Hong Kong Breakdancers Set Sights On The 2024 Olympic Games
Night falls in Hung Hom and factory buildings go dark unit by unit. The graffiti-covered rooftop of the otherwise nondescript Focal Industrial Centre sets the stage for a group of young men, who arrive in hoodies and baseball caps and greet each other with bumped fists, their faces lit only by their cigarettes. As music begins to pulse from a portable speaker, shadowy figures suddenly become animated, legs twirling upwards, limbs twisting and heads pivoting on the floor in chaotic choreography.
Among them are Kwan Man-chun, who goes by ET; Joe Chong, whose stage name is Fat Joe; and the performer Bomhead, who refuses to reveal his real name. They are the core members of Buddy Crew, a Hong Kong breakdancing group set up in 2001 which now has 40 members, all of whom are known by stage names tied to their individual personalities. After 20 years, the members of this niche subculture are stepping out of the shadows after breakdance, or breaking as it is officially known, became one of the sports to be added to the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris. ET and Fat Joe are on a committee formed by the Hong Kong Dancesport Association (HKDSA) to find 36 dancers who will be chosen to represent the city on the Place de la Concorde, one of Paris’s major public squares, where breaking tournaments will be held.
Along with skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing, breaking is one of the four new “urban” sports selected by Paris organisers to “help to make Paris 2024 fit for a post-corona world”, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) says, adding that as well as appealing to a younger demographic than typical Olympics sports, they are “inclusive, engaging and can be practised outside conventional arenas”.
“We want to take sport to the youth,” IOC boss Thomas Bach said in 2015. “With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them.” While breaking is highly technical and requires considerable athleticism and creativity from dancers, its inclusion in the Games has been accompanied by criticism from both inside and outside the community. There are concerns over how the Olympics will make hip-hop dancers focus on gymnastics training and how strict rules will change the nature of street dancing by taking away its essence. Other detractors have argued that breaking is not a sport and there are more worthy sports that should have been chosen.
“The Olympics has lost what it was. Yes, they’re trying to move with the times but it’s creating a mockery of the thing,” says Australian squash champion Michelle Martin, who has been lobbying for her sport’s inclusion for years.
Breaking is a facet of hip-hop culture, which originated in New York City in the Seventies alongside rapping, DJing and graffiti, and spread worldwide thanks to its prominence within pop culture. Eighties Hollywood films like Wildstyle and Breakin’ brought street dancing to Hong Kong, while breaking has cropped up in homegrown productions, such as the Donnie Yen action rom-com Mismatched Couples and Steven Chow dancing on TVB Jade children’s show 430 Space Shuttle, both in the Eighties. More recent films, such as The Way We Keep Dancing, released in February and set in the Kowloon industrial district where Buddy Crew trains, maintain the subculture’s cool reputation among young people.
Despite Hong Kong being one of the earliest adopters of street dance among Asian cities, breaking commands far greater respect in countries like Japan and Taiwan, where parents encourage their children to take hip-hop classes after school. ET, now 32, fell in love with hip-hop at 14, when he saw a group of street dancers practising outside Tseung Kwan O MTR station after his swimming lesson. He asked the dancers to teach him and eventually he became a part of the group. “Hong Kong parents are concerned that their kids won’t make a living from street dance,” says ET. It took him travelling to be a guest judge at French contest The M Dance Competition and being subsequently interviewed on TVB for his family to take his pursuit seriously.
Bomhead, who got his name after a pebble fell on his head, recalls that there used to be street dancers practising on the smooth grounds outside Hong Kong Space Museum, Victoria Park, the City University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in the 2000s. “We would bring a loudspeaker and dance in the street,” ET adds. “But the rate of youth delinquency in Hong Kong was high up until the early turn of the century. Cops and security guards shooed us away, mistaking us for drug addicts and street kids. Our neighbours complained about loud music.” According to the government, there is no law that prohibits street dance performances. However, under the Pleasure Grounds Regulation, any annoyance created by musical instruments in public spaces, like a park, is banned.
Bomhead adds, “There’s even a sign on the Polytechnic University wall saying ‘no street dancing’. The irony is: a lot of NGOs organise street dance competitions to get troubled youths off the streets. This has created the illusion that we’re drug addicts. I don’t see why there aren’t anti-drug basketball games.” As with most subcultures and hobbies in Hong Kong, finding adequate space to practise is the biggest challenge. “There are courts for basketball players, the Xiqu Centre for opera singers but nothing for street dancers,” ET says.
Chan Ka-ling, founder of the School of Hip-Hop at young people’s crisis intervention centre Youth Outreach and a committee member of the breaking division of the HKDSA, says breakdancing’s inclusion at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires in 2018 sparked excitement among the young people she works with. “Breaking has high athletic and entertainment value,” she says.
Nevertheless, Hong Kong’s breaking scene continues to flourish beneath the surface—for now, anyway. Two local B-girls—a term for female break dancers—IFree and Beat Duck, made it to the final round in Japan in 2018, one step from the Youth Olympic Games, and will compete for places at the 2024 Olympics. With or without medals, Hong Kong simply making it to the games will bring the boost of support in wider society that could give confidence to more young dancers than ever before to follow in ET and his squad’s agile footsteps.
“With recognition from the Olympic Games, there’ll be more confidence and career opportunities in this industry in Hong Kong,” Chan says. “Hip-hop dance will catch fire in the city.”
See also: 10 Dance Classes To Try In Hong Kong