Board gaming in Hong Kong

November 27, 2013

HONG KONG – The second-floor canteen at the City University of Hong Kong teems with life on a Saturday afternoon. Many students are here to have their afternoon snack. Others are deeply engrossed in homework or study. But there are a few tables where a different sort of activity is taking place. People are playing board games.

The 10-odd games on the tables in the large canteen bear intriguing titles like “Caverna”, “Descent” or “Inception”. They belong to the ever-growing number of modern board games – you will not see the familiar “Monopoly” or “Scrabble” – available on the Hong Kong market, many of them designed in Europe, but translated and published in Chinese.

In the world where video gaming has become ubiquitous, available on computer screens, TVs, tablets and cell phones, the enduring popularity of board games may come as a surprise. The hobby eschews modern digital technology for cardboard, plastic dice and colourful pieces of wood. And it also brings together friends and families around the table for an evening of playful rivalry in a way that video games cannot. Hong Kong’s board gaming community is small but vibrant. People of all ages and walks of life find intellectual stimulation, camaraderie and new friends in the lands of imagination and friendly competition.

The two large canteens on the CityU campus in Kowloon Tong have been popular with Hong Kong board gamers for at least six years, according to Angus Fong, a regular participant. A restaurant manager in his thirties, Fong, like most of his friends here today, is not associated with CityU. One does not have to be a student here in order to participate in the games.

“The food is cheap and the space is free” says Odie Leung, who is here with four of his friends. Leung, also in his late thirties, used to be a regular in the CityU canteen. He works in Mainland China these days and today is one of those rare occasions when he can get together with his friends for a game during a visit to Hong Kong.

Leung says he enjoys the social aspect of the hobby. There’s more human interaction, he says, than, for example, in chess, and games are “more multidimensional”, especially those that can be played by more than two people. Unlike video games, board games “let you influence other players, manipulate them”, he says between turns. “Board games help you develop mental and emotional skills.”

Leung believes that playing games with a person helps to get to know them. He quotes a Chinese saying: “If I want to know my future son-in-law, I play mahjong with him.” He doesn’t play the traditional Chinese game of mahjong, he says, since he does not enjoy gambling, but he believes that the modern board games can fulfil the same function. “Women can judge a [prospective boyfriend’s] character through games”, he says. “People show their true character.”

Not many women appear to be following Leung’s suggestion here. The crowd gathered over board games in the CityU canteen this day is predominantly male. Women account for less than 10 percent of the gamers.

But the ratio of women to men tends to be higher in more casual gatherings of board gamers, says Annie Cheung, a member of the Hong Kong Board Gamers group which uses the online service Meetup to arrange meetings. During the group’s Wednesday night gathering at Capstone, a game cafe in Causeway Bay, women constitute nearly half of the players. “Women talk more, they like interaction in games, they like negotiation,” says the 36-years-old journalist who just finished a card game that did involve much negotiation and trading. Thanks to Meetup, she developed a group of female friends who often gather together separately to play more complex games.

“Meetup is thriving in Hong Kong”, says David Lazar, the organiser of the board gaming group, “thanks to a large expatriate community who often do not have family or other roots here and are looking for things to do.” Lazar’s group tries to meet at least a couple times a month, usually in one of the city’s several board game cafes. “Jolly Thinkers has quite a decent selection of games”, says the 40-year-old entrepreneur, referring to a board game cafe in Wan Chai. The group usually relies on the cafe’s library of games, but occasionally a member brings his or her own.

Novelty and variety of experience attract people to modern board games. Lazar used to play chess, but got bored with the game. “Chess is only for two people”, he says. “In board games you can do different things, and the games are shorter. There’s more action.”

Games have been part of human culture for thousands of years. Archeologists have recently discovered 5000-years-old game pieces in an ancient Turkish burial site, according to Discovery News. Although board games like “Monopoly” or “Risk” have been popular since the 1950s, the origin of the modern board game hobby is usually attributed to Germany. Playing a style of intellectually challenging, competitive, but also family-friendly games was a popular pastime as far back as 1970s. German game designers, some of whom have become celebrities in the gaming community, have popularised that style of games throughout the world, in particular through the commercial success of one such game, “Settlers of Catan”, in the mid 1990s.

