Ten things we miss about Hong Kong sport from the ’80s and ’90s – and why Kai Tak airport makes the list

The term ‘glory days’ is not necessarily associated with local sport but if we were to pick an era it would likely be the ’80s and ’90s. Here’s why

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 March, 2018, 8:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 March, 2018, 9:32pm

If there was such as thing as the glory years of Hong Kong sport, you would most likely find them during the final two decades of the 1900s. The ’80s and ’90s were not about Hong Kong being world-beaters at any given sport, though we had one of them. Neither were they about the dawning of a great new era as Hong Kong returned to China while keeping its sporting autonomy.

It was about a sporting culture that was palpably richer than it is now.

Yes, the money pumped into Hong Kong sport now is greater by the tens of millions and the city can be proud of its leading athletes such as cyclist Sarah Lee Wai-sze, snooker player Ng On-yee and badminton player Angus Ng, among others.

Yet, there was a greater sense of sincerity to Hong Kong sport in an era when fans relied mostly on newspapers for their news and, if they wanted immediate results for a local event they would go and watch it for themselves.

Here are 10 things that we miss about Hong Kong sports from that era, in no particular order, and here’s hoping they return in the near future.

1. Football crowds

There was a time when live football on television from Europe was limited to the English FA Cup final and the World Cup. Hong Kong fans, back then and now, love football but to get their fix on a regular basis, they couldn’t rely on TV or the internet. They actually had to ... gasp, choke ... go to football matches.

Before its facelift in the early 1990s, the Hong Kong Stadium could hold 28,000 people. In the late 1960s, Police played Kitchee in three matches and all games were sold out.

During the heyday of Hong Kong football in the early 1980s, crowds of more than 20,000 were a regular occurrence, especially in matches featuring the big teams of that era – South China, Seiko, Bulova and Caroline Hill.

It's a rare sight these days to see police officers guiding hordes up the hill towards Hong Kong Stadium, or even queues to get into Mong Kok. But there was a time, not that long ago, when you’d shuffle with the crowd past South China clubhouse and struggle to find a seat under the shade at the old stadium, where only the grandstand was covered.

Watch the classic Cup final from 1984-85 season, but check out the crowd

The downward spiral began in 1986 when the Hong Kong Football Association made the decision – which we still struggle to understand to this day – to ban clubs from fielding overseas professionals because they supposedly restricted opportunities for local players. Yet a year earlier, Hong Kong had beaten China in a famous World Cup qualifier with our two central defenders easily handling high balls to the taller mainland forwards because they were doing it week in and week out for their clubs against powerful European strikers. The ban prompted Seiko to pull out, with Bulova having already gone when the FA cut the quota of foreigners. It was lifted in time for the 1989-90 season, but the damage had been done. The era of home entertainment was dawning on Hong Kong people and football, though still able to attract crowds of about 15,000 for a few more years, was losing its drawing power.

2. Ageing British soccer pros

Okay, not all of them were at their career’s end but in the ’80s, particularly, Hong Kong was a haven for British players who had reached the end of the road in England or Scotland but who still had much to offer and were looking elsewhere to extend their careers. The ’70s had seen the likes of Charlie George, Derek Currie, Walter Gerrard and Jackie Trainer light up the local scene and they were followed by players such as Derek Parlane, Tommy Hutchinson, Barry Powell, Alan Dugdale, Peter Foley, Barry Daines, David Jones and Micky Horswell.

Hugh McCory, Billy Semple and Peter Bodak also made Hong Kong their home for a number of years and were crowd favourites. One of the best players to come from England was Hutchison, famous for scoring both goals in the 1981 FA Cup final when his team Manchester City drew 1-1 with Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs won the replay 3-2 thanks to that even more famous Ricky Villa solo goal. Hutchison had a fine spell with Bulova in Hong Kong and was adored by fans.

The likes of Dale Tempest and John Spencer arrived in Hong Kong after the ban on foreigners was lifted. Tempest stayed long enough to play for Hong Kong while Spencer returned to UK where he had successful spells with his boyhood club Glasgow Rangers, Chelsea and Everton. It wasn’t only British players who lit up Hong Kong Stadium. The Dutch were also well represented with players of the calibre of Dick Naninga and Arie Haan, as well as Theo De Jong, Joop Wildbret, Jan Verjuien, Karl Bonsink and Benny Wendt, among others.

