PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 March, 2004, 12:00am

Want to be the next martial arts superstar? Want to be like Tony Jaa in the kung-fu movie Ong-bak? Well, a good place to start would be by taking up taekwondo, one of Hong Kong's most popular martial arts.

Taekwondo is a traditional Korean martial art that focuses on high, spinning kicks. It's physically demanding and requires strong legs, flexible muscles, good body co-ordination and speedy movements. But this shouldn't put children off starting the sport.

'Once children get involved, taekwondo can give them a sense of achievement,' says Paul Lai Hau-shing, a veteran instructor in charge of the Hong Kong Junior Taekwondo Team.

'My students particularly feel they've achieved something when they complete a set pattern,' says Lai. A set pattern is a series of defending and attacking movements. Each taekwondo level has different set patterns and you can tell a student's level by the colour of their waist belt. A beginner wears a white belt and this is followed by yellow, green, blue, red and black, with an intermediate level between each of them.

It takes about five to seven years to obtain a black belt. But, the journey does not end there: there are still 10 black belt levels to be achieved. Once you reach the fifth level, you become a 'master of masters'.

However, to do so requires not only physical strength but also a healthy mind. While you may fancy using your taekwondo skills to ward off school bullies, practising the martial art does not mean you can kick or punch someone whenever you want. Instead, taekwondo involves a lot of self-discipline.

'Taekwondo practitioners must have a sense of propriety, justice, honesty and honour as well as patience and an indomitable spirit to overcome their inner shortcomings,' says Lai.

Unsurprisingly, courtesy also plays a huge role in the sport as it's heavily influenced by Confucianism. 'We talk about 'beginning with courtesy and ending with courtesy'. Taekwondo practitioners must not only salute their instructors before or after a training session but also the training grounds as well. This is to show respect to the place where you are trained,' says Lai.

As a result, taekwondo is as much a mental as a physical sport and can help teenagers to overcome challenges. Take 16-year-old Chan Wah-lun who says he was very nervous when he took the test for his yellow belt. But, once he overcame that challenge, he obtained a black belt within five years and is now a member of the Hong Kong Junior Taekwondo Team.

'I am not a shy person any more. I've met a lot of new friends through practising taekwondo and I'm confident in most situations,' says Chan.

The sport also fuels a passion for excellence. Ng Ka-yan, 16, has been practising taekwondo for seven years. 'I will feel unhappy if I play well and lose,' she says. 'But the worst is when, for some reason, I cannot perform at my best in a competition.'

For more information, call the Hong Kong Taekwondo Association on 2504 8116.