There is something for everyone in the board gaming hobby. Board Game Geek, a website that has become, since its launch in 2000, a go-to resource for all things related to board games, lists over 67,000 games. Among the most popular ones, according to the site’s ranking, is “Agricola”, which allows the player to step into the shoes of a medieval farmer for a couple of hours. Players of “Twilight Struggle”, which currently tops the ranking, re-enact the tense politics of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S.A. Other games can bring you to the battle fields of ancient Rome, or a galaxy far away, or even the thrilling world of German electoral politics. And more games are published every year. Spiel 2013, the annual board game trade show held in Essen, Germany in October saw the release of more than 800 new titles.

Andrzej Cierpicki, a semi-retired arbitrator in the construction industry who has been the president of the Hong Kong society of Wargamers for the last 15 years, owns a big collection of games. “I’m a hoarder”, he admits. He has catalogued 1,726 games stacked neatly on shelves in a dedicated game room in his rural house near Sai Kung, and more still need to be accounted for.

Wargames are one of several genres of board games. They depict historical battles or entire wars, from those of ancient Rome to the late 20th century. “[They] appeal to my love of strategy games and my interest in history”, says Cierpicki. “The two fit like hand in glove.” “I like to read up on the game I’m playing beforehand, to understand more about what it’s supposed to be representing.”

Board games are not for everyone. “It takes suspension of disbelief”, says Cierpicki, “particularly in a war game, because you are fighting Waterloo and it’s basically cardboard counters on a map. Some people aren’t able to do that.” The games he plays also require dedication and time, since many come with thick rule books and take many hours to complete. But he appreciates the opportunity to immerse himself in a game that is recreating an aspect of history. “It’s a bit like watching a movie really”, he says.

Both Cierpicki and Lazar do occasionally encounter blank stares when talking to others about their hobby. “Some people think it’s childish,” says Cierpicki, who also owns a large collection of military miniatures – essentially toy soldiers. “Some people don’t grow up.  We still get pleasure from playing with toys, basically.  People have toys.  All men have toys, it’s just the kind of toys they have.  They may have a motorcycle, or they may have a yacht or a set of golf clubs. They are all sorts of variations on toys.”

Lazar acknowledges that board gaming is perceived by some as “geeky”, but he is okay with it. “Geeky is good. It means you’re interested in something, know something, you’re passionate enough about something to learn about it. There’s nothing wrong about it.”

“As far as social activities go, [board gaming] is the best if you think about it”, says Lazar. “[It] doesn’t include violence, it promotes thinking, it promotes social interaction, you can’t think of anything better than this.”

Recognition of same-sex partnerships in Hong Kong.

November 12, 2013.

Darren Cheung visits Taiwan often. A gay man in his late 30s, a native of Hong Kong, who has travelled extensively throughout the region, he says he likes Taiwan’s progressive attitude towards the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. He cannot help comparing the abundance of gay and lesbian characters in Taiwan’s popular culture to their scarcity in Hong Kong’s media. He says he feels that Taiwan is more accepting of sexual minorities and has a more progressive attitude towards their rights.

Hong Kong gays and lesbians may soon have even more reasons to envy their Taiwanese comrades. On October 25, 2013 the Taiwanese legislature accepted for review a “marriage equality” bill introduced by members of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. The bill still faces many legislative and political hurdles, but if passed in its entirety, the sweeping set of changes to Taiwan’s Civil Code would legalise same-sex marriages with all their benefits and obligations. This would make Taiwan the first country in Asia to take that step.

As same-sex partnerships gain recognition in many jurisdictions around the world, members of Hong Kong’s LGBT community feel that their city lags behind. While many, like Cheung, are disenchanted by the perceived ineffectiveness of the political process and choose to stay away from activism, a new generation of young activists is pushing for recognition of marriage equality as part of a broader struggle for equal rights and against discrimination.

The US organisation “Freedom to Marry” lists 15 countries (the Netherlands was the first) and 14 states in U.S.A. where same-sex marriages are legal. A further 20 countries and six U.S. states offer various degrees of recognition of domestic partnerships for same-sex couples.

