Sammy Tam Kai-cheung has been passionate about judo since he was aged 13. Now 38, I ask him jokingly how many people he thinks he’s thrown over his shoulder in the past 25 years.
I’m a bit alarmed when he pauses thoughtfully and says: “Oh, hundreds.”
Okay, so no controversial questions then. Let’s keep Sammy smiling.
Tam talks about how strict he is with the young adults he mentors at the Hong Kong College of Technology .
They need focus and discipline, often coming from social backgrounds where there is little support.
So a bit of tough love from Tam gives them a sense of belonging, a sense of right and wrong, and the training for a prospective career in the disciplined services.
Tam worked for 10 years in the Correctional Services Department, passing on to prison officers the skills to help them handle themselves and also to handle the inmates when required.
It gave him a certain level of satisfaction. But what he has been able to achieve subsequently with the 6,000 or so teenagers who have been under his tutelage since 2010 at the Hong Kong College of Technology – and since 2006 at other institutions – has been hugely rewarding, he says.
“About 1,000 of those have gone on to work in the disciplined services,” he says.
At the college, Tam prepares the teenagers for the Yi Jin Diploma, taught over a year and which involves a lot of physical training.
“In a way, this course prepares them to join the Correctional Services Department (CSD) , the Hong Kong Police Force, the Fire Department and the Immigration Department,” says Chan.
At the gym, he shows a crowd of young men and a few young women how to improve the muscles in their upper arms by lifting their bodies.
There are a few laughs, and a bit of shyness, as each participant struggles with what Tam has just demonstrated with ease.
There’s plenty of camaraderie and banter – he chides them for their haircuts – but Tam also expects respect and order.
“I had one student who kept making inappropriate hand signals during one session,” he said.
“So I took him aside at the end and tore him down a strip. He later sent me a note via SMS apologising. He’s been working for the CSD for the past four years and every so often he texts me.”
Tam cares deeply for these youngsters. Many come from single parent families, are new mainland migrants, or are on social welfare. For various reasons, their parents are not there to support them and Tam takes on the role of an older brother.
At 13, he had ambitions to make it to the Olympics. He represented Hong Kong at the Asian Games in 2002 and the judo World Championships in 2003.
“I didn’t do that well,” he says. “But once I got there, I felt as if I had achieved my dream.”
Tam felt that somehow he became sidetracked from his judo ambitions and that he could have gone further.
“Someone who came after me in the judo team was able to go to the Olympics. I wasn’t exactly a mentor to him, but I do feel that I fulfilled the role of older brother.”
Tam recalls one year watching 600 of his students preparing for interviews for the disciplined services. They had come to him from Form 6.
“I read what they had written for their interview prep,” he says, “and I became quite teary”. He felt many of the children were being stymied in their life ambitions by their family background.
When any of his students decide to join the disciplined services, Tam always ensures he attends their graduation.
“Judo helps build confidence and physical fitness,” says Tam, who this year was honoured with the Best Judo Coach Award by the Judo Association of HK, China.
“But most importantly it gave me a goal and dream to work towards. And now that I have achieved my dreams, I want to help others to achieve theirs.”