Martial art proves hit

Kevin Kung

Kendo, once the sword-fighting sport of the samurai, has fired the imagination of two young Hongkongers

Kevin Kung |

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Lydia Chan and Stephen Cheung have studied kendo for two years.
Kendo, or the "way of the sword" - the Japanese martial art of sword-fighting - is thriving in Hong Kong. The sport originated among the samurai, or military nobility, in Japan during the Kamakura period (1185-1333).

Modern kendo has substituted the real sword with a shinai, made from binding together four bamboo slats. Athletes also use a protective helmet, or men, and padded armour, bogu, to avoid injuries as they attack four main targets - the head, throat, arms and body.

Two Hongkongers, Lydia Chan Kwan-yi and Stephen Cheung Chun-ka, have been devoted to the sport since 2009.

Chan, 24, who is a primary school teacher, took a degree in Japanese and Chinese at the University of Hong Kong. She has a black belt in taekwondo after studying the martial art for 13 years.

Yet, her focus changed at the start of a year's study at the International Christian University in Tokyo. "Kendo was being promoted as an activity on orientation day," she says. "I went to watch a practice. It stunned me; I thought, 'This is the perfect sport I've dreamed of doing'."

Her devotion to kendo was tested early on during her studies in Japan, when her sensei [teacher] held "special winter training" sessions outside. "Sensei picked the week with the lowest winter temperatures for morning training," she says. "We started around 6am and it was really physically and mentally challenging. You just wanted to go back to sleep because it was so cold."

However, she has grown to love kendo - not least because the protective helmets and armour allow enthusiasts to practice with the bamboo sword using great force.

"When you pick up the shinai, you must really concentrate; you wield it using your full power. It's physically demanding, but also really enjoyable."

Kendo has helped to improve her strength and fitness. "I did only press-ups before, but kendo is so demanding that I've become a lot stronger."

She joined her university's kendo club on her return to Hong Kong in 2010 and gave up taekwondo last year so she could devote more time to kendo.

Cheung, 20, took up kendo after he started part-time Japanese language studies and enrolled in a higher diploma course in applied science (biotechnology) at the Institute of Vocational Education.

"One word, 'kendo', caught my eye on the institute's introductory leaflet," he says. "It said there was a kendo club and that students could sign up."

Although the club had just closed, after the student running it had graduated, Cheung thought the club should continue.

"At the start we'd only seven committee members - the minimum number for setting up a club," he says. "And we didn't know where to find a coach, since we were not able to afford huge fees."

However, the Hong Kong Kendo Association offered to provide a sensei for a nominal fee. Although five of the original committee members have left since then, the club has continued.

Cheung has spent almost two years studying the basics of kendo - such as the footwork involved when attacking or defending - but believes it is necessary.

"In Japan, people often do kendo well into their 50s or 60s. They've remained fit because they had a strong foundation. I know the importance of carefully learning the elementary skills, so I've been very patient during my training."

Both he and Chan have clear goals for their clubs in future. Cheung says: "After all the effort put in to establishing the club, I want more people to join so it won't close."

Chan says: "City University and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology both have well-established kendo clubs. Their teams are the best, but I want the University of Hong Kong's team to be challenging them and to reach the top within eight years."

This weekend, leading local and international kendo enthusiasts will compete at the 12th Hong Kong Asian Open Championships - the year's biggest tournament - at Tin Shui Wai Sports Centre in Yuen Long. For details, go to their website.