Billy Leung doesn’t believe in the idea of marriage. “An institution of marriage doesn’t concern me personally”, says the 29-year-old Hong Kong activist. Leung believes, however, in the idea of equality. He has been called a poster boy for young activists in the LGBT rights movement. When still 20 years old, he successfully challenged the section of Hong Kong’s Crime Ordinance, which prohibited men under 21 from engaging in gay sex. A 2005 court ruling in his case effectively equalised the age of consent for gay and straight couples.

Even though he supports the right for gays and lesbians to marry, Leung says that same-sex marriage is not currently the top priority of Hong Kong LGBT activists. The Pink Alliance – a network of LGBT organisations in Hong Kong that Leung represents – has decided to focus on the push for anti-discrimination legislation and a gender recognition ordinance instead.

The right of same-sex couples to marry has recently found its unlikely champion inside the Hong Kong government. Dr York Chow Yat-ngok, the head of the Equal Opportunities Commission, expressed his support for marriage equality in an interview with the South China Morning Post on October 22nd. LGBT activists welcomed Dr. Chow’s support, but many do not believe that it makes a difference in practice.

“The only way to drag Hong Kong government forward is through the courts”, says Michael Vidler, a Hong Kong human rights lawyer. Called a human rights hero by the South China Morning Post, Vidler fought a number of high profile cases affecting the rights of the LGBT community, including Billy Leung’s.

Vidler doesn’t believe that progress can be made with the current Legislative Council. He points out a disproportional influence that conservative Christian organisations, like The Society for Truth and Light, have on legislators, despite Christians being a small minority in Hong Kong. Vidler says that only a democratic reform and universal suffrage can break the impasse.

While workplace discrimination remains the most pressing issue that Vidler encounters in his work, he believes that it’s time to push for recognition of same-sex partnerships. He notes that Hong Kong has been a leader in recognition of human rights in the past, but he admits that this is not the case today. “If we don’t keep up”, he says, “we fall behind in the eyes of people who look to Hong Kong as being at the forefront of protecting rights”.

The path to marriage equality will be gradual. Vidler says he is working on a legal challenge that might bring about recognition of same-sex partnerships and marriages from jurisdictions that allow them. “It’s likely to be in relation to recognition of dependent visas”, he says. If successful, it would ensure that foreign same-sex partners of Hong Kong residents are entitled to the benefits that spouses enjoy today: ability to work and to accrue time towards permanent residency. We might see a challenge before the court within the next six months, he says.

Vidler points out another source of support for recognition of same-sex partnerships: global corporations, in particular banks and big law firms. “If you have a limited talent pool and you want people to come to Hong Kong, you’re going to find resistance among certain portion of LGBT members”, he says. Hong Kong may have to compete with London, New York or Frankfurt for the best employees. There, unlike in Hong Kong, same-sex spouses of employees are not treated like second-class citizens, he says. “The banks are becoming increasingly vocal about supporting LGBT rights”, says Vidler, “because this is affecting their bottom line”.

Vidler sees today’s youth as the motor of change. With many of their icons – artists, sportsmen, even politicians – coming out, homosexuality is becoming a non-issue. While societal and cultural pressures might force people to keep quiet about their sexual orientation, every pop idol or politician coming out gives them courage to speak out, he says. “Once they realise that they have rights, they get angry that they are being deprived of them”, Vidler says, “and they get more active.”

Gayamyan: Hong Kong’s cult music band

Gayamyan (假音人) is a Hong Kong-based music band. Its name means “falsetto”. They do not sing in falsetto – the name is meant to reflect the artifice of their musical identity, as they claim no particular genre of music. “What kind of music we play, we don’t know, probably rock”, says the lead vocalist Cedric Chan Ho Fung.

Chan, Chung Chak Ming (drums), Ma Lap Yin (guitar) and Alex Li (bass) formed Gayamyan in Hong Kong in the year 2000. They published their first album a year later. Chan wrote most of the lyrics for that first album.

In 2003 a local experimental theatre group Zuni Icosahedron asked Gayamyan to produce music for its political satire show “East Wing West Wing”. It was a beginning of a long collaboration, since “East Wing West Wing” became a series of ten performances produced over the next ten years. The songs written for Zuni Icosahedron – the latest in 2008 – are the bulk of Gayamyan’s music repertoire even today.

