Hong Kong's Roller Derby Community Is Inclusive, Positive—And Not Afraid Of Taking On Challenges
Plastic wheels honk, clatter and purr across the oblong concrete arena as a squad of figures in skates rounds the corner in pack formation, ready to pick up speed on the straight. Faces glisten with sweat beneath crash helmets and thigh muscles ripple with exertion as the skaters fly through their drills. One loses her footing, tumbling to the ground. She is helped up by teammates and carries on; in a fast, tactical, contact sport like roller derby, a little tumble is par for the course.
Among the boards, scooters and inline skates in the city’s rinks and bowls, quad skates are an increasingly common sight, largely thanks to the efforts of Hong Kong Roller Derby (HKRD), a sports group founded in 2013 that runs training sessions, organises social events and whose members operate a shop to sell and rent skates.
Originally developed in the US, roller derby is one of the more niche subcultures to have arrived in Hong Kong in recent years. Boosted by viral videos on platforms like TikTok, retro quad skating—as opposed to roller blading, which uses in-line skates—has boomed in popularity in the US and Europe due to its kitsch, visual nature, increased prominence in popular culture, such as the 2009 film Whip It, and a message of female empowerment and inclusion at its core.
Open To All
The doors of Madame Quad Skate Emporium are open to all. On a weekday afternoon, the shop bustles. First, there is a father looking for the thickest protective pads he can find before he allows his son to step on a skateboard; then, a lithe yoga instructor looking for a new fitness outlet debates whether a pair of pink pearlescent rollers or some floral skates are more her style; later, a mother breezes by looking to outfit her daughter’s latest social media-inspired craze.
Madame Quad co-founder Snooky ‘Karl Luna’ Wong, whose ‘derby name’ is a play on the word ‘Kowloon’, rolls out from behind her desk, issuing advice to skating newcomers. “I basically try to have skates on from first thing in the morning to the last thing I do when I get home,” she says. She and Milanie ‘Pain Goodall’ Bekker opened the skate and accessories shop in April 2019 to cater to a rising interest in skating in Hong Kong and foster a community that they hope will one day be large enough to form a derby league—a challenge in a city where there is not only a lack of places to train, but also a culture of non-confrontation that doesn’t exactly endorse women shoving each other to the ground in the name of sport.
“Derby is what started our passion for roller skating,” says Wong, 32. “We try to do as many types of different skating as possible because in Hong Kong, derby is a hard sell. As soon as you tell people you get together to hit each other, they’re like: ‘What is wrong with you? Bye!’”
Bumps In The Road
Hong Kong’s busy, narrow pavements and challenging topography, particularly on Hong Kong Island, make street skating difficult; not to mention drivers and pedestrians who have little reason to watch out for humans on wheels. The group, formed mostly of female skaters, is looking to normalise skating in a city where even a bicycle commuter is a rare sight.
Derby was first imported to Hong Kong by US expat Allison ‘Buffy’ Gentry in 2013, and has been nurtured by successive skate group leaders; the Madame Quad WhatsApp group alone has more than 140 members, and about 30 skaters regularly take part in the derby-specific drills. As well as two weekly training sessions at Victoria Park’s designated skate space, the group organises social events, such as indoor roller discos, dance classes at ferry piers, and meet-ups at bowls across the city where members practise trick moves and coach each other.
For Wong, who has lived in Australia, the UK and Hong Kong, gaining visibility for the group means sometimes breaking the rules. She admits to “skitching” (holding on to the back of trams as they move), racing through the city’s sleek malls with a security guard on her tail, or coming provocatively close to pedestrians.
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Tattoos, brightly dyed hair, wheels that flash or glow in the dark, pompoms, rainbow socks, flower-shaped toe stops, helmets covered in stickers: skate culture is a carnival of colour that adheres to the central tenets of acceptance and inclusion, and where everyone is welcome, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or body shape. You’ll spot Wong cruising in her Flaneurz, street shoes modified with removable wheels, whereas Bekker hits the rink in black, suede, hi-top Moxis with badger motifs on the toes.