Hong Kong-born Tim Bredbury, a former Liverpool apprentice who enjoyed a fine career with Seiko, South China and the Hong Kong team, experienced the highs of ’80s and ’90s local football first-hand and benefited from playing alongside top foreign players. “There were real rivalries in the early days with all teams spending money on quality foreign players,” said Bredbury. “Crowds saw full-blooded quality matches with top foreign players and more importantly top local players doing their part. The foreign players and coaches would set the standards at training and in games and the sport flourished. The mid-80s ban on foreign players killed the interest in the game until foreign players returned. The ’90s saw a resurgence in interest and South China and Instant Dict reignited a period of rivalry that drew the crowds back again for the big games. TV and live EPL football games, though, have not helped.”

3. Men’s professional snooker

Hong Kong pioneered the concept of mobile phones disturbing players at major snooker tournaments. It may have been the late ’80s and early ’90s but the mobile phone revolution was about to take off and Hong Kong’s affluent, their giant devices with extended antennae tucked safely into the inside pockets of their tweed jackets, would sometimes ring while Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis or Jimmy White was lining up a black.

How we’d love to hear a mobile phone disturb the peace at a major snooker tournament in Hong Kong again. It would mean that snooker has returned to Hong Kong, but, alas, after last year’s successful tournament to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the handover, it appears that hopes of making it a regular thing are disappearing.

World Snooker boss Barry Hearn, who would bring his stable of world-class stars every year for what was always a popular tournament, said he would return to Hong Kong in a flash if someone was willing to cough up HK$10 million. We’re still waiting.

Hearn’s line-up was simply stellar. Davis, Hendry, White would be joined by the top pros of that era including Dennis Taylor, Terry Griffiths, Neil Foulds, Cliff Thorburn, Tony Meo and a host of others. It was difficult to find a stronger line-up anywhere on the globe barring the world championships.

4. Men’s professional tennis

The Hong Kong Open was a regular fixture on the calendar for decades and it was as if a huge chunk of the city’s sports culture was removed and disposed of with disdain when it died a death after the 2002 event. Unlike snooker, the Open was never a major tournament on the world circuit but it had its moments and Victoria Park was always packed for the Sunday final.

The 1993 final was the most memorable and, for a couple of hours, Victoria Park was the centre of the entire tennis world as Pete Sampras and Jim Courier battled for the world number one spot, with Sampras prevailing in an epic, brutal three-setter.

Here are some of the past winners: Elliot Teltscher (1978, 1987), Jimmy Connors (1979), Ivan lendl (1980), Pat Cash (1990), Richard Krajicek (1991), Jim Courier (1992, beat Michael Chang in the final), Pete Sampras (1993, beat Courier in the final,1996 beat Chang), Chang (1994 beat Pat Rafter, 1995 beat Jonas Bjorkman, 1997 beat Rafter), Andre Agassi (1999, beat Boris Becker in the final).

Hong Kong also staged the exhibition Marlboro Champions from 1988 with world-class stars but professional men’s tennis ended after the government banned tobacco sponsorship in sports.

It would be remiss to mention the Salem Open and not recall the Michael-mania that would hit Hong Kong thanks to Chinese-American Michael Chang, whose marketing team made the most of the city’s adoration for him while he was at his peak.

Fans are blessed to have the Prudential Hong Kong Tennis Open women’s tournament that regularly features the world’s best players. But it’s high time the city brings back men’s tennis. Surely there’s enough money in this town to stage two big tennis tournaments a year?

5. Kai Tak airport

How does an airport evoke memories of great sporting moments? Well, admittedly this one is more for the sports journalists rather than the average fan but the old Kai Tak airport was designed in such a way – most likely by accident – to ensure that no sporting star, be they famous or low profile, could escape our clutches. And because of this, readers were able to benefit by being privy to quotes and comments from athletes and officials at their most vulnerable – most of them tired, dishevelled and, ahem, even artificially happy after a long flight.

