Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Different Kind of Fever Hits Hong Kong

This post dates back to last year's Hong Kong trip that coincided with the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

Hong Kong is ranked #116 in the world by FIFA. It’s more than a continent away from Germany yet as soon as you touch down at Chek Lak Kop International Airport, you can’t help but feel that you aren’t too far from World Cup fever.

In the middle of this fully modern airport in Lantau island is a large vid-screen with a life-sized cutout of France’s Thierry Henry telling travelers to “Fly Emirates.” The chain of Newslink Bookstores have gotten in the action with their magazine stands and tables decked with football publications and tomes on past greats such as Pele, Diego Maradona, and Paul Gascoigne.

In the departure area before you reach immigration and customs there is a stall that attracts a queue almost as long as a ticket booth. And why not when it has kits of almost every famous football club and country in the world? A young Australian lad of nine years tugs his mum’s hand. There’s a big “wow!” on his lips as his eyes are ablaze with wonder. Once his hands gently touch those red Umbro English tees with a “Lampard” on the back, it’s sold for HK $447. So much for being a Socceroo fan.

I’m staying at my favorite stomping grounds of Tsim Sha Tsui and this swinging part of town is a microcosm of an island gone soccer mad. If it isn’t the Netherlands' Ruud Van Nistelrooy on the side of a double decker bus, there are bus stops adverts of England’s cross-cultural icon David Beckham, the joyous Brazilian striker Ronaldinho, and France’s brilliant mid-fielder Zinedine Zidane. Everywhere you go there are people in football unis. I’ve spotted more than a few Filipino tourists in football gear (if you’re a stickler for numbers, that’s 25 Pinoys with various football kits versus a lone one wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey).

Prat Avenue is one of the few streets in the shopping maven of TST that doesn’t have tourist shops. Instead it’s arrayed with bars and restaurants. From the avenue’s tip where the 7-11 is filled to the ceiling with soccer buntings and soccer ball stickers to its end where it intersects with busy Chatham Road, it’s like the United Nations as most shops are decked in the flags of the 32 nations competing in the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Ironically it is Schurrnapp’s, a German Bar and Restaurant, that is the only establishment that provides a soccer-free haven for people who don’t have a thing for soccer. “You’d be surprised that there are folks in this world who don’t like soccer,” says Rolf a regular bar patron. So how’s business lately? “Oh, they’re all next door watching the games,” he throws his hands up in cheerful defeat. The Jockey Club, a betting station beside a Vietnamese restaurant, is working overtime. The betting is fast and furious. Tonight it’s Italy vs. the USA. With Eddie Johnson sounding off the war cries and Italy’s adverse reactions to the American’s comments, you know that it’s going to be one hell of a match. And despite their game being slated for 3am the bars will have full occupancy. It’s a good thing, it’s the weekend. According to the South China Morning Post’s Tim Noonan, HK employers have decried the high absenteeism during World Cup season. Fortunately, it happens once every four years and employers are willing to concede that. Besides, the employers themselves stumble into their swank offices in Central with their eyes bloodshot the following morning and seemingly jet-lagged albeit from an all-nighter of soccer action.

The fashionable shops along Nathan Road and the ritzy inter-connecting malls of the Gateway to Harbour City have gone soccer mad as well. Even the more affordable trendy stores like Bossini and Giordano have shown their true colors. “World Without Strangers” is Giordano’s new advertising campaign in reference to the global game of football. It’s got shirts designed in every nation’s colors. If you get three shirts (now there’s a retailer’s hat trick score if there was ever one), it comes at a more affordable price. While the bulk of the items everywhere are geared for a male audience, the Giordano outlet in Peking Road offers a concession: “We apologize for your having to endure your boyfriend’s soccer-mania. For that we are offering 20% off on your shopping needs.” Tres cool. Football for men; shopping for women. Only the women are just as into it. A pretty Chinese lass in designer jeans and shoes walks by. She’s wearing a Beckham. Why not? After all, she’s proud of her country’s British heritage. “Yes, but also because he’s hot,” she adds.

Hong Kong is 95% Chinese with the remaining 5% made up of different nationalities. If you find the various ethnic cuisines of Nepal, France, Portugal, Vietnam or whatnot (check out them yummy places along Stanley) too pricey, then you might want to settle for the less expensive fare of that neighborhood carinderia that is McDonald’s. But as you descend the steps of the McDonald’s along Granville Road, there’s a huge poster of the in-store Fantastic World Cup Cards promo to greet you. There’s no escape whether from football or the hamburger chain. For every HK $17 purchase, you get a card. If the team on the card wins that day then you get a free McDonald’s meal.

Back in the hotel room after a day of shopping and sight-seeing, you switch on the tube. If your hotel doesn’t get cable then unless you’re Chinese, then you’re doomed to local tele-novelas and game shows. You only have the BBC and National Geographic to keep you company. But wait a minute... they’re showing Football Planet on National Geographic.

Der Spiegel’s Dirk Kurbjuweit’s writes in their Planet Football International Edition that football “isn’t just a game.” And more than a continent away from Germany in this Special Administrative Region that is Hong Kong, he is so right.

It’s a way of life.

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