Gayamyan has a unique position on Hong Kong’s music scene. Its members, 13 years later, by their own admission burned out, busy with work and families, no longer produce new music. They are not, however, forgotten. They still get invited to play concerts of their music once or twice a year and it’s apparent that they have a cult following.

Chan admits to being somewhat baffled by the group’s enduring popularity. He admits that its songs are not up to high standards of quality. He believes that it’s the group’s unique, unusual, even weird, sound and lyrics that made it stand out and attracted fans. Gayamyan created a new aesthetic on Hong Kong’s indie music scene. Its music is always ironic, full of references to popular culture and even to Cantonese opera.

Chan likes to believe that Gayamyan’s music encapsulates feelings of their generation, of people who came of age around the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. Even after many years, “people laugh when listening to our songs, but there’s some bitterness”, he says. “Some fans come to tell me ‘when I listened to your songs, I cried’”.

Many new indie bands play concerts in Hong Kong today and use the internet to publish their songs. Gayamyan may be a relic of the past decade, but in some ways its legacy lives in Hong Kong’s indie music.

Hoi Ha: Hong Kong Paradise Under Threat

The small village of Hoi Ha is located in the picturesque Sai Kung Country Park, in the Eastern part of Hong Kong’s New Territories. It can be reached by a 15-minute minibus ride from the town of Sai Kung. There are around 30 houses in the village. All of them have the same traditional two-and-a-half storey layout with an open terrace taking half of the roof. There’s one restaurant in the middle of the village.

Hoi Ha sits at the end of Hoi Ha Wan bay. The bay is a marine park, one of Hong Kong’s five protected marine zones of ecological significance. Hoi Ha Wan is notable for its good water quality and a rich marine ecosystem. Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department’s website mentions six species of mangroves, 64 species of corals and 120 species of fish that live in the bay. It is a paradise for local snorkellers and SCUBA divers.

Hoi Ha is one of 77 enclaves in the New Territories targeted by housing developers due to their status as indigenous villages. Hong Kong’s Small House Policy allows every man who can trace his ancestry to the village, to build a house there, regardless of where he currently lives. The policy doesn’t require the person to live in the newly-built house. Many descendants of indigenous villagers, who currently live in the city or abroad, want to take advantage of the policy. They can make a quick profit of millions of Hong Kong dollars by building and selling a house in today’s hot property market. Housing developers get in on the game by buying the villagers’ land and building rights from the villagers who live abroad. The process of planning and approval is poorly controlled, presenting opportunities for abuse and corruption.

David and Nicola Newbery have lived in Hoi Ha for 17 years. Originally from England, they consider themselves true villagers by now, unlike the descendants of the indigenous people who emigrated decades ago. They have devoted much effort to protecting the beauty of Hoi Ha Wan from uncontrolled development.

David Newbery has become a self-taught expert on sewage treatment, since he considers pollution to be the main threat to the ecosystem of Hoi Ha Wan. He points to regulations of septic tanks, which in Hong Kong are less stringent than in other countries, as the main threat. He argues that the effluent from the new houses’ septic tanks is bound to contaminate the streams that today flow in the area and the bay itself, damaging its rich ecosystem.

The Newberys have established an organization that opposes development in Hoi Ha. Together with other environmental groups they have been petitioning and lobbying the government. They have organized awareness campaigns to preserve the beauty of the village and the ecosystem of the marine park. Their efforts face a powerful opposition from villagers who want to profit from development, from their political organisation Heung Yee Kuk, and from property developers. But the Newberys are not planning to sell their house or move. They are in it for the long haul.

Elizabeth’s Story

It was probably just a violent robbery, perhaps in a jewelry store.  There are some jewelry stores in the mall and violent crime in Kenya is common, not really newsworthy.  The robbers would most likely die.  After all, police shoot to kill here.  Hardly anyone ever sees a trial.  This is how things are done.

Elizabeth moved to Nairobi a couple months earlier.  She gave up a decent but frustrating job in Toronto to try a new life in the country where she was born.  Her dream was to start a business in fashion.  She had plenty of relatives in Kenya.  Her parents emigrated to Canada when she was little, but she still understands Kikuyu, their native language.  It would be a challenge, but she would adjust.  She was ready for it.