The command centre for this was the media room on the right of the ramp as one arrived. English and Chinese-language journos would work together. You could spot the target way down the hallway 100 metres before the glass doors opened into the arrival hall. Our asset would accost the target and usher him, her or them into the media room before they could suspect anything. If they refused, a runner would send word back to the media room and there was a mad rush, a mere 50 metres, to the ramp where there was no escape.

Some of the greatest names in sport passed through that freezing media room – Muhammad Ali, Diego Maradona, Bobby Charlton, Pete Sampras, Greg Norman, Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, Ian Botham, ex-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, among others – and not forgetting either the many important non-sporting and government officials forced to give ad hoc press conferences while sitting in front of a massive mural of Hong Kong’s skyline.

Teams, such as those arriving for the Hong Kong Sevens, would try to trick us by going out through the side exit but the traffic laws that limited the number of vehicles in the pick-up area meant they were always hanging around long enough for us to catch up with them. There are media facilities at the new airport but the size of the arrival hall, with A and B exits, makes it near impossible to have the entire area covered. Maybe that’s why the authorities decided to move out of Kai Tak in the first place.

6. When Rugby Sevens wasn’t a specialist code

The players you see at the Hong Kong Sevens every year are thoroughbred sevens machines, built for power, speed and stamina. The likes of Fiji, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, England and the United States can boast players who would most likely run rings around the sevens players of the ’80s, ’90s and even probably the noughties – except probably Waisale Serevi.

Bless them but there’s something missing from these modern players. Sometimes you need more than just skills, you need personalities and the Sevens, while still one of the best sporting spectacles around the world, is becoming a bit regimented.

While these players deserve every accolade, the nature of the World Series is such that the drama and anticipation that was once associated with a big match, such as Fiji v New Zealand, is diluted ever so slightly. That’s because it’s the new normal for New Zealand to be playing Fiji several times a year these days, even in pool games.

In the past, the build-up to the Hong Kong Sevens was mostly about who was named in the squads. And the big story was always when a major name from a country’s 15s side was included in their sevens squad for Hong Kong. Australia were among the nations that sent their top 15 stars such as David Campese, Michael Lynagh, Tim Horan, Jason Little, Joe Roff and a host of others. And of course, few will forget the impact New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu and Christian Cullen had on the tournament.

Then there was the year the Barbarians sent what was in effect an England side with the likes of Will Carling, Rob Andrew and Andrew Harriman in their ranks.

However, it was the presence of the minnows that really made the Hong Kong Sevens special. Watching players from Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and other lower-ranked teams take on the likes of New Zealand, Fiji, England or Australia was one of the highlights of the tournament, especially when one of the little guys managed to score a try.

The world has moved on and so should the Hong Kong Sevens. But let’s hope the guardians of the tournament do what they can to keep the soul of the Sevens alive.

7. A de O Sales

Hong Kong had plenty of sports personalities down the years but one of our most colourful was A de O Sales, the long-time president of Hong Kong’s Olympic committee whose by-the-book method of ruling ensured he was a reliable yet frustrating leader to deal with. Sales, a proud Portuguese who used Club Lusitano in Central as the committee’s de facto headquarters, was one of the founding members of the Amateur Sports Federation and Olympic Committee of Hong Kong and was among those who needed to negotiate with terrorists to reach safety during the attack on Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Games.

He was also known for his one-liners, the best known being at the 1994 Commonwealth Games. As head of the Commonwealth Games Federation, Sales was hounded by journalists after an Australian official criticised the decision to include disabled athletes in the Games. Finally losing patience, Sales said: “What do you want me to do, shoot him!?” in what was overall an entertaining press conference that had Canadian journalists chuckling even while leaving the room.

Previously, Sales was chairman of Hong Kong’s Urban Council and was forced to respond in his own succinct way when he was asked why he needed a Rolls-Royce to greet delegations from overseas. “How else do you want me to meet important overseas diplomats?” he asked ... “with a rickshaw?”

