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Hong Kong Part I (Jan 2009)

This series of posts are about a place, Hong Kong, but also a lot about a man, Joey Kan, who is a film maker, animator, and dancer. Permit me some backstory before I tell you about my most recent visit with Joey.

Joey and I were roommates in high school for three years and remained close after graduation when he went to RISD in Providence, and I went to Emerson in Boston. In high school we wrestled on the same squad, which is as close as boarding school friends get to brothers. In college, we critiqued each other’s developing artistic sensibilities. I’ve learned a lot about art through Joey. He explained to me what he was doing in his sketch books, which he had done in high school.

Joey returned to Hong Kong every summer to live with his family. In July, 2001 I flew as an “air courier” to get a cheap ticket and visited him for two weeks. That trip was a major eye-opener, as I had not yet been to even Manhattan or Chicago or Los Angeles. Hong Kong is a super-dense, tall, and built on the side of a mountain. Literally every square inch of land that is not too steep to built on has been used. Tropical forest fills in the gaps. The public transportation is a dream, and if you’re wealthy enough to pay the import tax levied on automobiles, you certainly make it worth it. As a result, there’s rarely anything less than a Mercedes on the road. During the 2001 trip, Joey took me on a turbo-tour of everything we could possibly do in two weeks, which included a trip to Shenzhen on the mainland, the island of Macau, time in MonKok in Kowloon, and the discovery of many dingy arcades on Hong Kong island. We stayed out until five in the morning and slept in until eleven. It was as if we were back in high school again, but freed from the disturbance of going to classes and sports practice. That summer, Joey had become interested in breakdancing. This would later grow to consume him and shape his art work in many ways. I remember helping him do handstands in his living room, to practice before going out and trying them at the clubs.

Of course we all know what happened later that fall. Could it be any more of an understatement to say that a lot has happened since 2001? In my personal life, I graduated from Emerson, taught in DC, took a massive road trip around the United States, met Laura, got my MFA from BU, moved to Thailand, and got married. For Joey, he’s worked his way up to a respectable job at a production house in Hong Kong, made two documentaries on break dancing, and earned a masters in animation in addition to his degree from RISD. He’s also become somewhat of an Old Guy in the Hong Kong breakdancing world, which was still emerging in 2001.

Okay, so January, 2009. I booked a flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong and stayed four days, leaving right before Chinese New Year. Upon arriving at the airport, I bought an Octopus card, which has an RFID embedded in it, and put 150 HK dollars worth of credit, and a round trip from the airport, which is on a separate island, to Hong Kong island. The airport express is fast, quiet, and comfortable. We have no public transportation system in the United States that comes close. Our meet-up plan changed when Joey was called out to support some younger break dancing students who he has mentored at an at-risk youth center in Sai Wan Ho, almost at the end of the western line in Hong Kong, ie. a place no tourist ever has any reason to visit. Believe it or not, there are working class neighborhoods on the island. (This was news to me.)

The young bboys had been verbally jousting with a rival crew for months and the taunting had come to a head: The rivals were “called out” to battle. A battle consists of two crews challenging each other’s skills by showcasing their own. It is like some very evolved mating ritual, with plenty of posturing to insult the rival’s dancing skills. This can involve doing a rival’s dance move better and with a new twist, or simply blowing them out of the water with new moves that clearly demonstrate the superiority of one’s talent. Break dancing is often floor-based, with capiora-like twirls and flips, but also involves spinning on the head and arms, and “freezing” in mid-pose, usually balanced on one arm, or the head. The clothing is universally hip-hop inspired. The music is as you would expect, and I could hear it from outside the building as I approached.

Joey met me outside the youth center and found his friend who works there to give me the all set so I could enter. In the gymnasium, I saw that the walls were spray-painted with colorful graffiti. The music was blaring and the crowd of mostly high school students was thick. There appeared to be no adult supervision except for the home team’s teachers, like Joey. One important difference between the two crews: the visiting team had brought with them several cute “fan girls,” still in their school uniforms, complete with pigtails, plaid skirts, and knee socks around their ankles. These girls brought status to the rival crew, as Joey’s students did not have any fan girls present.

I learned that they had already been battling for 45 minutes, and as I watched, I could see that some boys were starting to show signs of fatigue. One by one, the teams took turns sending out a dancer to show-off in front of the others, instigating responses by smacking their rival’s hats off their heads, spinning on their toes, and linking moves with back flips and slides. Over the next half hour, boos from the crowd signaled that moves were being repeated far too often. The fan girls began to spend a lot of time fiddling with their cell phones—not a good sign, and certainly disheartening for their bboys. Eventually, the girls packed up and left. By then, it was all over. The home team was declared the decisive victor, though I’m still not entirely sure how that was decided, as there were never any judges that I saw. Maybe simply mob rule? It is possible.

I interviewed the dancers that spoke English, and then Joey took me across the street to “King of Dumpling” for some marvelous food, which I happily snacked on while we walked to the next destination: Racks, a swank pool bar, to meet up with some friends.

Joeys Students

Joey's Students

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