How Hong Kong polo pioneers hope to make the ‘sport of kings’ affordable for the city’s common folk

The fledgling Hong Kong team are aiming to remove their elitist image and prove that the sport is fun, easy to play and doesn’t cost that much

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 December, 2016, 6:47am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 December, 2016, 10:35am

“I’m not learning polo, Alfred!” This is how Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne reacted when his loyal butler, played by Michael Caine, suggested he take up a hobby to explain the cuts and bruises that come with defending Gotham City from criminals in the 2005 movie Batman Begins.

The Dark Knight probably didn’t want to appear elitist in his cowl-less day job. Hong Kong’s Andy Leung doesn’t want to appear elitist, either. In fact, Leung and his kind are doing their best to abandon any hint of aristocracy but, unlike Bruce Wayne, they want to learn polo. And they want other common Hongkongers, like themselves, to learn polo as well.

Watch: Bruce Wayne refuses to learn to play polo

Leung, 37, is part of Hong Kong’s fledgling polo team, an ambitious group of horsemen who want to bring the sport back to the city with a focus on making it accessible to everyone.

“I don’t think polo has to be any more higher class or elitist than golf,” said Leung, a lawyer and indigenous Hakka Chinese brought up in Britain whose ambition it is to “give back” to Hong Kong the benefits of the sport he played growing up. “Some rounds of golf are very expensive and you can hire horses for the amount you pay for a round. Some golf courses you need to pay to become a member as well and these are very expensive. This won’t be the case to play polo.”

The Hong Kong Polo Team number about 12 active players of various abilities while there are estimated to be up to 40 enthusiasts in Hong Kong.

On Monday (December 5), Asia World Polo (AWP), which organises regional events, will introduce the Hong Kong team at its Polo After Dark function. According to AWP president Dave Savage, the team, who have been active for two years, are the pioneers of Hong Kong’s return to regional competitions. “Polo was a firm fixture here during the 60s all the way to the 80s,” Savage said at the Kee Club in Central. “It was played in the army barracks at Shek Kong and Lowu but when the British left Hong Kong they took the horses with them.

“So since around 1985, there was no polo in Hong Kong. Our ambition is to return polo to Hong Kong but in a different flavour to the way it was presented before. It may be the sport of kings but we want to bring polo to the people.

“If you can afford to rent a car, you can afford to rent a polo pony and you can learn to play polo so there’s an opportunity for everybody. You don’t have to be a king or queen or prince to play polo anymore. It helps, but you don’t need to be. Anybody of any age can learn.”

Argentina is the leading country for polo, with about 10,000 registered players. The United States and Britain boast about 7,000 and 6,000 players respectively. “We have 12 active players,” said Patrick Furlong, captain of the Hong Kong team who is originally from Argentina. “Eventually, we want to have facilities in Hong Kong, an official club so we have the ability to recruit players and reach a critical mass of players to make the sport sustainable.

Watch: A new era of Hong Kong polo

“We need young people to learn the sport and play and increase the number of opportunities for the team to get involved in regional tournaments. The longer-term plan is that polo has a chance to return to the Olympics and we want to be part of that.”

Hong Kong have already taken part in a handful of tournaments over the past two years, winning two out of four matches.

Like Leung, Kwan Lo considers himself a commoner who pursued his love of polo, having taken up the sport in England.

“Polo has an elitist reputation but if you look at our players you will see ordinary Joe Bloggs, like myself, from very working-class backgrounds,” said businessman Kwan, 52. “ I’m a classic example of someone with a non-polo, non-wealthy background who loves the sport.”

It costs about US$150 to rent a pony while there are packages costing around HK$3,800 each for two days in an Asian country – Malaysia, Thailand and Philippines – during which a rider will have access to four ponies and learn the basics of the sport.

Leung said he was considering building a wooden horse – apparently a common training apparatus in polo-playing countries – in his back yard in Tai Po to help people learn the game.

“As a boy, I was lucky enough to play polo at Cheshire polo club and played various tournaments,” said Leung, 37, who was introduced to the sport by his father Stephen Leung, the former Hong Kong racehorse trainer of the aptly named Indigenous.

“I returned to Hong Kong to qualify as a lawyer in 2000 and never thought that I would play again. It wasn’t until this year in July, that I made the firm decision to get back in the saddle and play polo again after 20 years out of the saddle, partly spurred by my desire to give my 2 year old daughter the chance to play in the future.

“Also it gives me a chance for me to pass the sport to the next generation in Guangdong province and Hong Kong especially.”