Parkour has been around for over two decades and although there aren’t any full-time professional artists (known as traceurs) it’s captured the world’s attention, including Hong Kong’s. Born out of the friendship of 10 young men from the Parisian suburb of Lisses, parkour is essentially the art of getting from one point to another as quickly as possible. Without a car. The original 10 were just mates, who for lack of money started mucking around with the cityscape. So began a sporting phenomenon, the essence of which is captured by this video of David Belle, one of the founders.
The key factors in parkour’s meteoric rise have been the internet and videos, chiefly Yamikasi. A 2001 film by Luc Besson, Yamikasi starred the original 10 practitioners and catapulted parkour into the spotlight. The movie drew a trove of people to the sport including Tim Yeung, a member of the Hong Kong Parkour Association (HKPA). He says he was attracted to parkour by the overall philosophy. “I see parkour as a lifestyle. You always have to think of new ways of doing things, of different ways to solve a problem. There are many solutions to each situation. For instance one obstacle can be approached from many directions.” We hate the word ‘holistic’ – it reminds us of wind chimes and trickling water - but parkour really is about body and mind.
Tim started learning by watching videos on YouTube but in 2008 he got in touch with the HKPA and has been a committed traceur ever since. Formed in 2006, the HKPA is one of roughly 10 parkour groups in Hong Kong and arguably the most prominent. It hosts bi-weekly training sessions in a variety of locations from Kowloon Park to the quasi-amphitheatre just off Lan Kwai Fong. The contrast between the frenetic exercise of the traceurs and the merry drinkers in LKF couldn’t be starker.
The HKPA welcomes anyone and everyone, and this is actually a universal feature of parkour. Unlike many sports it’s inclusive, but sadly this refreshing lack of exclusivity isn’t a natural fit for Hong Kong where VIP and by-invitation-only are king. In contrast to the city’s guestlists, Parkour is open to anyone. Advanced traceurs help the beginners and the competition is solely with yourself.
There’s no big event that traceurs dream of winning. There’s no World Cup or Olympics. Instead, they focus on perfecting a jump or perhaps the fluidity of a particular movement. Sure, traceurs have ambitions, such as jumping the Manpower Gap in France (if you fail you die) but the sport isn’t about medals. This fosters a sense of camaraderie and discourages people from getting hurt. Tim says, “We don’t promote competitions because we believe when we host competitions it ruins the spirit. People will hurt themselves because they’ll push themselves too far.”
It goes without saying that parkour is dangerous - but that’s also part of the appeal. There are no safety nets which means the thrill of success is that much greater, and the lack of safety mechanisms also alludes to another of parkour’s lures – the absence of equipment. Anyone can do parkour. You don’t need to buy any tools to participate – you just need a city. Wilson and Callaway must be livid. Traceurs simply turn up and use their body weight to train rather than anything man-made.
Though its democracy is widely appealing, the lack of wealth associated with parkour doesn’t lend itself to Hong Kong where luxury and affluence are highly prized. Parkour doesn’t require the level of resources needed to play sports like golf so it has a narrower appeal. What’s more, Tim is convinced that Hong Kongers’ cautious outlook isn’t suited to the sport. “There isn’t a huge uptake of parkour or any action sports in Hong Kong because everyone’s scared,” he admitted. “People are too concerned with safety.”
The rawness of parkour can be off-putting but training helps avoid any calamities. “Most of the time we do conditioning as well as technique training,” explained Tim. “Conditioning is to make sure your body is in the right condition to do parkour. In parkour there’s no real option of failure because most of the time you’ll hurt yourself. We have to make sure our bodies are ready so we work out in similar ways to other sports. We build up our muscles and increase the mobility of our joints.”
To be a traceur you essentially need a body you’re not ashamed of, but you also need to ally technique to your fitness. The basics, for instance, centre round jumping and landing correctly. Traceurs land and jump with their arms and core muscles as well as their legs because it gives them more power, accuracy and balance. In case you’re wondering, they can drop down to a concrete floor from up to six metres in height. Pretty impressive stuff.
One of the key issues for traceurs in Hong Kong is their reliance on YouTube. Not only are the quality of YouTube videos generally poor but they also show the end product – i.e. the finished movements – without the key steps in between. Parkour associations in Hong Kong are therefore indebted to foreigners such as Yannick Ben who’ve come over to teach them. A French traceur who's visited Hong Kong frequently, Yannick actually moved here permanently six months ago and has been impressed by the parkour culture.
Though a stuntman by trade, he also earns money by teaching and performing parkour, and has also founded Jumperz, one of Hong Kong’s parkour groups. Yannick loves parkour, organising a ‘jump’ every month which is essentially a parkour get together. He says each one is bigger than the last and explains that even though less people in Hong Kong are interested in parkour in the first place, those who take it up are more committed than in places like France.
Yannick teaches in some unlikely establishments – chief among them the Clearwater Bay Country Club – and he takes pride in parkour’s social breadth as well as its uses. Aside from improving you physically – he says it also teaches you self-belief and engages distractable minds. A case in point, Yannick teaches at a special needs school in Aberdeen and the headmaster has been delighted by the students’ application. They concentrate better in parkour lessons than in any other class.
From time to time, parkour also reigns supreme in the real world. While living in France Yannick returned to his apartment block one evening to find one of his neighbours locked out of his flat. Yannick quickly scaled the three storeys to the open window and gave his incredulous neighbour his keys, saving him a fair penny in call out fees.
There are other real world benefits too, for instance Yannick’s keen to work with the Hong Kong police to teach them how to chase criminals more effectively. He’s actually offered to help them several times in person because the police are regular visitors to parkour training sessions.
The reason police are often in attendance is overzealous security guards. We’re all aware of the scale of red tape in Hong Kong so it will come as no surprise that when security guards see parkour they often call the police. Yannick and Tim say the situation is getting better – many of the security guards know them by now – but if they could change one thing about parkour in Hong Kong it would be the attitude of security. They’re just too heavy handed.
Architecturally, Hong Kong is a parkour paradise. It’s brimming with concrete, drops and steel which makes it a playground for traceurs but for one thing – the lack of public spaces. According to Tim, it’s a problem that’s only getting worse. “The building style and property management culture are creating more and more private areas,” he explained. “We’re losing valuable, public places.”
Trouble indeed, but however inexplicably, more and more people are taking to the sport – and new traceurs come in all shapes and sizes. Yannick’s currently teaching a 47-year-old who used to be a kickboxer and he says the martial arts background so prominent in Asia is a key factor. If you’ve ever enjoyed karate or jiu jitsu, you’ll probably find parkour irresistible. The natural comparison in the West is gymnastics because the sport encourages the development of the same muscles, timing, jumping and landing techniques you use in parkour. Yannick himself was a gymnast and because gymnastics is so popular in Mainland China and Taipei, parkour is booming there even faster than in Hong Kong.
Doing parkour is hardcore. No doubt about it. Just YouTube “Worst Parkour Fails” and you’ll see the potential for harm. The danger is something that puts off a lot of people, not least in Hong Kong where safety is paramount. Add to that competition from classier sports like golf which have a greater natural lure and we should be worrying for parkour’s future. Yet somehow, despite its lack of obvious appeal, parkour is digging out a unique space for itself in Hong Kong - and the best part is anyone can join.