Earlier, I posted about how much I love the game of basketball. In that post, I mentioned how I wrote one of my major university papers on the subject. After talking with my boi Limbi, I decided to post it here for all to read. Looking back, there are things I wished I’d changed about this paper, and it doesn’t go in depth enough for me to consider this a legitimate analysis of Hong Kong Culture. If anything, I hope that it can become a catalyst for further discussion. Enjoy my mediocre analysis.
As basketball grows in popularity around the world, so to will the cultural markings that show in different regions. Basketball’s continued growth of popularity in Asia, especially in the People’s Republic of China and it’s Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, indicate a major potential for growth of the sport. And as the sport has grown in popularity, the cultural markings of the past and present have begun to show in the sport. Using the first-hand experience of the sport in Hong Kong and research on the culture of Hong Kong, a better understanding of how the sport differs was written. By looking at the cultural aspects of the people of Hong Kong and applying these concepts to the sport, understanding why the differences noticed while in Hong Kong was created. From the impact of certain athletes to thousand-year-old teachings, Hong Kong’s grasp of the sport has many layers to it.
Cultural Distinctions Between Hong Kong and America Derived from Basketball
There are few places that can show someone who they truly are as a basketball court. Whether it’s asphalt, hardwood, concrete, or a multipurpose court it all speaks only in truths. The court speaks the truth, and the “ball don’t lie”. Some of the most laid back and non-confrontational people can show their true colors on the court. Turning into a fierce rebounding, trash talking, competitive animal. So-called tough guys turned into meek prey for the hungrier players. But it doesn’t end there either. Where somebody is from can be inferred by their style of play in basketball. Whether it’s the style of play or the rules it’s possible to pinpoint where someone played most of their ball. No matter if its how many points they play to, what rules are used, or what the game is called (pick-up, city, 21, etc.) there are cultural fingerprints everywhere in a game of basketball. In this paper, cultural similarities and differences such as play style and individualism vs. collectivism between American and Hong Kong style basketball will be assessed. Doing so will help provide a context for the cultural distinctions between Hong Kong and America.
Personal experience in Hong Kong provided many examples of cultural fingerprints, such as collectivism and the concept of “face” in basketball. When I play basketball, it’s nothing fancy or special. I set picks, box out my opponents for rebounds, I pass to my teammates, and I play help defense. If you were to read a scouting report on me you’d see “scrappy,” “gym rat,” “team defense,” and “offensive awareness,” (Garcia) in there. You can tell I played a very suburban and “white” kind of basketball growing up. When I play a game at a park or YMCA with random people, I play a game of “21” because we go to 21 points. In Dayton, it’s 21, in Louisville it’s called a game of “City”, and in Hong Kong, it was called “35” because a game was played to 35 points.
During the first game of basketball after arriving in Hong Kong in August of 2016, there was no telling what would be like. It might have been a game basketball, but the game spoke a different language there. Not only were the words around foreign, but the game had become foreign as well. Replacing the step back three-pointers and the one-on-one defense was the constant dribble drive and kick out to the open man. No longer was the need to focus on one man and worry about another player setting a pick. Instead, defenders had to keep their head on a swivel to watch for a last-second cross-court pass. There was no more checking the ball, and every basket made meant another possession for the offense. The game itself had not changed, but the game was different. And it wasn’t just the gameplay that was different. The environment was extremely different from South West Ohio where I grew up as well. The temperature settled in the low 90’s and humidity hung thick in the air like a suffocating quilt.
The first game was an exhausting gauntlet, and after the third game, muscles ached, feet creaked, and shirts poured water and sweat out when peeled off and wrung it out in the park. The first taste of Hong Kong basketball was rough, course, and challenging. But above all, it was addictive. No matter what, I would not let the game beat me again. That I would come back night after night and prove to the locals, the courts, and myself that I belonged. No matter what language the court spoke.
Basketball is a relatively new sport around the world. First organized by Dr. James Naismith in 1891, basketball did not become an Olympic sport until 1936. And it is still finding its place in Hong Kong as well. Basketball’s popularity might be growing, but is still far behind sports like Horse Racing and Soccer, which were popular due to British influence for decades. While there are plenty of fans of the sport in Hong Kong, the level of play has fallen behind in the region. Member of the Hong Kong National team says that while there is a passion for the sport, “…the game in Hong Kong is still pretty much amateur.” (Kin-Wa, 2014). That being said, the sport is improving its competitiveness in the region. The Eastern Long Lions, a club team in Hong Kong, recently joined the ABL (ASEAN Basketball League) to compete internationally. A collection of six of the top teams in South East Asia, this professional squad will help take Hong Kong basketball to new heights. (Kin-Wa, 2016).
