Enjoying the best of both worlds
Teammates Rowan Varty, Keith Robertson and Anthony Haynes share more than a few things in common.
Apart from playing for the Hong Kong sevens team, all grew up in Hong Kong, all attended English Schools Foundation (ESF) schools, all went to university in the UK and all are proud to be from Hong Kong, which they regard as home.
But perhaps the most uniting feature is that all three have an Asian mother and an English father.
The East-West mix is something they feel defines them. As all three see it, they are fortunate to have had the best of both worlds. 'I don't know that if you grew up in Hong Kong as a westerner you'd have quite the same experience,' says Haynes. 'It's an extra dimension in your character. We celebrate all of the Chinese festivals with my mother's family and we look forward to them. We follow the Chinese traditions of the table, such as serving the best part of the suckling pig, the biggest prawn, the plumpest piece of pork or the cheek of the fish to the most honoured or oldest guests. '
Whereas in western cultures, close family involvement is often seen as stifling by the average 20-year-old, in Chinese culture, it's quite the opposite. 'Embracing Chinese traditions like this gives you strength in your character,' says Haynes. 'Whenever I play, I know I have the support of the whole family here. Even if they don't understand rugby, they are always supportive and they understand the close ties that bind a Chinese family.
'My Cantonese could really do with some work. The Chinese guys in the team all have really good English. At the end of the day, not only do we speak the same language, we all really feel part of Hong Kong and blessed to be from here. This is our home, and we're very proud of that.'
Robertson jokes that one of the many practical benefits of having an Asian parent is that you can be out in the hot Hong Kong sun playing rugby and not worry about sunburn as much as western counterparts.
Robertson grew up in Hong Kong as what is recently termed 'a third culture kid'. His mother is Filipina, his father is English. Growing up in a place that neither parent was originally from doesn't faze any of them. He has 36 first cousins, half of whom live in the US.
Like Varty and Haynes, Robertson says he took his interesting ethnic mix for granted until he went to university. 'There are so many people that you go to school with, play rugby and hang out with in Hong Kong that have parents from different races, you don't really think about it. Then you go to university and everyone says, 'Oh, you're Asian', and you sort of think, 'Well, yeah'.
'I feel just like everyone else here, I feel pretty westernised. But at University in Nottingham, I do find myself gravitating towards people who are Asian or partly Asian - and they to you. Keith and Rowan are at the same uni. We are all considered exotic, I suppose.'
Said Varty: 'All three of us confuse everybody with our accents. In America, they think we're English. In England, they think we're American. People say to us, 'Where did you get those accents?' They really can't pick it.'
Robertson is proud of the fact he and his teammates have come through the Hong Kong rugby pathway. 'I'm a Hong Kong kid through and through. Rowan, Anthony and I plus most of our teammates grew up playing rugby through the Hong Kong system. Really, we're the first generation of players who can say that. We all went to the Sevens for as long as we can remember and have looked up to the players there over the years.'
Even as a youngster, Robertson always had the Hong Kong Sevens in mind, and has ambitions beyond this. 'Whenever I went to the Sevens as a child I knew that I wanted to play for Hong Kong one day. [He is playing his fourth Sevens]. It would be awesome to represent the Hong Kong in the Olympics, too,' says Robertson, who is particularly inspired by China's Johnny Zhang Zhiqiang.
'We look up to the guy who still has the record for the highest points score at the Hong Kong Sevens, all the team does. He's an incredible player.'
Haynes has obviously been close to the game all his life. His father is the HKRFU's director of youth, and his brother, Ed, also plays rugby but is currently injured. Haynes was inspired by players he saw as a youngster at the Hong Kong Sevens.
'I grew up totally in awe of Fiji's Waisale Serevi and William Ryder, and New Zealand's Jonah Lomu and Christian Cullen. I'm also inspired by Ben Gollings [of England]. One of the great things about playing for Hong Kong is that you get to play against people of this calibre. It was amazing playing against Gollings in the group stages of the Dubai World Cup last year.'
Robertson is not only Varty's teammate, he is also his flatmate. 'He's kinda short like me, and a lot of our friends are mixed race, like us,' Robertson says.
Of the three, Varty is the only one whose father grew up here. 'Like Keith, my mother's not local Hong Kong Chinese. She's Macanese, of Portuguese descent,' he said. 'My father is from England, he is a quantity surveyor, as was his father.'
Not many people who grow up in Hong Kong with a western parent share a school alumni with them. Both Varty and his father are on the honour roll at King George V, Hong Kong's oldest school for westerners dating back to 1894. Both were heads of their house, Upsdell. (Varty's mother went there also and her family are also on the roll.)
'The guys in the team tease me for being from 'the dark side' [the term used for Kowloon side]. I suppose my school was less gweilo [western] than West Island school where Keith and Anthony went.
In hindsight, Varty is very pleased his parents gave him a very different childhood to many in Hong Kong. 'My mother wanted us to have the childhood she did and to appreciate the country we come from. So she'd take us down to the intense crowds of Sham Shui Po to eat congee [a local soupy rice dish] at dai pai dongs [street restaurants].'
Varty also had a regular taste of the 42 per cent of Hong Kong that is deemed country park. 'We had an old Chinese village house in the very northern part of Hong Kong in Hoi Ha, which is now a marine park. It had no air-con, no TV. My sister and I had to make our own fun fishing or roaming in the bush.'
Like Robertson and Haynes, Varty says he didn't realise what a charmed existence he had growing up in Hong Kong until he came back from university. 'I'm onto my sixth year of representing my country in the Hong Kong Sevens. Hong Kong offers you so many experiences.'
Centre. Age 20, 1.83m, 88kgs
HK Sevens appearances: Fourth
Winger. Age: 24, 1.7m, 80kg
HK Sevens appearances: Five
Scrumhalf/flyhalf. Age 22, 1.67m, 70kg
HK Sevens appearances: Fourth