Elizabeth needs her Toronto experiences. Good pizza, a glass of wine, an evening with her fellow Canadian expats.  It serves as a reality check.  Things are different in Nairobi.  She hates the public transport – it’s uncomfortable and nothing is printed or posted on the internet.  In this oral culture, you always have to ask people how to get to where you’re going.  Street addresses don’t use numbers, so even Google maps are of no help. This lack of independence is annoying.

But life is simpler in Nairobi.  Things are less stressful.  Although Elizabeth misses the cleaner air and cultural life in Toronto, the change has been good.

Elizabeth grew up in a suburb of Toronto.  She used to love to go shopping in one of many suburban malls or perhaps just to sit in a cafe, have an Americano and read her Vogue magazine.  Malls in Nairobi serve a similar social function, perhaps even more effectively.  Coffee shops are huge.  Elizabeth meets up with her expat friends every couple of weeks for coffee or brunch. She has been in Westgate several times since she moved to Kenya.  It’s an important part of her life.

People have an odd relationship with death in Kenya.  During the two months since Elizabeth arrived, there were five funerals in her extended family.  People often die in car accidents.  Health care is quite poor too.  If you go to hospital, you most likely aren’t getting out.  That’s how things are, you just get sick and die.

On September 21st, the day of the terrorist attack on Westgate mall, Elizabeth was watching BBC at home while her aunt was cooking in the kitchen.  When a blurb appeared at the bottom of the screen about a shooting at a Nairobi mall she dismissed it as a violent robbery.  Only after a few hours it became apparent that it was something very different.

Her father called from Canada.  She made sure her family knew she was safe.  She called her friends and relatives.  Thankfully, everybody was safe.

The night before, Elizabeth and her expat friends went to another mall to have their “Toronto experience”.  She felt lucky they hadn’t made plans for a Saturday brunch at Westgate instead.   They could have been caught in the middle of the terrorist attack.  She felt it was quite remarkable that nobody she knew had been caught in it.

Elizabeth didn’t go out the next day. The police surrounded the mall while the terrorists were still inside.  Everybody wanted the siege to end.  She didn’t understand how a hostage taking can last this long.  People just wanted to get back to their lives.

She started following Al-Shabaab on Twitter.  They were actually celebrating!  She thought they were madmen.  It was terrifying. She felt helpless.  She felt that there was absolutely nothing she could do for the people still trapped in the mall.  How can this be the norm?, she wondered.  How do people live in Palestine?  In Afghanistan?

Acts of terror aren’t new in Kenya.  Exactly 15 years ago more than 200 people died when Al Qaida detonated a truck bomb in front of the US embassy.  Al-Shabaab is a relatively new organization and people hadn’t been taking them seriously. They were low-level amateurs.  They had tried terror attacks in Nairobi, but it has never worked.  Half of their bombs didn’t even explode.  When it became known that Al-Shabaab is behind the mall siege, people suddenly realized that the group was better organized than they were giving them credit for.

During the next four days, Elizabeth grew more and more proud of her country.  Kenyans came together, which they normally don’t do.  The terrorists weren’t going to get away with this.  They weren’t going to divide the country.

Once the siege ended, with all terrorists killed, Elizabeth was relieved to be able to go back to her life.  She had a fashion show to go to, another job interview, another night with her expat friends.  But life had changed.

Elizabeth knows now that nothing in life is guaranteed.  Safety to which she had been accustomed is an illusion.  She had just embarked on her life-changing mission with a goal to establish herself as a fashion designer in Kenya, but she could be dead before she even started!

In North America, many people spend so much time wishing and wanting and hoping.  Life would be better if this or that happened.  But that’s not living.  Knowing that tomorrow is not promised lets you see the world more clearly.  It gives you resolve to look every day in the face and know that you are living.  Stop saying “when I get a job I’ll do this …”  No.  Just do it now.  Because life is short.  If life is this meaningless, at least let us live with dignity and pride.  Nobody can stop us from doing what we want to do.

Elizabeth doesn’t want to go back to Toronto. She will keep going, even harder than before.  They win if you live in fear.  They win if you change your life because of them.  She will not let them win.