Tea Leaf Nation

When Rugby Meets Mardi Gras, With a Dash of Davos

Mainland Chinese tourists are eschewing the island city for friendlier ports, but at least Hong Kong’s still got the Sevens.

2014 Hong Kong Sevens
HONG KONG - MARCH 30: Fans enjoy the atmosphere during day three of the 2014 Hong Kong Sevens at Hong Kong International Stadium on March 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

HONG KONG — They were a rowdy bunch, talking loudly on public transport, traveling in packs, and easily standing out in the crowd with their culturally tone-deaf behavior. So why has this city opened its arms wide? Lately Hong Kong has had a bad streak with raucous visitors, particularly from mainland China, which controls Hong Kong but maintains border control between the former colony and the rest of the country. Nativists have heckled mainland Chinese on the street. Legislators have proposed limiting the number of mainland tourists, who face derision for their poor manners and penchant for clearing Hong Kong shelves of daily necessities like baby formula. And editorials have questioned the merits of tourism in general. The impact has been great, with the number of tour groups arriving from mainland China dropping by 45 percent in the first three weeks of March compared to the same period last year. The place that bills itself as “Asia’s World City” needs tourists — badly.

Cue the welcome mat for this batch of merrymakers, who arrived by the planeload from such faraway capitals as London, Sydney, Johannesburg, and Auckland to converge here for the annual Hong Kong Rugby Sevens, held from March 27 to March 29. Now in its 40th year, the Hong Kong Sevens is part World Cup, part Davos, and part Mardi Gras, and it’s the most important event on the calendars of many Hong Kong expats, not to mention rugby fans around the world. For the final weekend in every March, downtown Hong Kong Stadium is filled to the brim with 40,000 spectators, buzzing with manic energy. At a time when many Hong Kongers may feel a bit lost about the city’s future in China’s growing shadow, the Sevens is a good reminder that Hong Kong still has a unique place, at least at the intersection of sports, high finance, and hedonistic partying.

The actual game itself is fast and fierce, bordering on gladiatorial: two sets of seven players from 28 national teams clash on the field for two seven-minute sessions. Not only has Hong Kong been the most important stop in the continent-spanning Sevens World Series, but this year the tournament also served as a qualifying round for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, when the sport will become an Olympic event for the first time.

But the sight of impossibly beefy men slamming into one another with no protective gear is only a small fraction of the Sevens’ attraction, with the happenings off the field a spectacle unto itself. Everyone knows where the real action is: the stadium’s infamous South Stand. Executives in corporate boxes strain their heads to see it, expat wives carefully steer their jersey-clad toddlers away from it, and throngs of pimple-faced teens from Hong Kong’s many international schools itch to get into it. In the adults-only section, spectators dress in elaborate getups that generally follow the guideline of bawdy for men, skimpy for women — in both cases, the more ridiculous, the better. The South Stand is usually a sea of body paint, party beads, feather boas, bad wigs, and last year’s Halloween costumes. (Some revelers seem to believe that nudity is a form of costume as well.) Making their marks this year were sexy blond Red Guards from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, martinis with a twist, and Mr. Kim Jong Un himself. With a cup — or more likely, a pitcher — of beer in hand, everyone in the South Stand generally has a smashing good time. Caution is still advisable. As English-language  Hong Kong Magazine sagely counseled  in its guide to the Sevens, “If you see an unattended jug filled with what looks like warm, flat beer, don’t drink it.”

The corporate types, on the other hand, let their hair down in exclusive executive sections, where the who’s-who of the world’s top financial firms stake out territory to entertain clients and dignitaries with free-flowing champagne and lobster buffet while gazing down at the hoi polloi. Many corporate bigwigs are in town partly because firms like global investment bank Credit Suisse have scheduled large-scale investment conferences in Hong Kong to coincide with the Sevens tournament. Alas, due to a change in ticketing rules this year, bankers were compelled to invite fewer people to the game, forcing them to decide which of their clients were more valuable than others (and giving new, elevated meaning to the phrase “first world problem” in the process).

Rugby fans often call the Hong Kong Sevens the “crown jewel” of the Rugby World Series, a linguistic throwback to the city’s days as a royal colony of the British Empire. These nods are growing rarer. In most other aspects of Hong Kong life, the British influence has faded over time or been deliberately scrubbed clean. For example, the Hong Kong Police dropped “royal” from its name after the 1997 handover, and coins with Queen Elizabeth’s profile have gradually disappeared from circulation. While place names like Queen’s Road, Prince Edward, and Admiralty remain, they have been absorbed so completely into local parlance that they don’t trigger any conscious thought about their historical associations. The Sevens remains one of the few high-profile symbols acknowledging both  Hong Kong’s colonial past and its current position as a premier international financial center.

When the chaps, blokes, and mates went home after the Sevens carnival, Hong Kong’s tourism industry tallied up its cash haul from the weekend, estimated to be around $40 million to $60 million in direct spending. But what excites Hong Kong’s expatriates, barkeepers, and visitors from the Commonwealth has little bearing on the lives of ordinary Hong Kongers. Aside from chance meetings with costumed fans on the street, local shoppers in bustling Causeway Bay are mostly oblivious to the rugby-tackling, binge-drinking, and glad-handing taking place at Hong Kong Stadium a 15-minute walk away. The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s top English-language newspaper, ran wall-to-wall coverage of the Sevens, complete with live blogs and historical retrospectives. But many Chinese-language newspapers only gave it a perfunctory mention on the back page of the sports section. Much of the city remains preoccupied with its political divide with the mainland, a condition likely to persist long after the party has moved on.

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