Hong Kong's skateparks dogged by safety issues and design flaws
The city's skateparks are finally being built to international standards but authorities deem them too dangerous
The appropriately named Marty McFly might have outwitted the bad guys in the fictional version of 2015, as depicted in 1989 movie Back to the Future Part II. But the "hoverboard" he piloted is still a dream, despite the recent debut in California of the Hendo Hoverboard, which levitates at 2.5 centimetres.
Still, its earth-bound predecessor, the skateboard, retains considerable cachet among the heirs of the original skateboarders, California's "sidewalk surfers" of the 1950s.
Hong Kong has a plethora of outdoor and indoor skateparks, from Fanling to Chai Wan and Kwun Tong - although some of them are well past their prime. One of the biggest and potentially the best is also the newest, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) skatepark at Tseung Kwan O's Velodrome Park.
Opened last year, the 2,600-square-metre park, with its half-pipes (U-shaped ramps) and bowl (imagine a large flan dish) has an impressive pedigree: it was built by Convic, the Melbourne company behind the Fanling, Po Kong and Tung Chung skateparks. According to the LCSD, it was "specifically designed for skateboarding and aggressive inline skating, with … varying levels of steepness and difficulty for skateboarders of all abilities".
The last point was central to the project accepted by Convic, whose 600 facilities around the globe include the world's largest skatepark, in New Jiangwan City, Shanghai (which, at a whopping 13,700 square metres, dwarfs Tseung Kwan O's), as well as parks from Sweden to New Zealand.
"We were approached by the Hong Kong government and we worked closely with the Hong Kong Federation of Extreme Sports [X-Fed] to identify what was required in the community," says Simon Oxenham, Convic managing director and former elite-level skateboarder.
"Those most recently developed in Hong Kong are comparable to skateparks anywhere. The Po Kong and Tseung Kwan O parks are world class and have been designed to facilitate professional and international competitions, as well as to provide opportunities for beginners and intermediate riders," he says.
"But there are some Hong Kong parks that were created in the late '90s or early 2000s that are now outdated in their design. These can be quite dangerous," adds Oxenham. "I believe X-Fed is working hard to have them brought up to international standard."
In fact a number of Hong Kong's skateparks are facing problems. Tseung Kwan O Skatepark was designed with the input of X-Fed vice-president Warren Stuart, who praises its maximisation of space and variety of obstacles.
"In terms of possibilities for the user, it has the most interesting features," Stuart says. However, he laments the fact that "a third of the park is off-limits. The perfect kidney-shaped pool with granite coping has been closed because the authorities deem it too dangerous. It's the same at the Po Kong park, where there is a perfect replica of Sydney's world-famous Bondi bowl that has been gathering dust for almost three years".
Dissatisfaction with their lot has become a chronic affliction for Hong Kong's skateboarders, estimated by Stuart at roughly 3,000. As some parks have aged, their design flaws have become apparent, he says.
"At Lai Chi Kok, the surface concrete has eroded and become abrasive. When it opened in the early 2000s, residents nearby complained about the noise from the metal ramps. The LCSD filled the ramps with heavy foam, which muffled the noise but soaked up water. That led to corrosion and leaks atthe bottom of the ramps where they met the concrete on the ground. The concrete eroded, making riding those obstacles impossible. The LCSD has patched up the ground several times but they haven't fixed the root of the problem, which is the foam inside the ramps."
Elsewhere, financial constraints have brought their own problems. "Kwok Shui Road Park in Tsuen Wan was built on an underused roller skating rink; the ground is highly abrasive and the obstacles are mediocre. With Kings Park and other, smaller parks, it was the result of poor design and quality from the lowest bidder," says Stuart.
Allegedly misplaced safety directives, as well as environmental issues, swell skateboarders' concerns.
"Much of the space in Chai Wan skatepark, built around 2001, is wasted on a path round the park for spectators, with benches and greenery. And despite our objections, the LCSD's logic was to keep everything below one metre high for safety, so the ramps were the smallest in the contractor's catalogue," adds Stuart. "Chai Wan is an example of a lot of money spent on making a small skatepark even smaller, with very small obstacles. Not only that: the ramps are wooden with a plastic coating and many parts of it have rotted away.
"The Kwai Shun Street park in Kwai Chung was an unused futsal ground under a highway and was refitted to become a small skatepark. The only good thing about it is that it's under cover for when it rains. The pollution level is extreme; there's lots of dust and particulate material from the road above. I believe it to be a genuine health risk."
Back at Tseung Kwan O, novice skater Johnathan Cheung, 19, of Hang Hau, has arrived for an afternoon's practice - which it looks like he'll be undertaking solo.
"I'm a beginner, but this park is good for me as well as experts because it fits different levels of skater," says Cheung.
"I started skating when it opened; I had no interest before. It's near where I live so I meet a lot of people here and we hang out, but a lot of skaters still go to other parks because they don't really know it yet."