8. Soccer results on the back page of the Sunday Morning Post

For those who remember those days, admit it. One of your favourites things to do on a Sunday morning was to scour the English football results on the back page of the paper after listening to Paddy Feeny on BFBS the night before. And once you find the result of the team you support, you would check out the result of every single match from each of the four divisions in England and the three in Scotland. For some reason, and you have no idea why, you cared about Aldershot, Lincoln City, Chesterfield, Crewe Alexandra (is Dario Gradi still the manager?) and Rochdale as well as Raith Rovers, Brechin City and East Fife.

But the thrill didn’t end on Sunday. Now, you couldn’t wait for Monday’s paper when you could spend an hour or so studying all the league tables from England and Scotland. And again, you would notice how Lincoln City refused to budge from the bottom of division four.

It was a time when football fans could chat for hours about teams from all divisions and enjoy the conversation. These days, it’s difficult to find someone not from the UK who doesn’t support Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea or Arsenal.

And then there was Brian Moore and his weekly show on Thursday evenings that featured the main matches from the previous weekend. As mentioned, live matches were as rare as hair on a snooker ball, and Brian was all we had. He would show one main match and two others and have a special section on letters from viewers. The good thing about his show was that he would often put on games from the lower divisions if it was a particularly exciting or important match.

These days, with the internet and mass television coverage of almost every Premier League match, the UK soccer results are no longer required.

9. Lee Lai-shan

Over the decades, the unsaid truth about any given Hong Kong athlete was that he or she could have been holding 10 match points, leading by umpteen goals or be five miles ahead ... but in the end they would squander what gains they had made and finish down the order. Pressure was never a Hong Kong athlete’s best friend. That was until Lee Lai-shan came on the scene.

She was the opposite of what a Hong Kong athlete came to symbolise. A few years before she had won windsurfing gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics – Hong Kong’s first ever Olympic medal – her coach Rene Appel was approached by one of his European counterparts and told, in no uncertain terms, that he was wasting his time bringing Hong Kong sailors to overseas events. He apologised when Lee became world champion in the lead-up to the Olympics.

In Atlanta itself, San San showed the poise, determination and skill that helped her dominate the event and give Hong Kong what is still its greatest sporting moment.

San San also showed great humility after her victory, thanking her uncle who taught her to sail in Cheung Chau island and tolerating government officials previously apathetic to sport who suddenly came out of the woodwork.

San San was a pure Hong Kong athlete, born and bred here and whose sporting prowess was developed off the waters of Cheung Chau and later fine-tuned by Appel & Co at the Hong Kong Sports Institute. Snooker star Ng On-yee and cyclist Sarah Lee Wai-sze are the closest things Hong Kong has had to Lee Lai-shan in 20 years. But it was San San who started it all in the ’90s and left a legacy that the likes of Ng and Lee are benefiting from to this day.

10. Kart Grand Prix

At least we had the Kart Grand Prix. That was the forced emotional response of Hong Kong motor racing fans who would look enviously at the Macau Grand Prix. Karting was where many of the Formula One drivers of the time – even now – started their careers. It was Formula One condensed into the confined spaces of Victoria Park, where the course would be laid out using tyres and fans could see the entire race from a single vantage point.

But the noise! Yes, it was the noise that proved its downfall. Residents in the buildings around Victoria Park did not appreciate the deafening sound of Kart engines over several days of practice, qualifying and racing so, in 1992, the government decided to step in and stop the event. It was a major loss for Hong Kong because it was a popular event and, at one point, offered the biggest prize money on the world circuit.

In addition, it was a truly world-class race with the best drivers competing. Among the ones who went on to Formula One were Jarno Trulli, Giancarlo Fisichella, Johnny Herbert and Alex Zanardi. But probably the biggest name to have competed in Hong Kong was the British legend Terry Fullerton – famous for being the one-time teammate and mentor of late Brazilian F1 great Aryton Senna.

“He was fast and consistent, for me he was a complete driver,” Senna once said of Fullerton.

Hong Kong now has the Formula E race, a welcome return for motor racing in the city. But there is something special about the Kart Grand Prix that is difficult to replicate. The late Senna said it best: “It was pure driving, pure racing. There wasn’t any politics then, right? And no money involved either. So it was real racing.”