City of angles: Five outdoor enthusiasts show a different view of Hong Kong
The stories of five outdoor enthusiasts and how their passions give them a different view of Hong Kong.
Tessa Chan and Charley Lanyon
Watch: Hong Kong as you've never seen it before
Ernesto Spicciolato emerges from the mist and drags his kayak up onto the shore in the otherwise empty Hap Mun bay on what has turned out to be one of the foggiest days of the year – the zero visibility adds to the sense of utter remoteness, though we’re actually only a 15-minute ride away from Sai Kung pier.
“Kayaking is all about freedom,” he says. “I like everything about it: I like the shape of the object, I like the silence, how the kayak cuts the waves.”
A designer and senior teaching fellow at Polytechnic University’s School of Design, in his spare time Spicciolato collects vintage and abandoned kayaks, and repairs and customises them. He paddles around the islands surrounding Sai Kung and goes spearfishing, before heading home to dine on his catch.
“I like Sharp Island because it’s quite big and savage, and by kayaking you can go to beaches that nobody else can get to. And here, in Hap Mun bay, there are some really nice caves,” he says. “The sea in this area is clean, you can find a lot of coral, colourful fish, and it’s beautiful.”
Spicciolato has lived here for 12 years and started kayaking seven years ago. While there are rivers near his hometown in a national park in Abruzzo, Italy, he enjoys exploring Hong Kong’s seas.
“It’s very difficult to find a place in the world that has all this diversity,” he says.
“Here it’s much more interesting. In Sai Kung we have many islands very close to each other. And also inside the country park there are rivers, so in one day you can really experience very different perspectives. The shape of Hong Kong, with all these islands is like a playground for kayakers. There’s more variety, and it’s kind of a shrunken landscape.”
He goes kayaking with his wife and daughters, and believes it’s a simple sport that is accessible to people of all ages. “It’s a smooth sport, it’s not aggressive, and also can benefit all the muscles of your body – legs, abdominals, shoulders, back ... after kayaking you will feel very well.”
Spicciolato, who is planning the production of a new low cost, high-performance kayak, recommends that beginners start with simple fibreglass, ride-in (as opposed to ride-on-top) kayaks, and not to use the heavy plastic ones. “Those kayaks really don’t give you any sensation. It’s very heavy to push them.” He says professional kayaks are very expensive, so suggests looking out for abandoned ones and “just fixing them a little bit with fibreglass”. Alternatively, you can sign up for a course inside the country park, for as little as HK$30 for two days.
See it yourself: Spicciolato sent his daughter to learn kayaking and sailing at Chong Hing Water Sports Centre and says after a two-day course she quickly learnt the basics and gained confidence. You need to book in advance: go to lcsd.gov.hk/watersport for details.
Wong Ming O clings by her fingertips a few feet from the top of a cliff. From the ground she looks stuck, with nothing on either side but smooth rock face. Then she begins to swing. Holding on with just her fingers she swings her legs back and forth; the crowd below inhales as one and holds its breath. At the top of her swing she lets go, throws herself with all her strength across the rock wall and grabs another tiny crack. In one motion she pulls herself up and over the lip of the cliff.
“She’s done it,” shout other climbers watching from below. “She made the jump!” At this point Wong is already on her way down, having stopped for only a minute on top of the rock to admire the view, a satisfied smile on her face.
“I’ve been climbing for 13 years,” she says once she’s safely back down. “I used to climb five times a week ... now it’s only three times a week.” The fact she can climb that much at all is an achievement. She spends most of her days in court where she works as a judge’s clerk. And she has a son, who is standing below watching her climb.
Wong is 37 years old but looks 10 years younger. As she climbs, muscles in her back and arms ripple. Rock climbing obviously requires extreme fitness – but brute strength isn’t enough: “Climbing is a balanced sport. You need your mind and your body to be strong.”
