For Hong Kong’s parkour fans, city is one giant obstacle course
Hong Kong’s small but enthusiastic gang of parkour lovers take free running to new heights, and say the sport is growing and becoming more accepted
Tim Yeung jumps onto a fence railing at a skate park in Tai Wo Hau and shimmies along before jumping to the ground.
It might be a skatepark but Yeung’s practising another activity – parkour, the acrobatic sport that sees practitioners jumping like cats from rooftops and benches to fences and anything in between.
Yeung runs over and sits on a bench next to me, the slogan on his T-shirt summing up the philosophy of parkour: “We start together, We finish together.”
It’s a Monday night and members of the Hong Kong Parkour Association have gathered in the remote park one stop from the end of the Tsuen Wan MTR line. (Kowloon Park is also a popular training spot.) There’s not much going on outside Exit A but if you’re a traceur – the name for a person who takes part in the activity of parkour, or free running – then the park, with its benches, railings, steps and playground equipment, is a smorgasbord of welcome obstacles.
There’s Ning 27, Gon 25, and 21-year-old Fish. Hecham is the only non-Chinese. He’s from Morocco and for the past seven years has called Hong Kong home. This is his first attempt at parkour. “I saw videos of people doing it and thought I’d have a go.”
A few minutes later Joyce turns up. She won’t tell me her age but says she’s often the only female in the group. “I’ve been doing parkour for almost three years and I love it ... I’m at the beginner stage and I try and practise once a week.”
Yeung says he turned to parkour while searching for a sport at university. “I was immediately attracted to the parkour movements.”
Parkour’s roots are in France, where it was developed by Raymond Belle, and then taken further in the 1980s by his son David and his friends, who became known as the Yamakasi, the original group of parkour practitioners from Lisses, a suburb of Paris, France. The younger Belle says his motto echoes the words of Hong Kong martial arts star Bruce Lee: “There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. A man must constantly exceed his level. If you’re not better than you were the day before, then what are you doing – what’s the point?”
In Belle’s 2009 book Parkour, he says the most important aspect of parkour is not the physical movement but the practitioner’s understanding of its principles.
“When young trainees give me videos telling me to check out what they are doing, I just take the tape and throw it away. What I’m interested in is what the guy’s got in his head, if he has self-confidence, if he masters the technique, if he has understood the principles of parkour. I just can’t deal with guys who do parkour because they saw videos on the internet and thought it was kinda cool and want to do even better.”
The discipline has made its way into pop culture from films (see below) to advertising campaigns by multinationals including Coca-Cola, Nike and Toyota. Madonna featured parkour in her 2006 Confessions Tour.
Video games have also jumped on the parkour bandwagon: Assassin’s Creed features a lot of parkour movement, while The Mirror’s Edge games involve efficiently moving around buildings, rooftops and other obstacles.
Parkour is not defined by rules, making it attractive to young people. It allows them to explore and engage in the activity on their own terms, and it can be easily adapted to all cultures as a means of personal expression and recreation. Nowhere was this best illustrated than in a 2014 New York Times feature showing images of children in war-torn Gaza using bombed out areas to practise parkour.
Much like a martial art, parkour demands mental and physical discipline from its followers.
“It’s a full-body exercise that improves co-ordination, proprioception [knowing one’s relative position and the energy needed to move to another place] and spatial awareness,” says Yeung, as he gets on his hands and knees to demonstrate a crawl as part of “the all-important warm-up”.
The philosophy is also vital. There is a code of conduct that prohibits damaging property for reasons of efficiency. Proper behaviour, including not trespassing, is very important.
“Run-ins with police and authorities were a problem when the public didn’t know much about the sport but it’s been much better in recent years,” says Yeung.
He also reiterates the importance of respecting the environment they utilise. “We should always respect other users of the space and also the owners [or] the management of the space. We care about the properties as much as the owners of the properties – we’ll have nothing to play with if we damage them.”
As for Hong Kong being well designed for the moves? “The spirit of parkour is to adapt to the environment and not perform specific moves, so it’s hard to say if a place is well designed for parkour. However, from the training point of view, there are loads of great spots for different moves in Hong Kong.”
The Hong Kong Parkour Association holds weekly sessions between 8pm and 9.30pm at various locations throughout Hong Kong. Practitioners of all levels are welcome.
For more details, join the Hong Kong Parkour Association Facebook group.
Parkour in film
Parkour has featured in a number of films, mostly in scenes played by buff shirtless males. Here are our top seven:
Taxi 2 (2000), directed by Gérard Krawczyk
Police inspector Emilien and his taxi-driver pal Daniel return, this time on the trail of a group of Japanese yakuza.
Yamakasi (2001), directed by Ariel Zeitoun and Julien Seri
Gravity or police, these guys don’t believe in any law. Idolised by the youth of Paris as much as they’re hated by the police, they are the Yamakasi, modern-day samurais.
District B13 (2004), directed by Pierre Morel
Set in the ghettos of Paris in 2010, an undercover cop and ex-thug try to infiltrate a gang in order to defuse a neutron bomb. See David Belle, considered the founder of parkour, pull off some amazing moves.
Casino Royale (2006), directed by Martin Campbell
Secret agent James Bond, on his first mission as 007, must defeat a weapons dealer in a high stakes game of poker at Casino Royale, but things are not what they seem. His parkour skills are pretty impressive, though.
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), directed by Paul Greengrass
Jason Bourne dodges a ruthless CIA official and his agents from a new assassination programme while searching for the origins of his life as a trained killer. Here’s Bourne in full parkour mode:
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), directed by Guy Ritchie
Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr Watson try to outwit their fiercest adversary, Professor Moriarty.
Watch out for some parkour-trained Cossack assassins.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013), directed by Jon M. Chu
The G.I. Joes are not only fighting their mortal enemy Cobra, they are also forced to contend with threats from within the government. Action-packed parkour.