Time Hopping: Revisiting Hong Kong's Old School Games
Turn the clock back to the days when an “Apple” was just a fruit. What on earth did kids do before they became the tech-obsessed, phone-bound Pokémon trainers of today?
Rubber band jump rope (橡筋繩)
Back in the days when poor Hongkongers couldn’t afford a real rope, someone came up with the brilliant idea of stringing dozens of rubber bands into a long cord instead.
How to Play: There are two ways to play. The first is more straightforward—the jumper attempts to jump over the rope when two other players raise it from ankle level to shoulder level. The other way is to make a series of different jumps while the position of the string rises. There’s a chant too, which goes, “Small ball, banana oil, flowers bloom and twenty one…” It doesn’t make a lot of sense in Cantonese either.
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Aeroplane Chess (飛行棋)
Largely resembling the boardgame Ludo, Aeroplane Chess gets its name from its playing pieces, which have planes painted on top. The board is divided into four areas by color.
How to Play: The objective is simple: The first player to move all their planes to the finish wins. Starting from the “hangars” at the corners, roll the dice to decide the number of steps your plane moves each turn. On the subject of board games, the marble-based “Chinese checkers” was invented in Germany in 1892 and had nothing to do with China—it was just given the name to make it sound more “mysterious.”
Watermelon Ball (西瓜波)
Taking its name from its red and white stripes, this hollow plastic ball is said to have been invented by Hong Kong industrialist Chiang Chen in the 50s. A ball cost around the price of a can of Coke (about $2.50), so kids from poorer families could afford them.
How to Play: It’s basically the same as soccer, except the ball’s a lot harder and more fragile. Watch out for the bulging air hole sealed with plastic to prevent air leakage, which is particularly painful if it hits you in the head.
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Hong Kong Jacks (抓子)
Jacks is believed to have stemmed from Mongolia’s shagai, goats’ ankle bones used in games and fortune-telling, but in this variant the bones are replaced by five stones or beanbags. To make your own set of hand-sewn jacks, all you need is some odd bits of cloth—cut unwanted T-shirts into strips—and a handful of mung beans. Sew the cloth into five pouches and fill with beans or rice to make the jacks.
How to Play: Throw a jack into the air, grab another from the table and catch both on your palm. Lay one aside and repeat. The difficulty increases as you grab more and more jacks until you have all five in your hand.
One of the classic playground games is now mostly relegated to the history books (or Wikipedia). Hopscotch was a cornerstone in nearly every park from the 50s to the 80s. Normally just nine squares nowadays, it’s hard to imagine that it began as a 100 foot-long soldiers’ training ground in Roman Britain.
How to Play: Toss a marker into the squares one by one, and then hop into them in the same order without stepping on the lines.
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Tek jin / shuttlecock (踢毽)
Not to be mistaken for badminton shuttlecocks, this Chinese version of Hacky Sack uses a weighted shuttlecock said to be derived from cuju: one of the earliest documented forms of soccer, which evolved from Chinese military training. The weighted section is usually made from stacks of old newspapers, and you can still see circles of (older) players showing off their fancy footwork in public parks.
How to Play: There’s only one rule: keep the shuttlecock in the air as long as possible without using your hands.
Black and White (黑白)
We have no idea why it’s called Black and White, but this clapping game is a Hong Kong standard. Unlike many of its variants from around the world, Black and White doesn’t have a rhyme or song to accompany it.
How to Play:
1. Clap your hands and give your friend a right-handed high five
2. Clap your hands and give your friend a left-handed high five
3. Clap your hands and do a double high five
4. Do a double high five with the backs of your hands
5. Repeat steps 1-4, increasing the number of claps and high fives each round
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The Paper Fortune Teller: East South West North (東南西北)
While it might not work as well as a crystal ball, this origami fortune teller was the closest thing we had to it when we were kids. Its origin is unknown, although variants are common all over the world.
How to Play: The player picks a number and a compass point: The number decides how many times you open it and the direction indicates the flap you open.Make up some “fates” and write them on the inner folds.
