Last month, teacher and football coach Chan Chi-chung received the news that he had been waiting to hear for an entire year – the Town Planning Board finally abandoned plans to build high-rise housing next to the Kitchee football training centre in the New Territories.

When the government sent “feelers” to speak with the Shatin District Council last autumn last year, it was planning to demolish the brand-new HK$84 million training facility. But the news triggered such anger from the sporting community that then-chief executive Leung Chun-ying backtracked.

Jockey Club Kitchee Centre. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Kitchee_BB.

“The moment [Leung] talked about demolishing that centre, all the football fanatics got really angry,” recalled Chan. “We felt it was a very precious facility, but this chief executive thinks that sports make no economic contribution to Hong Kong.”

Forming a self-described “ragtag” concern group – Support HK Football – with other coaches, fans and athletes, Chan approached the district council with his petition.

“It was a strange experience: no matter whether the [councillors] were pro-Beijing or pro-democracy, everybody was against demolishing the centre at least in the immediate future – whether arguing from the perspective of contribution to sports or to the community.”

“They felt Shatin had a lot of history, and it was just not right to build high-rise flats on the edge of the Shing Mun River… Even from an environmental perspective, it’s only been built for a year, and Kitchee has no money [to replace it]. The funds were donated by the Jockey Club.”

Faced with overwhelming opposition, the Planning Department rolled out an alternative plan to build a single high-rise block on a neighbouring barren plot.

Children playing football at the Jockey Club Kitchee Center. Photo: Jockey Club Kitchee Centre Facebook.

But urban planners advised Chan that if the proposal was adopted, the floodlights and noise from the football centre would cause residents to complain, creating an excuse to kick Kitchee out. So this September, Support HK Football arrived at a Town Planning Board hearing on the future of the centre with 900 letters of opposition.

“In theory the odds were against [the government], but from our experience it’s never certain… Look at the Northeast New Territories development plan. There were 50,000 letters, but the government pretends you’re not there. So we were always pessimistic.”

A month later, following closed-door deliberations, the Board decided not to accept the Planning Department’s proposal to re-designate the site, putting an end to the saga – at least temporarily. “The officials had a conscience, I guess,” added Chan.

A ‘model’ facility

To understand why fans were so outraged, it is necessary to take a wider view of the state of football facilities in densely-populated Hong Kong.

“There are far fewer facilities than necessary to satisfy society’s demand,” said Chan. “Otherwise, nobody would be so stupid as to speculate on the prices of football pitches.”

Chan Chi-chung. Photo: HKFP.

“Booking a regular Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) pitch costs HK$268 in the evenings… But speculators have inflated prices to over HK$1,000… or even HK$2,000 depending on whether you want ‘one-stop-shop’ services like referees.”

According to Planning Department guidelines, the government aims to provide one football pitch for every 100,000 people. The guidelines also stipulate, for example, one basketball court per 10,000 people and one table tennis room per 7,500 people.

“But if you look at what’s considered a ‘football pitch’, they include all the ‘pitches’ that host athletics meets and school competitions. In the middle [of the running track] there is a piece of grass, but it is never used… Even Mong Kok Stadium is included, but as we all know it’s only for professional games.”

The management and quality of government facilities also riles Chan, who says that the artificial turf surfaces are quickly worn out due to lack of maintenance.

In January, Civic Party legislator Tanya Chan conducted an investigation of the black rubber pellets used on the pitches, showing that they contained cancerous materials. “The Kitchee pitch uses coconut fibre,” added Chan Chi-chung. “It’s a natural material, so it’s not cancerous.”

Black rubber pellets.

In this context, Chan describes the Kitchee centre, which opened in 2015, as a “model” facility for cooperation between the private sector and the community. While a tiny number of older clubs – such as HKFC and South China – own properties, Kitchee broke new ground in opening its centre to the public, hosting youth tournaments and engaging with local schools.

One school that has benefited is Shatin’s Tung Chi Ying Memorial School, an institution that enrols teenagers hoping to become professional footballers – the closest local equivalent to foreign football academies. Kitchee has established a scholarship for its students, who regularly train at the centre in the daytime, when there is no public demand for the pitch.

“At the centre, 10 per cent of the time is for maintenance,” said Chan. “30 per cent of the slots are open for public use in accordance with the terms of the lease… 60 per cent is reserved for Kitchee’s 24 different teams [including youth levels and women].”

“It’s achieved almost 100 per cent capacity… Kids can even do homework there after training,” added Chan. “These concentrated services don’t exist in LCSD facilities. I don’t think the LCSD would proactively think about how to improve efficiency.”

Replicating Kitchee

Following the successful campaign to preserve the Kitchee centre, Support HK Football now has a bigger ambition – to crowdfund HK$40,000 and recruit volunteers to conduct a study on the state of Hong Kong’s football facilities. Cooperating with the Polytechnic University, Chan said that Support HK Football will survey users at pitches across Hong Kong on every day of the week at different times.

The Kitchee centre. Photo: HKFP.

Ultimately, Chan wants to convince the government to replicate the Kitchee model across the city. “We want these facilities to be available at different districts and for different clubs… the same problems apply to other sports – for example, thousands of athletes use the Wanchai Sports Ground, but [the government] tried to demolish it too.”

Chan concedes that the government may have little incentive to allocate its lucrative land reserves for leisure space and sports development. “But legislators have questioned the government on its sports policy… We will conduct an academic study and prepare policy proposals.”

“It’s like we’ve prepared all the food and you just need to eat it. If we can do all of this in civil society, why shouldn’t the government adopt these ideas?”

Last year, Education University professor Brian Fong founded the WeMaker non-profit crowdfunding platform, through which Support HK Football will hope to gather resources. Fong believes that the process of speaking to amateur players will empower a community that may not be used to advocacy.

“You might have expected there to be a democratic government which is accountable to the people and improve lives,” said Fong. “But if the government fails to do something, you can fix it within civil society – or lead the way in persuading the government to it… it’s a community service.”

Brian Fong. Photo: HKFP.

Chan agrees, citing his experience in the Kitchee campaign. “You would never think that Hong Kong football fans would come out and put up street booths, or raise ‘Save the Kitchee centre’ banners at football matches – though even that might become illegal soon.”

“But when you come back and thank people for their support – telling them that Town Planning Board officials actually agreed with you – it makes people feel a lot less powerless. So next time, when an issue comes up, people are more willing to speak out.”

Elson Tong

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.