Because basketball is in its relative infancy in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong identity of basketball is still muddled. Nevertheless, after playing basketball in organized and casual settings, many trends emerged in the mechanics of play. The rules of the games had some cultural distinctions, such as focuses on non-confrontation and more conservative play.
While the rules of the sport are uniform across cultures in theory, in practice this was a different case. More emphasis was placed on certain rules, while others were outright ignored. Many rule variations create a non-confrontational approach to the game. While it is in fact, illegal for defending players to spend more than three seconds in the key (The rectangle underneath the hoop) this rule is ignored entirely. Players can spend minutes in the key without any attention being drawn to it. Additionally, when a player sets a screen (blocking a defender so a teammate can be open) the rules state they cannot be moving; They must stand still. Again, this rule is effectively ignored. And finally, the most conspicuous rule change. When an offensive player is shooting the ball, no contact can be made. At all. Even if the player runs directly into the defender with their shoulder down. And if any contact is made, it is a foul, no questions asked.
While this kind of behavior would be considered “soft” in American basketball, it makes cultural sense. While American culture is cornered by its independent and aggressive attitude, Asian culture is quite different. Mendy Wang describes Asian culture as “… often passive” and “tend to be submissive than to be aggressive” (Wang, 4). Because of this less aggressive nature, it makes sense that these fouls that can seem subjective will take a back seat. Calling somebody out on being in the key too long, or setting a moving screen would be seen as inappropriate. And to say that you didn’t foul somebody even though you touched them could make the player lose face. And keeping face in Hong Kong is extremely important. As noted by Tom Doctoroff of J. Walter Thompson advertising “respect for people’s feelings is paramount… this sensitivity that needs to be taken with respect to people’s ‘face,’” (New York Times). So unless somebody wants to lose face for themselves or another player, it’s best to go with these rules when playing.
But it is not just the mechanics of the sport that show cultural identity, it’s also seen in the way the game is played. The style of play says as much of the Hong Kong basketball game as the rules do. First, the American style of street basketball will be used in this comparison, and then the Hong Kong variant.
While basketball is a team sport, American streetball has a very individual identity. Defense is usually man-to-man with one person strictly defending the other. Players on offense will typically look to create their own shot and beat the defender. Elaborate dribbling moves and long shots from the basket are typical. It’s not enough to simply beat their opponent by scoring more for American basketball. There is a second competition going on underneath. The player needs to defeat their defender and show dominance. It goes hand-in-hand with the American proverb, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game that counts”. Losing the game can be perfectly acceptable if a player was able to win their matchup.
Hong Kong basketball, however, plays a much different style. Rather than a man-to-man defense, teams will tend to play a zone defense and stay near the paint. Rather than place all risk on the individuals, the team will use a collective effort to win the game. This is not the only collectivist occurrence in Hong Kong basketball either. While American players will typically try to score one-on-one, Hong Kong plays a pass-first style. Instead of driving through opponents to the basket for a difficult layup, they will drive to the basket and pass out at the last second. A second or third pass will be made to the open player. Instead of simply going for glory, the players will do what’s best for the team. This makes sense that a more team-oriented style of play exists in Hong Kong, according to Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Dimension Theory which rates countries on six factors. These factors being Power Distance, Individualism, Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance, Long Term Orientation, and Indulgence. When rating Individualism and Indulgence for Hong Kong, Geert rated the factors at 25 and 17 on a scale of 1-100 respectively. Such low scores show Hong Kong as a very collectivist and restrained society. This is reflected in the team-first style of play.
And finally is an assessment of some of most commonly observed archetypical players found in both America and Hong Kong. The first archetypical player found in America and Hong Kong is what is known as “The Gear Guy”. This player will typically be seen wearing a jersey and sweatbands all over. While this player isn’t the most skilled, they love to impersonate their favorite player. In American basketball, they will impersonate any number of famous players, like Steph Curry, LeBron James, Russel Westbrook, and James Harden to name a few. There is a large variance in who the players will try to be.
But in Hong Kong, and most of Asia for that matter, there is one player that stands above all others. Kobe Bryant. The retired Lakers Guard was, and still is the household name for basketball in Asia. As ESPN writer Dennis Du describes, Kobe’s popularity is “totally unshakable” as “the most popular athlete in China” (Du). (Note: In ESPN’s ranking of player popularity Hong Kong was included in China.) And any time, they were wearing NBA memorabilia, it was Kobe jerseys, Kobe shorts, and the latest Kobe basketball shoes. While this would have been a total similarity in the early to mid-2000’s between Hong Kong and America, the fact that Kobe Bryant is still the most popular shows a divergence in taste between favorite players in the different markets. As noted by Du, Kobe’s style of play is a key factor to his popularity in China and Hong Kong. “It is akin to Chinese martial arts versus boxing…” and because of this grace over power style, “Chinese fans find it much easier to imitate and emulate Kobe’s moves” (Du). Because he is relatable and able to be emulated the Asian market flocks to Kobe Bryant and his deft moves.
