Kai Tak Sports Park

Hong Kong’s attitude to sport is changing for the better, insists first government official solely dedicated to it

When I played, I couldn’t even tell my parents, says sports commissioner

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 June, 2017, 9:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 June, 2017, 12:02am

Perhaps you’re nobody in Hong Kong politics until you’ve been harangued on the floor of the Legislative Council by Leung Kwok-hung, aka ‘Long Hair’.

If that’s the case, then Yeung Tak-keung, the city’s first civil servant whose sole remit is sport, finally arrived last month.

Strident pro-democracy campaigner and Che Guevara fan Leung castigated Yeung during a lengthy debate on whether the Home Affairs Bureau’s HK$31.9 billion funding request for the controversial Kai Tak Sports Park should be recommended to the Finance Committee.

“You pretend to be a sports commissioner, what do you know about sport?” blasted Leung, before issuing what sounded – at least via the simultaneous translation – like a vaguely threatening invitation: “Why don’t you come to Kowloon Tsai with me this weekend, and if you’re able to come out safely I salute you!”

With some 10 years in the Criminal Investigation Department, the former chief inspector has probably heard plenty worse.

But at an interview in Government HQ last week he was still keen to reinforce his ‘jock’ credentials to Leung – and anyone else in a city not famed for its recognition of sport’s importance.

“My interest in sport started from my school days,” insisted Yeung, still trim and fit at 55. “At Queens College and Hong Kong University I represented the schools in all sorts of sports – handball, football, basketball, athletics ...

“I was the sports captain at HKU and organised sports activities. I’m still playing squash several times a week though I’m not young any more .

“I’m a very keen sports person and I’m very competitive on the sports field. It’s my main interest, if not the only one.”

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Hong Kong’s first ever commissioner for sports continued reeling off his credentials: two trips to see Barca at Camp Nou in one week during a family holiday over Easter, watching 10 different events in a week with the family at the Beijing Olympics, regular trips to see the English Premier League, etc, etc.

If there was a hint of “he doth protest too much”, it was understandable. The fact that only in 2016 did Hong Kong’s government deem it perhaps a good idea to have an official in charge of sport speaks to its long neglect of the topic, and perhaps the city’s lack of interest.

Yeung insists attitudes toward sport in Hong Kong are changing for the better, although like all cultural shifts it is an incremental process.

“I think sport is getting better and better in Hong Kong. In the past 20 years or even many years ago when I was a boy I would say there was a lack of sporting culture in Hong Kong.

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“When I was a student I represented the school and university, even Hong Kong in different ball games but I never told my parents. If I had told them they would say, ‘No, you better stay home and do your study, this is the only way out, you’re wasting your time.’

“So not one single time did my parents come to watch or support me – but now you go to youth competitions, interschool events and there are so many parents coming and supporting. That was unimaginable in the old days.

“We are talking about cultural change, it will take time. I can see a lot of differences if you compare now with 10 or 20 years ago.

“Even in 2004 when we announced the three policy objectives of sports development many people had doubts they thought whether this is sustainable.

“People still think Hong Kong is a place for doing business, it’s a financial centre, sports maybe is secondary to other things.

“But now you can see people talking about work-life balance, more people want to participate in sports and cultural activities so I think the mentality and culture is changing and that’s a good thing.”

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Among Yeung and his underlings’ responsibilities are “sports policy and strategic initiatives”, the sports commission, the football task force, resource management for the Hong Kong Sports Institute, Olympic Committee, the controversial Kai Tak Sports Park and sports public works projects in general and, bizarrely, “matters concerning giant pandas at Ocean Park”.

That last one – plus the fact that sport is still lumped in with arts and culture under the Home Affairs’ Bureau’s already vastly wide-ranging ambit – is a reminder that a completely separate sports department would be nice; the creation of Yeung’s role was at least a start.

He points to the fact that this year’s chief executive’s policy address was the first ever to have a dedicated sub-section to sport, rather than the cursory line or two it usually got (if that) towards the end of the speech in the past.

Leung Chun-ying pledged HK$20 billion over the next five years to develop new or existing sports and recreation facilities, and HK$1 billion for the elite athletes’ development fund.

There is some reason to be suspicious of some of that – the proposed scrapping of Wan Chai Sports Ground to expand the Convention Centre for example – but on the whole it is surely a good thing for sport and healthy lifestyles in Hong Kong.

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“We think this is important,” Yeung says, “26 projects in different districts, football pitches, indoor centres, swimming pools ...

“If you look at the policy address this is first time we’ve had a dedicated section for sport. Sport is our responsibility so we play an important part in preparing that part.

“Look at the timing: after the Olympics in August we did a thorough review, consulted the sport sector, [then] in January the chief executive announced his policy address with so much investment in sport.

“We did a lot of work before that to bid for the resources. Internally in government we have a resource allocation exercise and we need to submit our justification and our bids to get resources.”

Part of the “bottleneck” in further boosting Hong Kong’s sporting culture is the lack of facilities, though Yeung highlights recent government sweeties to the sector such as the nearly finished football training centre at Tseung Kwan O and a former landfill site at Gin Drinkers’ Bay that the Cricket Association is going to use as a practice ground.

He hopes his main goal – getting the Kai Tak sports park finally built – will help alleviate some of that pressure on facilities.

The long-delayed project, first mooted some 20 years ago, has reached what looks like the final stage of approval after lawmakers voted – by just 18-17 – to send the funding request to the Finance Committee, though plenty more angry debate and pan-democrat filibustering is surely in store.

“It’s been deliberated and discussed at length in the Home Affairs panel and public works subcommittee, so we are hopeful the finance committee can spend relatively less time to examine it,” Yeung added.

God loves an optimist – over to you, Long Hair.