It is also a test of dedication. The climbers waiting on the rock say that if you can’t climb at least once a week don’t even bother, your muscles simply won’t be able to develop. In this group, dedicated climbers like Wong are more the rule than the exception, and that much time spent climbing together forges a lasting bond. While one person climbs, the group supports them, literally as well as psychologically, holding their support ropes and shouting encouragement.
Wong says there are many great hidden places to climb in Hong Kong. Today she is scaling a rock face on Beacon Hill in Lion Rock Country Park. From the road below the rock is barely discernable: a small splash of light brown amongst the green, dotted with the spandex-clad bodies of climbers.
Other favourite climbing spots of Wong’s are the sea cliffs of Tung Lung Chau. She also loves to climb Lion Rock itself. On those climbs she says she can see a side of the city that most people don’t even know exists.
“When you’re climbing Lion Rock you can see almost every part of Hong Kong. It is so beautiful ... I feel so lucky because if I wasn’t a rock climber I could not have seen that view.”
Wanna hang? Visit the Hong Kong Mountaineering and Climbing Union website or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
You could hear a pin drop at the entrance of the Ho Pui trail on Tai Mo Shan, where we meet mountain biker Kenneth Lam. As we follow him past the warning signs towards the black diamond, or “very difficult”, grade-route, an eerie light filters through the brilliantly green, densely packed foliage creating patterns around the silhouettes of tangled branches overhead.
“It gives you a feeling of mental freedom,” says Lam, who has been active in the local mountain biking scene for almost eight years.
“You have to trace how the trail looks and learn to react to it to try to go as fast as you can. This sport is different from motor sports, because you’re using your own power. Yes, it’s scary, but once you try it you’ll love it.”
Lam, 38, who was the only cyclist representing Asia at the World Enduro series last year in Italy, works at a cycling store, Gravity Reaction Cycles. He meets a crew of fellow devotees every week, and together they rent a van and drive to Tai Mo Shan Route Twisk, for a half-day dose of adrenaline.
“I think that most people in Hong Kong don’t know what downhill mountain biking is. Our estimation is that there are 20,000 people riding mountain bikes in Hong Kong, and only 3,000 or 4,000 who do downhill,” he says.
“I don’t think you can find any other sport in this city where you can enjoy the country park and also have this feeling of excitement inside.”
Lam insists that mountain biking is safer than road biking, especially in Hong Kong’s crowded environment. “Even if you crash on the mountain bike trail, it’s not as bad as on the road. I mean, you may have a little bit of scratching on the skin but it’s more safe, actually. That’s my point of view.”
He says natural trails are also a good place for people to improve their riding skills and that even children can learn, with guidance. He recommends starting with one of the experience trails in Tai Mo Shan Tin Fu Tsai North, and Tai Lam Chung.
“Even on the same trail, in different weather there are different challenges,” he says, adding that in Hong Kong most of the trails are not yet up to international standards, and many have loose rocks and soil erosion.
He doesn’t seem to be particularly anxious for people to come and share his favourite spot, but does admit that it’s an experience not to be missed. “It’s an exciting sport,” he says, pulling on a full-face helmet and wheeling his bike to start of the slope.
“And you won’t find anywhere else in the world where you can find the mountain biking so close to your living space. You just drive 30 minutes from downtown and go riding.”
Downhill from here: go to facebook.com/MTBHK for advice and details on trails.
Parkour is about finding the most efficient way to move from one point to another, says 24-year-old traceur Daniel Wan, who has been practising since high school. “It means tackling obstacles along the way, and finding the right way for yourself.”
But it’s also a way to explore the city and interact with elements of the urban landscape and architecture that you wouldn’t usually notice.
“It feels great to treasure something that nobody pays attention to,” he says. “It changes your perspective. I used to think the city was very constricting, but now I find there’s a lot of different spots that you can go with, because in parkour we look for a lot of different obstacles – fences, high walls, drops – and the city seems more fun and free.”
