Little big shots
Chan Ming-tung is still too small to play on a full-size snooker table, but the expanse of its baize doesn't faze him one bit. With a gently chalked cue, steady eye - and 8cm platforms on his shoes - the nine-year-old reaches for the white ball and slams a red into the top right-hand corner pocket. Then he pots another, and then another, and before you can say 'pot black', the youngster's cleared the table at the Prat Billiard Club in Tsim Sha Tsui.
Dong-dong, as Ming-tung is fondly called, lines up such shots every Sunday at the Hong Kong Billiard Sports Control Council's coaching sessions for young talent. He earned his slot in the programme in September, when he was runner-up to 11-year-old Kelvin Leong Man-hoi in the first Hong Kong Under-14 Snooker Championship.
Yet Dong-dong only caught the snooker bug in January when his enthusiast dad, Calvin Chan Fung, brought him along to watch a few frames at the South China Athletic Association's billiards club in So
Kon Po. Now, their Causeway Bay home is virtually a shrine to local ace Marco Fu Ka-chun, and Dong-dong regularly studies his idol's match videos after school.
At the training session, coach Neville Jeung Siu-hin summons Dong-dong, Kelvin and three other boys around his table and assigns them their latest drill. The boys arrange the balls into the shape of a cross, and tap them into the pockets, one by one.
Such coaching was almost impossible a few years back, says Jeung, a council committee member. The game was popular in Hong Kong in the 1980s but declined with the karaoke craze, and council members worried about its survival. But the sport revived with the televised success of Chinese players on the international circuit.
Fu, who put Hong Kong on the sport's international map, last month maintained his local hero status when he beat two-time world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan in the Royal London Watches Grand Prix in Scotland. The 2005 China Open triumph of Ding Junhui, the 20-year-old Jiangsu-born prodigy, has captured an audience of millions of snooker fans on the mainland.
Ding's success has also inspired Hong Kong children to learn the game, says Steve Choi Leung-chi, whose Super Snooker Training School started classes for children this summer.
The game has also cleaned up its old gangster-hustler image, says Kelvin's father, Paul Leong Kwok-po. 'The image of snooker halls in the 1970s was quite negative,' says the trading company owner.
'I didn't dare to go to snooker clubs until I was in my 20s. But the image has improved so much. People realise snooker is a proper sport.'
Jeung, who has coached Kelvin for a year, attributes the sport's seedy image to the movies. 'There're still some filmmakers who want to rent our place as a location for gangster movies,' he says. 'But I've turned them down.'
The government's smoking ban in January has also cleared the air in snooker halls.
'I wouldn't send my kid to play snooker in the smoke-filled clubs,' says snooker mum Sharon Lau Sheung-wan. Her seven-year-old son, Chang Yu-kiu, was so entranced by O'Sullivan's displays on television that he begged her to buy him a set of snooker toys.
Now he goes for two hours' coaching every Sunday in Mong Kok and is moving up in the snooker world. When he first picked up a cue, Yu-kiu had to stand on a stool to angle his shots; now he's just big enough to see over the top of the table. 'He's very sensitive on maths,' says Lau, a civil servant. 'So we think snooker may be a sport suitable for him because it involves mental maths.'
Chan, an engineer, also thinks the snooker training has a positive effect on Dong-dong's mental development. 'Snooker is a gentleman's sport,' he says.
'Unlike most sports which require great physical energy, snooker is more a psychological and tactical game. Playing snooker is good training for kids.'
Chan says Dong-dong has changed a lot since taking up snooker. 'He used to be a very clingy boy, relying on his parents and domestic helper,' he says. 'But as he plays snooker, he learns to be more independent because when he's in competition he's on his own.'
Even so, snooker is a demanding game and you need the right personality to become a good player, says Jeung. Novices are required to adopt the same potting posture many times, sometimes for an hour until they get it right. This may be a tall order for children who don't have much interest in the sport, the coach says.
Fu agrees. 'When you have to practise three to six hours a day and go through lengthy competitions, you gradually develop willpower and concentration,' says the 29-year-old, who took up snooker when he was eight.
The game also hones a young player's patience and analytical skills, says Leong. 'When Kelvin loses, he'll try to analyse his tactics and the mistakes he's made.'
The council and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department are building on the successful draw of new talent to their inaugural Hong Kong Under-14 Snooker Championship this year, Jeung says.
'In Hong Kong most people only start playing snooker at 18 or 19,' he says. 'We're lagging behind because England has long been training eight- or nine-year-olds. Thailand and the mainland have also started recruiting children with potential for training.'
Fu says he's delighted to see the younger generation picking up snooker, and often gives talks and demonstrations in schools. He hopes the Hong Kong snooker community will host more training programmes and international competitions such as the council's recent Euro-Asia Snooker Master Challenge, which attracted more than 10,000 fans.
'Even international snooker players were amazed by Hong Kong people's enthusiastic response to the cue sport. I hope the interest will continue,' Fu says.
Dong-dong wants to become a professional player and his father has hired a personal coach to help polish his skills. 'Being a professional player has a bright future as snooker is getting bigger and bigger on the mainland,' Chan says. 'Snooker is a sport with a long lifespan. It's worth investing early.'
The game is also more fun than it seems, says Kelvin. The local under-14 champion admits the game seemed boring when he first followed his father and elder brother into a snooker club. But he fell in love with the sport when he started to pot balls on a big table, and now enjoys the attention when he plays.
'There's a great sense of achievement,' Kelvin says. 'It's a great mental game because you also have to guess what strategy your opponent is using. It's fun.'
Sounds as if the champion is lining up a shot at a big future.