part of the mainstream again', he says.
The first step, Au believes, is to try to update the bowling alley's image as a hangout for the staid and middle-aged to one for the 'chic and trendy'. Hence, the bright decor and jazzy neon signs at the chain's outlets located in new town centres such as Tuen Mun.
Also, he is introducing lunchtime and learners' packages as well as special discounts to attract people to the game.
A new scheme has been launched at the chain's Mei Lok branch to lure housewives away from the mahjong tables and on to the lanes.
Jenny Leung Ho Yung-mui is one who has been drawn back to the game. 'I feel like I'm 20 again when I'm playing it now after all these years,' says the mother of four after scoring another strike. She was a keen bowler when she was younger, and her teenage sons seem to have inherited her talent.
'I used to bowl almost every day before my kids were born,' Leung says.
However, it never occurred to her that she would be playing with her sons, she says, adding that the Leung family team bowls together whenever they have time.
With the thud and clatter of falling pins in the background, Leung interrupts her game to coach her two elder sons, 16-year-old Yu-man and 14-year-old Kai-man, teaching them how to get a more effective grip on the 12-pound ball. The Sin family occupying the next lane is also getting into the sport and nine-year-old Wendy Sin Man-wing is already addicted.
'I hope my dad will bring me here again soon,' she says.
Bowling supplies companies have also benefitted from the revival of the sport.
Alfred Pang Ka-shing, whose shop sells bowling gear, reports that business has gone up by 50 per cent on the previous year.
Yet, despite the sport's renewed popularity, Pang, 33, notes that the size of his customer base has remained consistent.
'It has been the same batch of customers for all these years. Of course there are fresh faces walking in to look for bowling equipment, but they seldom buy,' he says.
But this is not as contradictory as it may seem. Most of his customers are members of the South China Athletics Association bowling centre - the largest such facility in the territory.
'Usually, learners are more likely to buy their equipment at the centre's bowling shop rather than other equipment outlets. That's why [novice players] just look and seldom buy,' explains Pang who has been in the business for 10 years.
In fact, Pang was a member of the Hong Kong team in the early 90s.
He only quit the team because business demands were making inroads on his time.
Although his favourite sport became his source of income, Pang has never lost his passion for the game.