From nothing to a force in Asia to ... Winter Olympics one day? How one man brought curling to Hong Kong
John Li Shek-chong watched people throwing ‘rocks’ at the Sochi Winter Olympics and decided he wanted to introduce the sport to Hong Kong. So began a whirlwind introduction
University lecturer John Li Shek-chong watched in amazement as people threw rocks and others used broomsticks at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. His curiosity then got the better of him.
“It was so funny to see people throwing rocks at one end to the other and brushing the ice,” recalled Li. “A lot of people – including me – did not understand the scoring system but Hong Kong people went crazy for it the next day. They’d take a broom at home and use a teapot as if it was a curling stone.
“I thought since no one seemed to understand the sport, I should search for any Hong Kong associations. There were none; no groups, no players, no ice for curling, no equipment, no coaches – nothing,” said Li, who is a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) SPACE.
Li set up the Hong Kong Curling Association after “registering the company for HK$250”. He became the association’s president and immediately got the wheels turning – or the rocks gliding.
“I wrote an email to the World Curling Federation (WCF). I told them I’m not coming to meet the president; I’m coming to learn about curling first,” Li said. “I purchased air tickets with my wife and off we went to Scotland.”
Li toured the Royal Caledonian Curling Club – known as the ‘Mother Club of Curling’ – where he threw his first rock.
“We fell a lot and had no idea where our rocks were going, but that was our first lesson. Then we bought our first pair of curling shoes and went to the factory that produces the granite stones used at the Olympic Games and world championships,” he said.
Li’s next trip was to the world championships in Beijing to watch his first live game. There was one last lesson to learn before he could return home.
“I asked if I could watch the chief ice technicians prepare the ice because I had no idea how. It took them seven days to go from nothing – concrete grounds with pipes underneath – to perfect ice with lines and colours,” said Li.
“I returned to Hong Kong, resigned from my teaching role, and devoted my time to developing the sport.”
But why take the risk? Li had a comfortable set-up at university, keeping on top of the local sports scene while harnessing the skills of future Hong Kong sportspersons.
“When you have an opportunity like that, to take and develop a sport from nothing, you can’t turn that down,” Li said. “I didn’t want to be a follower of another sport. I now have my own sport after seeing how the rest of the world did it.”
The first Hong Kong men’s team was formed soon after, but the hard work had only just begun for Li.
“I told my students that I wasn’t going to compete with the other sports, so I used an open-door policy,” said Li, who maintains a part-time teaching role at the university.
“Most of my [in-class] examples are not to do with soccer, basketball or tennis; I use curling to explain things.
“If a student says they’ve never heard of it, I tell them it’s a Winter Olympic sport and they should learn about it – after all, everyone has to start somewhere.”
In response to the lack of ice in Hong Kong, Li met the sport halfway with floor curling. The ice-less adaptation – known as ‘kurling’ in the UK – did not have formal rules or competitions, allowing Li to create a portable curling “sheet” and modify the game to suit Hong Kong.
“I purchased 20 floor curling sets, developed the rules, redesigned the whole package, and brought it to schools. Everyone liked it.
“Then I had to think about venues – basketball, badminton or volleyball courts? No way, always fully booked. I found squash courts to be always underbooked. The length of a squash court is 9.75 metres so I designed the sheet to be 9.7 metres. I can fit two lanes in each squash court, with six people in each lane. That’s 12 people on one court – squash has two.”
“We can begin with floor curling and even though it’s not an Olympic sport, it can be a way to the ice. It’s like karting before going to Formula One.”
The Hong Kong Curling Association was accepted in 2014 and became a full WCF member in 2016, but the Hong Kong Sports Federation & Olympic Committee will only recognise it after five years’ operation.
“The LCSD [Leisure & Cultural Services Department] requires the association to have three years operation and must be a member of the SF&OC to be eligible for government funding. Why does the SF&OC set it to five years when the government sets it to three?
“It feels like the SF&OC are trying to shut the door on newcomers. All the new associations should form a new sports association to support each other and learn they will not get help this way. New sports should not be neglected.”
Li said he asked the government what he had to do to get space for curling.
“Their answer was very simple: ‘get us medals’,” said Li. “Similar to cycling, without [former world champion] Wong Kam-po, there would be no velodrome. But think about a new sport without space, athletes, coaches, equipment, audience ... how can you get a medal?
“Bureaucracy in sport has had a long history in Hong Kong,” added Li. “If you are going to convince them to support a new sport, you are wasting your time. I’ve had to persuade some of our members, but we don’t need them; we’ll do it our own way.”
“When you’re talking about money for elite athletes, you really need it because it’s their future. All of our players purchase their own uniform, buy their own air tickets and pay for their own accommodation. Others teams [we compete against] are amazed that all of our players fund themselves – they ask how a volunteer team achieved so much in only a few years.”
In its first year at the Pacific-Asia Curling Championships (PACC), the Hong Kong men’s team lost all of their matches. But the tide quickly turned thereafter.
“Kazakhstan was so happy to welcome us in 2015 because they had been curling for 12 years but had never won a game; we were the team to beat. They beat us, but the next year we beat them and then Australia, the most senior team in the Asia-Pacific region.
“In 2017, our women’s team made it to the semi-finals and played a bronze medal match against China. We lost but it was the first time we made it that far. We beat Australia, New Zealand and Kazakhstan [on the way] – we’re getting closer.”
Now equipped with men’s, women’s and mixed first teams, a junior boy’s team which recently defeated England and Czech Republic, and a newly-formed senior men’s team featuring Li, team Hong Kong now has the luxury of picking and choosing its players.
“How did we do this from zero? After losing our matches in the first year, second generation Canadian Hong Kong curlers started to pay attention. Some of them forgot they were born here or don’t speak great Cantonese, but came over and asked if they could play for Hong Kong.
“The door is even more open this year, but now players have to show their talent.”
Li insisted more must be done to narrow the already wide chasm between Hong Kong and other Asian teams such as China, Japan and Korea. Unfortunately, no Hong Kong team qualified for this year’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, but give it a few years and that may change.
“Beijing 2022 is counting down to its qualifiers and if I can get my players to train full-time with good coaches, I think we will see results this year and next,” said Li. “There is a route, and my job is to provide the best opportunities for these talents.
“We will reach [other countries’ levels], otherwise I wouldn’t be involved in this.”