How an ancient Indian sport builds bridges across cultures in Hong Kong

Towered over by high-rise buildings on the outskirts of Hong Kong, a group of college students practice body-slam tackles and vicious ankle-wrenches in their weekly practice for an unusual sport: the ancient Indian game of kabaddi.

Although the professional league has a large following in India and surrounding countries, kabaddi – a very physical game that involves beating the opposing team, often with brute force – is relatively unknown outside the region.

But eight years ago, two Chinese anthropologists set up a team in Hong Kong to promote inclusion in a city that, despite its status as an international hub, can’t always be inclusive, especially when it comes to non-white and non-Chinese residents.

“We often hear that Hong Kong is Asia’s cosmopolitan city, but we really don’t have much opportunity to interact with people from different cultural backgrounds,” said Wyman Tang, one of the anthropologists.

“We live in the same neighborhood, but it’s like we live in a parallel world.”

Their project – Kabaddi United Hong Kong (KUHK) – began as a one-off workshop at a local university. It has now expanded to nearly 80 schools and social organizations and had more than 8,000 participants.

Royal Sunar, a coach at KUHK, was shocked to discover his childhood game was being taught in Hong Kong.

“Kabaddi was one of my interests,” said the Hong Kong-born Nepali. “Somehow the Chinese also like the sport.”

An emotional connection

Kabaddi is believed to be 5,000 years old and has roots in Indian mythology, although similar versions of the game have appeared across Asia over the centuries, including in Iran, which also claims to be his place of birth.

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Teams earn points by sending a “raider” to the opposing side who attempts to quickly tag an opponent and then runs back into their own half. Defending teams try to prevent the attacker from escaping, which often involves entire team stacks.

Nepalese immigrant Rojit Sharma joined KUHK in 2019. For him, kabaddi was the first opportunity to make Chinese friends and practice Cantonese.

“[There is]an emotional connection in Kabaddi because we hold hands and then we know more about each other,” he said. But the 22-year-old said ethnic minorities in Hong Kong had to fight off the pitch to be recognized as “native”.

He is no stranger to blatant discrimination.

“When I arrived in Hong Kong, if I was traveling on public bus or public transport and tried to sit down, the person next to the seat would just walk away,” he said.

‘color sensitive’

Advocacy groups say his experience is the norm.

“I think there are significant race-related issues in Hong Kong,” Shalini Mahtani, the CEO of one such group, told the Zubin Foundation.

She said South Asians face discrimination on a daily basis in Hong Kong, giving examples of people being told their skin was too dark during job interviews or being prevented from renting apartments.

“They’re the wrong color in a place that’s very color sensitive,” she added.

The coronavirus pandemic has deepened discrimination. As an area of ​​the city where many South Asians live was one of the first to go into lockdown, a senior health official sparked fury by suggesting ethnic minority residents could be spreading the virus because “they enjoy eating, smoking, drinking alcohol and… chat with each other”.

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Critics pointed out that the same could easily be said of Cantonese culture — or the many noisy bars filled with foreign “expat” employees.

Mahtani partly blames the education system.

“The truth is that many Chinese people in Hong Kong will never have had the experience of engaging with ethnic minorities,” she said.

team spirit

That was true of Christy Tai, a senior, until she joined her kabaddi group after trying it out and liking its “team spirit”. She said sport is a good way to break down language barriers.

“We have to talk to every member of the team … When we talk, we can’t just talk about a sport, we can talk about our life, our habits or whatever,” she said.

Hong Kong still has a long way to go to create a professional Kabaddi league, but founder Tang is pleased with how the game has caught on in the city.

“As long as you follow the same rules, you can enjoy the game,” Tang said. – AFP Relaxnews

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