Blind push boundaries

YP cadet Gabrielle Chan

Two visually-impaired students enjoy taking on sighted rivals at Chinese chess

YP cadet Gabrielle Chan |

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Lam Sio-fan, 16, and Kelvin Yang Chan-kuang, 14, are happy to take on sighted players in xiangqi, or Chinese chess.
Many of us imagine the life of a blind person involves having to attend a special school, finding a job in sheltered workshops - and having little or no leisure time because of the limits on what they can do.

Yet two blind students are helping to prove such preconceptions wrong.

Kelvin Yang Chan-kuang, 14, and Lam Sio-fan, 16 - former students at Ebenezer School and Home for the Visually Impaired, in Pok Fu Lam - are both studying alongside sighted children at normal schools.

They are also challenging themselves to compete in the strategy game of xiangqi, or Chinese chess - taking part against sighted players in the Hong Kong Junior Chess Championship, held at Wonderful Worlds of Whampoa, in Hung Hom, during this month's public holiday weekend.

The children are able to compete against sighted players thanks to a special tactile chess set, developed by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and widely used across Asia since 2008. It can be used by players with normal vision as well as the visually impaired.

Sio-fan, a Form Two student at Baptist Lui Ming Choi Secondary School, in Sha Tin, was excited to play in her first chess tournament. "I'm looking forward to making some new friends who also enjoy playing chess as I have only played with schoolmates before," she says.

Kelvin, a Form Two student at St Paul's College, Mid-Levels, says he started playing xiangqi a year ago. After spending half an hour to learn the rules of the game, which dates back to ancient times, he now practises all the time. "I am interested in xiangqi because of its long history," he says. "I think playing xiangqi is fun because every step is perilous. The chess board is like a battlefield."

The challenge for Sio-fan and Kelvin and other blind players is that they have to imagine the chess figures and their position on the board in their minds.

Kelvin says they take more time to move each piece, compared to sighted people, because they can understand and analyse chess moves only by touching each piece.

Xiangqi is a relatively new hobby for Kelvin, who is even more interested in another strategy game, reversi (which is also known as Othello). He spends hours practising it on his computer. "There is a saying that it takes a minute to learn how to play reversi but it takes a lifetime to excel in it. You certainly need to put in the hard work if you want to be good."

His family have been very supportive of his passion for chess and reversi and he has even travelled abroad to compete. "I wasn't satisfied about playing only in the Guangzhou Reversi Open Championship," he says. "I wanted to play in the world championships in the US, but at first, my mother didn't let me go because it is costly. But later she agreed and it was a great experience. I met many friends from around the world, who enjoy the same hobby as me."

Kelvin also wants to show people that the blind can do many things, and do not need to be trapped within their own social circle.

"In my experience, sighted people are curious about how blind people can walk or study in mainstream schools," he says. "Through our actions, we are showing them how."

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