Bruise brothers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 December, 2010, 12:00am


It's Saturday night at Tai Kok Tsui sports centre and half-naked men are tumbling around on the floor. In one corner 'Madness', a rail-thin man carrying just 50kg on his 165cm-tall frame, has his body contorted and is turned upside down, as he is wrapped around the back of a much larger opponent.

In another corner, two brothers grapple. The younger one wraps his arms behind his brother's back and flips him over his head and crashing to the floor. Elsewhere a man is stomping on a fallen opponent.

These guys are members of the Hong Kong Wrestling Association. Made up of 10 twenty-somethings, it is essentially a meet-up group for fans who practise professional wrestling for fun.

Professional wrestling has its roots in 19th-century American circus acts and is choreographed to give the illusion of a contact sport. In the US, where the shows are mass entertainment spectacles, it is a billion-dollar business.

Yet pro-wrestling is relatively unknown in Hong Kong and few have heard of the association, even though it has put on a dozen shows over the past couple of years.

'I explain to people that pro-wrestling is a male soap opera mixed in with magic,' association founder Ho Ho-lun says.

Buoyed by an infusion of more experienced wrestlers, Ho and his friends are staging their biggest show yet next week. Dubbing it 'Battle Winter', they hope the event at the Sai Wan Ho Youth Outreach Centre will help to attract broader interest with a bill featuring a couple of professionals from abroad, including Japan's Kanzaki Kazuya.

A university research assistant, 23-year-old Ho caught the bug four years ago after meeting a retired Korean wrestler in Guangzhou.

'I had watched wrestling on television and was interested to learn the secrets,' he says. 'I went to Guangzhou every weekend and he taught me the ins and outs.'

For the first two months, Ho spent most of the time on his back. 'Learning how to fall properly is the most crucial part,' he says.

Ho started an internet group a year later to find others who wanted to learn wrestling moves and 'play'. Many showed interest at first but quit after realising how much it hurt.

'It's scripted and we're not trying to hit one another, but you still get bruises and bumps,' he says.

Eventually, the few who stayed became regulars and the association put on its first official show at a Sha Tin warehouse in 2007. The surprisingly adept group performs far more sophisticated manoeuvres than one would expect; sensational moves such as the German suplex, tombstone pile-driver and power bomb are all recreated to full effect.

Ho and his crew have even incorporated the outrageous characters and over-the-top scenarios beloved in the US. 'Madness' (real name Leung Ho-kwong) is a long-haired wrestler who carries a fake knife; another man wrestles in a dress and is known as 'Wusolui' (Cantonese for moustached girl).

A popular bout is a 'ladder match' where wrestlers vie to retrieve an item hanging above the ring. In the US, it is usually a gold championship belt; here, it is model Chrissie Chau Sau-na's photo book.

The group's previous shows usually attracted fewer than 80 people, most of them friends. The crew didn't mind - they were wrestling for fun.

But when Greg Tasker, an established wrestler from Britain's independent circuit, moved to Hong Kong to attend university this year, Ho saw it as a perfect opportunity to expand the HKWA.

'I came to study criminology at City University, hoping to take a break from wrestling, but Ho called and dragged me back in,' says the 23-year-old, who spent four years with the Grand Pro Wrestling circuit in northwest England.

Tasker has been crucial to the development of the HKWA crew: he has not only given them pointers on techniques but also tips on showmanship.

'The most important thing is to play to the audience's perspective, not your own,' Tasker explains. 'It's all a show.'

Any move that involves one person being lifted and thrown to the ground, for example, must be a joint effort. 'The person being lifted helps the lifter by jumping off the floor and then pushing off with his arms to support his own weight,' Tasker says.

'But the part where he gets thrown on the floor? That's no illusion.'

The battle between good and evil is a core theme in wrestling shows. Performers often take on the role of protagonist ('face' in wrestling terms) and antagonist ('heel') in a match, and Tasker is an expert heel. He works the crowd - flexing after a big move, fixing his hair in the middle of a match, and showing exaggerated agony when he is hit.

Battle Winter will be their first show staged outside the New Territories, and Ho expects a crowd of more than 300.

For Chinese-Canadian brothers Jeff and Kevin Man, grappling in Battle Winter is a dream come true. Growing up as teenagers in the US during the 90s, they were swept up in the wrestling boom: at the time the World Wrestling Federation (now known as World Wrestling Entertainment) sold out stadiums worldwide and set records for cable-TV ratings.

'We used to wrestle each other around the house, dreaming we'd one day put on a real show,' says elder brother Jeff.

Although the moves are carefully choreographed, pro-wrestling can be dangerous - you can only fake being thrown on the mat and hit with a chair to a degree - and unlike other sporting events, there are no trained medical staff on standby.

'Well, one of our wrestlers works at a hospital, so that's good enough,' says a half-joking Ho.

The lack of official attention is both good and bad. 'The government doesn't care, or understand, what we do, so they don't put restrictions on our shows,' Ho says. 'But at the same time we receive zero support, even though what we do should be considered either a sport or a performing art.'

Police turned up last year when Wyatt Lo Yin-wai (H5Y1) was injured during a match.

'I was to be hit in the head with a light tube,' Lo recalls. 'We had practised it many times before but something went wrong during the show and blood gushed from the top of my head.

'Somebody called the police ... but when they got here they were satisfied with our explanation.'

Lo finished the match with a bloodied face.

'Wrestlers don't get the respect they deserve,' laments Ho. 'Some people dismiss what we do because it's 'fake'. But there's nothing fake about the training and the pain we go through.'

Leung doesn't think pro-wrestling will catch on in the city. A music writer for a local magazine, he sees himself as part of a small counterculture community.

'Hong Kong culture is mainly driven by commercialisation and consumerism. There isn't a big, healthy subculture here,' he says. 'The people who go to our shows are the same guys over and over - someone from the alternative scene, like a rocker or a street artist.'

Ho concedes that a full-time career as a professional wrestler may not be feasible in Hong Kong. 'The goal is to just put on more shows, make a name for ourselves,' he says. 'Who knows? Maybe promoters in Japan or the US will recruit one of us. That would be the dream.'

Battle Winter, January 8, 8pm, Youth Outreach, 2 Holy Cross Path, Sai Wan Ho. Tickets: HK$100 (presale), HK$120. Inquiries: 5162 2295,