How rugby has given ‘at-risk’ youth a new life in Hong Kong housing estates

Operation Breakthrough run by current and former police officers continues to grow as it provides youngsters with a sense of life purpose through participation in sport

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 April, 2017, 12:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 April, 2017, 12:03pm

On Christmas Eve in 1953, massive fires swept through the shanty towns of Shek Kip Mei in the heart of Kowloon. Within 10 minutes, more than 50,000 people had lost their homes. Two people died.

For months through a brutal Hong Kong winter, people lived in the streets, surviving on handouts and the Red Cross.

This precipitated huge change. Temporary resettlement housing became public housing on a large scale. The first residents moved into 100-square-foot flats in 1954.

“There are three million people in Hong Kong and two million are refugees and they live in anthills, sampans and on the streets,” a pucker colonial police sergeant tells William Holden in the 1963 classic, The World of Suzy Wong.

Today, more than 3.4 million people live in housing estates, 46 per cent of Hong Kong’s population.

Meanwhile, the privileged and wealthy continue to drive up property prices, with one-bedroom flats measuring 400-plus square feet going for over HK$10 million.

Famous Hong Kong film director John Woo lived in the first government blocks in Shek Kip Mei.

In an exhibit on a wall in the museum at the Youth Hostels Association Mei Ho House Youth Hostel, Woo is quoted: “Right here, our family once slept in the streets, waited for emergency relief, and waited for moving into a resettlement area. Right here, I fought with the rogues and went home bleeding. My mother did not want us to move elsewhere. My father kept calm as usual and told me that a man should have strength of character, commitment, love for others and no hatred. Among my friends were people who made trouble with the police and also respectful students who studied theology.”

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The first housing estates around Kowloon were limited to 11 to 13 floors because of the flight path to old Kai Tak airport, which closed in 1998.

As Hong Kong’s population swelled and land became scarce, the only way was up. Today, it is thought anecdotally that half of the Hong Kong population lives above the 16th floor.

Hong Kong police working in these areas realised many kids living in these estates were restless and looking for mischief. The were regarded as “at risk”.

It was decided the best way to teach and reach out to the kids was through sport, particularly rugby. Operation Breakthrough was born, in 1996.

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“Operation Breakthrough uses sport as a means to reach out to youngsters from at-risk backgrounds, providing them with support and mentoring, and reinforcing those positive values that will help them realise their potential in life,” says former policeman Robbie McRobbie, who takes over as chief executive of the Hong Kong Rugby Union next week.

McRobbie has been actively involved in Operation Breakthrough since 2003 when together with Hong Kong’s first ever rugby international, Rambo Leung Yung-kit, they started a rugby section to augment the success of the boxing programme.

It has just opened a hockey section to go with a range of other activities, including soccer, sailing, judo, running, basketball, cricket, dragonboating, and modern dancing.

The charity is still run primarily by serving and former police officers, and that link remains at the heart of the Breakthrough ethos – breaking down the barriers and building trust between youngsters and the police.

Hong Kong may be the world’s most vertical city, with one of the highest proportions of government housing of any city in the world. However, from those high-rise housing estates, Operation Breakthrough has helped give some kids a good grounding they otherwise may never have experienced, especially on the rugby pitch.

How one kid got a break

Name: Ivan Chan Wing-kuen

Age: 27

Occupation: HKRU district development officer (Tsuen Wan)

“I grew up in Tin Shui Wai after migrating from China when I was 10. My parents came to Hong Kong before me. I still live in Tin Shui Wai now.

“The estate and growing environment did not really give me confidence or motivation. It’s rather the opposite, like just hanging out with friends, doing nothing or doing something bad. I didn’t really find that it was a good peer influence.

“I got into the Operation Breakthrough programme via a social worker in 2003, when I was about 14 or 15. I was a player for the Operation Breakthrough team, then I changed to Valley for advanced rugby. I needed more competitive rugby because I played for the Hong Kong under-18 youth team.

“The club and Hong Kong team experience, especially touring overseas, helped me broaden my horizons, and learn a lot about different cultures. Once I played for the Hong Kong team it also helped me set goals for myself and it gave me ambition.

“Rugby and Operation Breakthrough programme are good for helping young people staying away from trouble, learn vital values in terms of respect and discipline. It teaches them how to tackle problems, build confidence and teamwork through sport.

“It changes people’s lives in a good way. I encourage kids like me to join the programme. It always makes me really proud to see some of them playing for Hong Kong or becoming policemen.

“I am now coaching the Tin Shui Wai rugby team and will be more involved in the administration side of Operation Breakthrough, giving back to rugby, the community and the programme in another role.”