City Weekend

Women’s group teaches Hongkongers the art of self-defence

Financial crime manager driven to train by knowledge that previous encounter would have been much worse had it turned physical

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 May, 2018, 12:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 May, 2018, 12:11pm

As the lift goes up to the fourth floor of Connaught Harbourfront House in Sheung Wan, it takes you to a ju-jitsu studio. Oddly enough, the place that is usually filled with grappling athletes is now packed with young women. Seeing this, Ellen Huber lets out a sigh of relief.

“I was nervous coming to this self-defence class because I didn’t know what to expect,” the financial crime manager says. 

It has been a year since her scary encounter with an unknown man in her apartment building.

“I was living in this building with no security and someone had followed me up the stairs,” she says. “The shadowing escalated to a point where I had to turn around to say something, and luckily that was enough to scare him away.”

Huber realises the outcome would have been much worse had she been required to defend herself physically against a man who was much bigger than her.

The 27-year-old knew the importance of learning safety tips and defence techniques, but it was the worry that she may not be fit enough that led her to sign up for training. 

“As a grown woman, defending myself with words is not a problem,” Huber says. “However, when it comes to physically [defending myself], I don’t have the skills at all.”

The perfect chance came along when her friend, Keshia Hannam, told her about a course, Purpose Training, she was organising. 

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“We’re creating opportunities for women to learn how to defend themselves, as well as take the focus off ourselves when it comes to fitness, and make it about others,” says Hannam, the co-founder of Camel Assembly, an international community of creative female leaders.

The small act of showing up .... and bettering yourself, and the world, is what we strive for –sweating for a cause
Keshia Hannam, Purpose Training organiser 

“Exercising is something we all do, and it’s something we are doing more often, be that yoga, or spin cycle training; but it’s very much about looking good, and not about being able to physically fight someone off.” 

An hour’s training costs HK$150 (US$19), and all the fees will be donated to Rain Lily, a local NGO for sexual violence victims. The group has helped more than 3,000 victims of sexual violence since it was established in 2000, providing immediate medical treatment, counselling, and legal support.  

“The small act of showing up to the class and donating time or money to bettering yourself – not relying on others to defend you, but to know how to do it yourself – and to bettering the world, is what we strive for; sweating for a cause,” says 26-year-old Hannam.

Students are taught an average of six sets of moves that focus on ju-jitsu techniques.

They include the hip escape, also called shrimping, which is a move used to withdraw from being flat on your back, and the technical stand-up, a method of transitioning from a seated position to a standing one while also keeping an attacker from getting too close. 

“Oftentimes, in any unfortunate situation where a woman is attacked, they are usually thrown to the ground,” says Tesa Ho Nien-tsu, one of the instructors. 

“It’s not about strength, you will soon realise that it’s about effectively removing yourself from any submissive position, and to gain a more dominant stance on any opponents.” 

Through the hour of sweating and muscle-building routines, Hannam reveals that it is more for the mind than the body. 

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“This is very much about mental health and mental strength, as much as it is about physical defensive strength, learning how to gauge your opponent, and how you guard yourself.” 

Ho agrees that not every participant will be able to memorise all the movements. 

“I don’t know how much they are going to remember,” she says. “But, I just really want to instil that they can do it, and that is almost more important than the skill itself, because sometimes they do forget the movements. 

“However, they will remember the feeling that they don’t have to be afraid of being choked, because they will know what to do at that moment of panic. It’s about having that confidence, that is what will prevent something bad from happening to you.” 

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The classes are held at the Chris Collins Action Plus, a studio named after its owner, Chris Collins, a well-known action choreographer in the city’s film industry, who donated the space for the women to use. 

“I am a firm believer that Brazilian ju-jitsu can serve as a real-world, self-defence system for women, because they do not need to rely on striking, or having strength to overpower an attacker,” the stuntman says. “They rely on leverage, timing and technique. You cannot expect a woman to strike punch for punch with a man.”

Classes take place on the last Tuesday of each month, from 8pm to 9pm.