A frequent comment from runners I know is that Hong Kong's annual marathon lacks a festive atmosphere and cheering crowds. In some other cities - Tokyo is often mentioned - the marathon is a major civic event. It seems the whole city comes out to eat, drink, have fun and cheer on the runners.
Our main marathon is limited to an early-morning time slot and a route along certain major road links. For runners from round the world, the urban scenery probably makes up for the lack of spectators. But some visionary people have decided it would be nice for Hong Kong to have an annual run designed around local neighbourhoods and residents.
The result is the Hong Kong Streetathon, a 10km run that took place the weekend before last in East Kowloon. The event started and ended near the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, which provided plenty of space for bands, pre-run yoga, a post-race picnic and various entertaining family attractions.
East Kowloon was a good choice for a fun run. The residential areas support a diverse range of businesses. The formerly industrial parts of Kwun Tong are increasingly dedicated to office and retail use, as the area is transformed into a new business hub.
East Kowloon is also the focus of a government plan for a new business hub away from northern Hong Kong Island. Officials are taking steps to improve the quality of life in the area and nurture clusters of artists and creative industries. To give one example, the government is turning fenced-off zones under the Kwun Tong bypass flyover into public space.
A run through the streets with a carnival atmosphere is just what a district like this needs, and the Streetathon organisers - RunOurCity - were able to gain government support. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was there, and the event would not have been possible without extensive co-operation from authorities over traffic and other issues. With help from sponsors, the organisers had the resources to get the basics in place.
It was a well-organised occasion. The route included bridges and side streets, and it started at 8.30am, so participants could invite family and friends along. One nice touch was that runners could personalise their bibs rather than have an anonymous number on them.
Neighbourhood groups also provided cheerleaders along the way. Not least, the event raised funds for social enterprises in the Kwun Tong area. The first Streetathon did not attract huge numbers of onlookers along the route. The organisers hope in the future to encourage more involvement among local residents.
Anyone involved in events such as this knows they start relatively small. (Old-timers look back with nostalgia to the days when Oxfam Trailwalker or the Rugby Sevens were intimate events relatively unknown outside Hong Kong.)
But there was a real buzz. RunOurCity showed it can be done, and they are thinking positively. They are looking at ways to encourage more people, especially the young, to get into running. They are also looking at the possibility of launching a similar event in the Tsim Sha Tsui-Yau Ma Tei-Mong Kok area, possibly using West Kowloon to host the carnival activities.
To me, this was the beginning of what could become a big success. The organisation was more bottom-up and decentralised than more established and corporate events. And, in an environment increasingly dominated by the needs of tourism, it is aimed purely at Hong Kong people and their own neighbourhood. The run and the fun were worthwhile in themselves, but they also helped raise funds, which go back into community projects. In a city where we hear so much about problems, it is good to see something so positive.
Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council