Derby is typically played by two teams of 15 players, and points are scored by the single “jammer” player on each team lapping rivals. Other players must stop the opposing jammer at all costs while helping their own. The term “derby” dates back to the 1920s, when roller skate races were held on tracks.
Over time, more physical elements were introduced, leading to events being televised in the 1940s. However, the sport dwindled in the later 20th century, only to be revived in the early 2000s in Texas in today’s incarnation, which is regulated by bodies like the US-based Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. To the outsider, games look like haphazard violence, but the players adhere to strict rules on where and how people can be hit.
However, injuries are something of a mark of pride within derby culture. “I keep getting these staph infections,” says Sarah ‘Throbbin’ Hood’ Thrower, as she picks at a scab on her knee during training. “Ehhhh, it’ll be fine,” she says getting up, ready to roll again. Later, as the group knocks back beers in a bar, Bekker shows off pictures of a former bruise that covered her entire thigh in mottled puce and burgundy blotches, and prods at a protrusion on her hips. “There’s definitely something in there that shouldn’t be there.”
“You don’t play derby if you’re afraid of bruises: we call them ‘derby kisses’,” Wong says. “You get very sweaty and it’s close contact. You get a lot of moves where you clamp down on someone, or you might get an armpit to the face. Or accidentally get punched in the face, or fall and you land on your wheel.”
“But the greatest thing about derby,” she says, “is when you get somebody that will hit you, like nail you to the ground, and then stick their hand out and be like, ‘You alright?’”
Derby culture inspires grit in skaters and players are physically tough, but don’t mistake this for a hostile community: the scene is tight knit and supportive— whether skating socially along the harbour as friends, cheering stunts at the skate bowl, or going head-to-head in a roller derby bout.
At 20, Viva Dio is one of the group’s youngest skaters, who is still honing her skate technique before moving on to derby. Originally from the Philippines, Dio learned to surf in Bali, and found the skills learned on the waves dovetailed with skating’s demands. After spotting a video of Willow Smith skating on Instagram, she decided to give it a go and ran into the Madame Quad gang at a rink late last year.
“They made me feel welcome and like I belonged,” she says. “Roller skating combined with feminism makes me feel empowered. Some people think women in skating are just doing it to look cool on social media. Really it’s about enjoying it and hanging out with friends who are cool too. And we can do things that you probably can’t do.”
“So many people say, ‘Oh, I’m not badass enough.’ But you don’t have to be a badass before you start; you’re the badass because you start,” says 32-year-old teacher Bekker.
Against The Grain
Skating has long gone hand-in-hand with counter-cultural mores, such as body modification and alternative music, and the community is defined by its diversity and acceptance of difference. Thrower, a former “moody art kid” from the US, says skating has given her an outlet for aggression and, like Wong, she gets a kick out of evading security guards in no-skate areas of the city. Having skated as a child in her native Melbourne, Hana ‘Ripley’ Richards Butler was urged to join HKRD as an adult and found that the sport pushed her to explore the limits of her body.
“I could see myself getting stronger physically and I found it rewarding: it feels awesome when you land a trick. Being told that you need to learn this thing to pass your minimum skills, then doing it: the feeling is very empowering,” she says.
Meanwhile Bekker, originally from South Africa, played cricket and raced cars growing up, but has found that skating has given her the confidence to express her identity more fully than in male-dominated sports like rugby.
“I felt very comfortable with derby because of the queer inclusivity. In this sport, it doesn’t matter.”
Me, Myself And I
“It goes deeper,” she continues. “The reason I have tattoos, the reason I live the way I live is so that I can control your idea of who I am. Derby is kind of in line with that. It’s like, if you’re skating or you’re playing derby and someone looks at you, maybe they’ll be like, ‘Okay, don’t f**k with this person: they’re strong’. I’m doing it so that I can feel comfortable in my body and that I know what my body can do and what I’m capable of. And then I’m more confident going forward.”
Behind the get-togethers and bright ensembles is a dedicated crew that train rigorously and are committed to a sport that promotes positivity, self-confidence and celebration. As the saying goes, loving yourself is an act of revolution, and the group is united by pride in their physical abilities. “My thighs used to be tiny,” Butler says. “Now they are massive and strong.”
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- Photography Inga Beckmann