Wan, who works as a personal trainer, is a coach at the Hong Kong Parkour Association. They started out as a few people, but the group grew, as everyone from school children to executives looking for an alternative form of exercise started turning up. “Now at every practice at least 30-40 people come, and we occupy a park right away.”
When an angry security guard interrupts our shoot at Pak Tsz Lane Park, Wan is respectful, but takes it (literally) in his stride. While we distract the guard with small talk, Wan swings, vaults and jumps around the railings and walls behind him. The authorities are just another obstacle to negotiate.
“We try not to engage them at all: it’s our own responsibility if we get hurt, and we know the regulations,” he says. “Parkour is legal, technically, as long as we don’t break stuff, and we’ll tell people all the time, you need to treasure what you have for practice.”
Evening rain has made the surfaces slippery, and he skids and falls a few times doing backflips; but just gets up and keeps trying until he gets it right.
Is danger part of the appeal?
The park we’re in is ideal for beginners as it has a matting area and chest-high fences. Wo On Lane, in Central is another good open space for jumps, and Kowloon Park is another favourite.
Some may be put off by the conditioning drills included in their training, warns Wan. “Hongkongers are terrible at exercising. In any sort of way. They feel that running is the best sport they can get, but actually there are huge amounts of stuff they’re missing out on: flexibility and upper body strength.”
As we talk, crowds start pouring out of the nearby offices to begin the rush-hour commute home. “People in Hong Kong don’t really slow down to appreciate the things they have,” he says. “I know there’s a terrible economy, but still, you need to slow down and appreciate the surroundings and simply admire how beautiful they are.”
During the week Yuen Wai Kit works as a police officer, but when the weekend comes he loads up his motorcycle and heads out of the city. Parking at the edge of Ma On Shan village, he straps an oversized bag to his back and hikes to the top of the mountain. There he suits up, tests the wind, and with crowds of people cheering him on, takes flight.
“I think most people have dreams. Especially the kids like me who wanted to be a pilot ... unfortunately my dad is not rich enough to buy me a plane,” Kit explains as he waits on the hilltop for the wind to die down enough for take off. “This sport is the easiest, the cheapest, and the simplest way you can have your opportunity to fly. You can own your own flying aircraft.”
After strapping into his harness, Kit unfurls a large curved parachute, using handles attached to wires to pull it up and catch the wind. It lifts him silently off the ground.
On days when the wind is strong, Kit says you can just keep flying and “stay up there all day,” but when the wind is weaker he flies all the way down the mountain side and into the urban sprawl of Hong Kong below. The twinkle in his eye implies these might be his favourite kind of flights: “Sometimes, even though we are not supposed to, I land in the stadium,” or when flying in northern Lantau, he loves splashing down in the water off a beach.
The amount of control Kit has in the sky is incredible. He hangs suspended, gliding gracefully, his feet less than a metre off the ground. A moment later he is circling upwards, 100 metres above the earth, darting in and out of the clouds, or swooping low over the spectators below.
“I just love it. I can tell you the feeling while you’re flying in the sky is so different from an airplane. It’s the same as a bird, an eagle. You catch the thermals ... and stay up in the air and it’s fantastic. You can see your shadow in the clouds. The feeling is amazing.”
Kit, who is 38, took his first flight 14 years ago. Despite how effortless he looks in the sky, he says that it can be difficult to learn: “To learn a sport, it takes time. And paragliding all depends on the wind, you know that ok? What if the wind picks up? The wind direction is not good enough? And the visibility? You can’t see if the cloud is too low. So you take the first lesson today and the next one may be two months later.”
Still, he does not express any regret at the years of hard work he has given to paragliding. Somebody asks him what it’s like up there and he stops, squinting into the sky: “Heaven. Just like heaven.”
Up for it? Check out paraglidehk.homestead.com for certified instructors. Kit is an instructor and for English speakers he recommends Steve Yancey.