Sound like too much effort? No worries. we’ve come up with some dares for you, just to make life exciting.Just print out this diagram, fold and start playing!
It's East South West North, HK Magazine-style!
Before kids started crushing candy and hurling birds at pigs, there was a time when we strung along a black and white pixelated Mario to save his princess. Before that came the Nintendo Family Computer, better known in Hong Kong as the “Red and White Machine.” It was released in 1986, making it the city’s first games console. The age of handhelds didn’t come until the early 90s and the first handheld digital “pet,” the Tamagotchi, was released in 1996. These wildly popular devices would have to be “fed” and looked after, and they could even be “married” to other pets. Sounds like a lot of effort, doesn’t it?
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To most of us, playing games sounds like a natural and vital component of growing up. But are kids in Hong Kong even given a chance to play? We talk to Billy Wong Wai-yuk, Executive Secretary of the Hong Kong Committee on Children’s Rights, about the situation for kids in the city, why their “right to play” is so important, and what happens when kids don’t get to play.
Some say Hong Kong’s children have no childhood. Is this true?
BW: We’ve observed that children nowadays are a lot busier than before, because of school pressure, plenty of extracurricular activities and tutorial classes. As their schedules are being taken up by adults, a lot of them are confused—they don’t know what “play” is anymore.
Why don’t kids in Hong Kong get to play?
BW: There are a few reasons: 1) The birth rate has dropped, so kids have fewer siblings or neighbors, and hence fewer playmates. 2) Parents are now better educated, and they are very concerned about their children’s safety. Many kids are not allowed to go out and adventure. 3) When constructing playground facilities, the government doesn’t involve kids in the decision making process. They are worried about safety, so a lot of the facilities are not challenging for kids, causing them to lose interest.
So what is “play”?
BW: When we talk about the “right to play” for kids, it has to be free, spontaneous play. That means they get to decide what they want to play, and scheduled “playing” doesn’t count. A lot of kids of this generation don’t have much opportunity to engage in free play.
What happens if kids don’t get to play?
BW: Deprivation of the right to play has a great impact on the mental health of a child. Their motivation plummets as there is no outlet for them to release their emotions. Many parents don’t realize the long-lasting negative consequences of this on children.
What should we do about it?
BW: Give kids at least an hour each day to play freely. Give them a chance for release—in whatever form it might take.
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Lost traditions: Four Ways Hongkongers Used to Socialize…
Before the opening of Disneyland, or even Ocean Park, there was Lai Yuen, the biggest amusement park in Hong Kong in the 50s and 60s. It featured all sorts of amusement rides and even a small zoo. Entrance tickets started at 60 cents for adults and children. The park closed in 1997 when the government turned the land over to public housing, but over the past two summers a new version of Lai Yuen has sprung up as a pop-up park.
Dai Daat Dei
The dai daat dei (“big piece of land”) was a flea market dating back to the 1840s. The first one was in Sheung Wan (where Hollywood Road Park stands now), where a former military camp was turned into a market filled with street performers, palm readers, storytellers, and all sorts of food and goods stalls. Nicknamed the “poor man’s nightclub,” it was moved to near the Macau ferry terminal in the 70s. The tradition eventually died out in the 90s.
While nowadays most football fans prefer European teams and tournaments, back in the 50s and 60s local tournaments like the League, Senior Shield and the Seven-a-side Stanley Shield were very popular. Spectators, including families, would line up for hours to buy tickets for matches. But with the advent of live broadcasts of overseas football matches in the 70s, local football lost its popularity.
TV at Herbal Tea shops
Owning a TV used to be considered a luxury, and therefore until the 70s watching TV could be considered a social activity. Hong Kong’s first TV channel opened in 1957 (Rediffusion Television, which became the now-defunct ATV). Back then, families who couldn’t afford their own would go to herbal tea shops to watch TV. These shops acted as semi-public spaces where people from the neighborhood could go to simply chill out.