This year the Hong Kong Sevens celebrates its 42nd year. What was dreamed up in 1976 by a marketing executive as a pan-Asian rugby tournament (and a means to advertise cigarettes, back when sport and the most unhealthy product around were natural bedfellows) has turned into a Hong Kong phenomenon.
As a young sports hack, I had no idea just what a massive deal this tournament is to Hong Kong – and beyond. My first tournament was a dizzying attempt to keep track of the teams and games, with 24 of the former and around 70 of the latter. Never mind the costumed, drunken madness in the infamously hard-partying South Stand at Hong Kong Stadium.
After that first day, I went to Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s ‘strip’, for a post-work pint. Or at least I tried to. I couldn’t get near it thanks to crowds of revellers, tired and emotional after a long shift in the South Stand but determined that the party wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t stop.
But the Sevens is about far more than just fancy dress and fizzy beer. The Hong Kong Sevens is a world-class sporting event. And in the year that this form of rugby makes its Olympic debut, the competition on the pitch will be fiercer than usual.
This is an event ingrained in the fabric of Hong Kong society, or at least a large part of it (despite excellent efforts by the Hong Kong Rugby Union to get local kids engaged with rugby in recent years the sport remains something of a mystery to many in the Chinese community). It’s part of the global consciousness, too. The Sevens is a yearly pilgrimage for thousands of rugby fans from all over the world (you’ll spot them: the large men usually sporting their country or city’s rugby shirt, more often than not with a pint in hand).
Even if you’re not a rugby fan – I wasn’t a big one before my first Sevens – come along anyway. Fancy dress isn’t mandatory.
As the Sevens weekend dawns, here’s what you need to know.
So where did the whole Sevens business start, then?
Sevens started in Scotland in the 19th century as a fundraising event for a local club. Played on a full-size pitch but with half the players of the 15s game, the action is non-stop and scoring frequent. Games last 14 minutes, so a whole tournament can be packed into a weekend. With matches coming thick and fast, there’s no chance to get bored.
Right. Why is Hong Kong’s version so famous?
Early on, it was the closest thing to a world cup that existed for a sport still stuffily set in its ways. Seeing the world’s best players face off was an instant hit with fans and sponsors. Now there’s a World Cup for sevens and 15s, a global Sevens Series with 10 tournaments (including Hong Kong) and rugby has returned to the Olympics – in the shape of Sevens – for the first time since 1924. Hong Kong was key to it all.
Who cares? I’m only here for the beer.
So were most of the players until rugby turned professional. The South Stand of the Hong Kong Stadium is the place for revellers, especially on the Saturday of the three-day event, when it turns into a sea of inebriated Spongebob Squarepantses, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Avengers more interested in being led in drunken singalongs by the stadium DJ. Turn up early and be prepared to lose your seat if you dare go to the bathroom. (This led to one local sports hack being showered by plastic glasses full of an amber liquid that wasn’t beer when his editor sent him to get some ‘colour’.) Sunday in the South Stand is altogether more sedate, with a palpable air of shame and regret rising from the bleary-eyed and sore-headed Incredible Hulks and Where’s Wallies.
Where did this dressing-up craze come from?
Unclear. The archives suggest that in the 1980s the event morphed into a fully fledged bacchanal, with the South China Morning Post noting the ‘eccentric attire’ of the fans for the first time. Another Sevens tradition made front-page news in 1987: ‘Streakers startle the magnificent Sevens’, blared the SCMP headline.
Do I need a costume?
Not at all. Plenty of people don’t dress up. But if you do, local celebrity could be yours for the taking: a Kim Jong-un impersonator briefly became one of Hong Kong’s most famous men last year, and rumour has it he found the female attention much to his liking, too.
This all sounds horrendous. I actually like watching rugby!
Don’t worry – outside the South Stand it’s not too wild, with plenty of knowledgeable fans there for the sports rather than a party. Thousands of kids attend, and there are face-painting and autograph-hunting opportunities for them, too.
Whose names should I drop to sound like I know what I’m talking about?
Some of the biggest stars in the sport’s history have played in Hong Kong – Australia’s David Campese was a regular favourite, while the late Jonah Lomu, one of the greatest players ever to have played the game, stormed to fame as a teenager in Hong Kong. As rugby went professional, it was rarer for players to play both games, but this year, with rugby in the Olympics, that’s changed. Among the 15s stars set to take part in the Hong Kong Sevens is All Black World Cup winner Sonny Bill Williams, while 20-year-old teammate Akira Ioane is seen by many as ‘the next Lomu’. Keepan eye out for South Africa’s electric Seabelo Senatla, while the flair-packed defending champions Fiji are a joy to watch: Savenaca Rawaca has been on fire for them this season.
So where do I get a ticket?
That could be tricky without connections or an official tour – the event could easily sell out the 40,000-capacity stadium twice over. There are other events to get a taste of the action: outdoor viewing areas at the Central Harbourfront are popular, and there’s a women’s tournament on the Thursday and Friday. Earlier in the week, the Hong Kong Tens, which invites teams from around the world in a 10-a-side format, is a fun warm-up to the main event.
I went, ended up in the South Stand and now I can’t remember anything. What do I say to sound like I remember?
Drop a line about how you reckon Sonny Bill has a lot of work to do to adapt to the smaller game and how Fiji will be national heroes when they bring back the country’s first Olympic medals in August. Throw in a sentence or two about how you felt the event perfectly encapsulated Hong Kong’s history of colonial culture, can-do spirit and joy at letting its hair down, and you’ll be golden. You’re welcome.
6-8 April, Hong Kong Stadium. hksevens.com
Brave new world
My name is Cathy Adams, and I like to party.
Like most people who’ve been in Hong Kong more than 72 hours, I was aware of the Sevens weekend. You can’t really not be. Speak to anybody and you assume it’s the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Middle Kingdom. Oh, and if you’re not planning on doing a 12-hour shift in the South Stand, you call yourself a Hong Konger?
The Hong Kong Sevens is a Big Weekend. Unfortunately after arriving in the SAR in January 2015, by the end of March I’d had 10 Big Weekends. But when this weekend involved dressing up as a fruit (a bunch of grapes, thanks for asking), then a Spice Girl (Ginger, since you ask) and wailing Come On Eileen 26 times in a row, then yes please, that sounds lovely, thank you very much friend-who-scored-a-ticket-from-work.
Let’s start at the beginning. Which for me was 5.30am at a 7-Eleven in Causeway Bay, buying a can of Asahi and two rubbery char siu bao for breakfast, before stomping up the steps of the South Stand in the Hong Kong Stadium. Even as dawn broke I found myself alongside a few others gussied up as various famouses including Kim Jong-un, a handful of dalmatians and Dennis Rodman.
I’ll keep it succinct: pints of lager were drunk, pints of lager were thrown, pints of lager were spilled. People cheered at something going on below. (I think it was rugby?) We did a Mexican wave, then we did another one. People ate pies, nachos, hotdogs. I fell asleep on the North Korean Guard next to me. It’s almost exactly the same as that time I went to the darts championship at London’s Alexandra Palace, except this time I was sweating in the sun and the scenery was better. (Other people’s drunk stories are just the worst, aren’t they?)
My name is Cathy Adams, and I quite enjoyed losing my Hong Kong Sevens virginity. Fancy doing it again sometime?
This story was originally printed in Discovery, April 2016, and has been updated