Next is a teammate that every player has dealt with in basketball. The Ball Hog. A player who, regardless of skill, demands the ball every possession and refuses to pass. While this player will make some of their shots, it is rarely the “money shot” it is proclaimed to be. This player is much more common in American play, where individual performance is given more focus, the player does exist in Hong Kong. This player will typically play for a local high school team, believing this gives them credence over teammates. While performance will be more consistent than the American Ball Hog, the poor treatment of teammates is still considered unacceptable. However, the difference in how a Ball Hog is dealt with is key.
American players have no issue calling players out. In Hong Kong, however, this kind of behavior is unacceptable. As mentioned previously in the discussion about the concept of “face”, Yiheng Deng and Kaibin Xu discuss differences in conflict management in Chinese Employees Negotiating Differing Conflict Management Expectations in a U.S.-Based Multinational Corporation Subsidiary in Southwest China. As stated, the way conflict is approached is described as “Chinese employees tend to use less confrontational strategies in conflict management than Americans” (Deng 610). According to Deng and Xu, to be so directly confrontational to a teammate in Chinese culture is unheard of, even if it is for the betterment of the team. As stated, “….constructive confrontation is an opposite of [Chinese] local culture, and it was difficult or inhumane to apply it in everyday organizational life” (Deng 616). To be so directly confrontational would be a cultural abomination in Hong Kong. Instead, common methods of dealing with such players would be simply phasing them out of the games. Whether it was never passing them the ball, or bringing other people on the court to replace the player, Hong Kong players would deal with the situation in a less confrontational manner.
An additional distinction can be made in two classical players that are found in America and Hong Kong, but much more prevalent in Hong Kong. The Girl Baller, and The Old Man. In American basketball, many courts will have one or the other, and occasionally both. The Girl Baller is to never be taken lightly for one simple reason: If they’re playing with the guys, it means the girl can hang with the best. Were it not for the second X chromosome, this player would be exactly like the rest of the players, except better. Playing hard-nosed defense and constantly moving without the ball, The Girl Baller is a force to be reckoned with on both ends of the court. The second is more commonly found in basketball than the former. The Old Man is a classic fixture in basketball. Not fast, easily beaten on offense, and never the first choice The Old Man is someone no player wants but should aspire to be. After decades of playing The Old Man can sniff out every player’s style within the first few minutes. In addition to an advanced mental game, The Old Man is going to make every shot from the mid-range, and bank shots are a regularity. What The Old Man lacks in athleticism is more than made up for in knowledge of the game and patience with and without the ball.
The most interesting aspect of these two basketball fixtures is just how much more common they are playing in Hong Kong. While they were seen enough in America to be considered archetypical, in Hong Kong The Girl Baller and The Old Man were downright regulars. This also goes with Hong Kong research on activeness in the country. According to Consultancy Study on Sport for All – Participation Patterns of Hong Kong People in Physical Activities Male and Female sport participation rates over a 3 month period were similar with respective percentages of 68.4% and 62.9%. However, men were much more active in basketball than women. With 13% of men regularly playing the sport, while only 1.8% of women regularly participated. The important distinction to be made, however, is that in games, men and women participated together with regularity. While the sport was regularly segregated by sex in America, non-organized basketball in Hong Kong never segregated.
As for elderly players, the study showed that those over 60 only participated in basketball at a rate of only 0.9%. Again, a major take away for those participating is the willingness of others to readily include elderly players in the games of basketball. From a cultural perspective, however, venerating the elderly goes back centuries in Asia. In the fourth century, B.C.E Zeng Zi wrote the Xiao Jing – The Classic of Xiao, A conversation between Confucius and Zeng Zi while he was a student describing how elders and ancestors were to be treated. When discussing how to maintain good social order, Confucius brings up respecting elders, saying “for teaching the people to be courteous and harmonious there is nothing better than ti [悌] (being respectful to elders)” (Zeng Zi). So to deny elders a chance to play basketball with younger players would go against thousands of years of tradition in Hong Kong and China. Respect for elders is a cornerstone of Asian culture and to go against it is unheard of.
Basketball is one of the most popular sports in the world. With more international athletes crossing into the NBA every year, this American sport has truly become global. As the sport continues to grow in popularity in Asia, so to will its distinct nature from other forms of basketball around the world. Just as American basketball has its own style, so too does Hong Kong, Sweden, Mexico, Australia, and every country that hosts the sport. Cultural fingerprints will always be found in the way people play sports, and Hong Kong is no different. Whether it’s the rules of the game, the popularity of certain athletes over others, or the accepting nature of all kinds of players Hong Kong basketball speaks a language all on its own. And the sport continues to grow in the region, so too will the nuance and beauty of the sport in Hong Kong.
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