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Hong Kong Rugby Sevens diary

These entries appeared in the South China Morning Post

SATURDAY

Is it ever OK to make light of tragedy? If it is, sometimes, then when? And if not, why not? And who decides?

Perhaps those in the audience at the Hong Kong Sevens attired as airline pilots – channeling, to adopt the fashion industry’s argot, the disappearance of Malaysia flight MH370 with 239 people on board – mulled the moral niceties long and hard before dressing yesterday.

Or perhaps they didn’t. Topicality is king in the domain of fancy dress; it’s like Twitter, only with costumes instead of keystrokes. No point getting done up like Colonel Gaddafi – that’s so 2011.

Funny or not, there’s a gory instant celebrity about pilot garb, as the amiable Kiwi gentlemen I spoke to recognised. They had, they said, ordered their outfits for this weekend’s tournament – for which they have flown to Hong Kong specifically to attend – some time ago. When news of the plane’s disappearance broke three weeks ago, they hesitated, but their qualms were easily mastered. Their next thought was to incorporate a black box recorder into the ensemble, “but it was doubtful that would get past security.”

One imagines the same impulse drives the popularity of the website Sickipedia, where currently a tab advises: “Click here for all the best missing Malaysia MH370 jokes.”

There is a theory that empathy in the wake of a tragic event diminishes the more geographically or culturally remote people feel from it; or, to put it more directly, “westerners” mourn less for disasters in places where there are fewer white people.

Not an easy thing to gauge, I don’t suppose, but on the other hand studies have confirmed that 9/11 jokes originated – in America – the day after the attacks, so it’d be wrong conflate dubious taste and discrimination. Either way, if avoiding the former is a priority, the Hong Kong Sevens may not be your thing.

******

It comes to our attention that the most read “Sevens story” on Friday was about an Australian chap who was, it seems, dispossessed of “almost HK$100,000 in foreign currency” after he met three African ladies in Wan Chai.

Police were keen to warn other tourists in town for the rugby that “butch African women” operating in the area are deliberately targeting drunken expatriates in pubs on Lockhart Road and Jaffe Road. The man in question apparently realised he was being robbed and tried to resist, whereupon he found himself deposited in a rubbish bin, his wallet considerably lighter.

Perhaps understandably the fellow did not come forward with more details of his misadventure and his identity remains a mystery. Instead, the reports stressed the intimidating scale of his assailants, who, we learn, were “powerfully built” and “stood about 1.8 metres tall” – proportions which would not preclude them, you might well think, from engaging in a more legitimate form of scrimmage this weekend.

Scientists announced the other day that they have discovered a new planet. Or at least they think it’s a planet; they’re not quite sure. Their uncertainty will be familiar to followers of rugby. Seeing an actual, fully-formed rugby player can induce a kind of wonder, even terror, similar, it might be supposed, to that engendered by the movement of tectonic plates.

Similarly, the rugby-going populace is little known for its “shrinking violet” tendency, either in appearance or temperament.

What I am driving at is this: could it be that our Australian friend, accustomed to being able to handle himself, magnified the immensity of his muggers out of embarrassment? It is to be hoped so. Visitors to Wan Chai must not succumb to fear. Keep calm and carry on drinking is probably the best advice.

******

With Fiji going for their third hat-trick of wins at the Hong Kong Sevens this weekend, one face in the crowd will be that of former captain Samisoni Rabaka Nasagavesi. The 44-year-old played in the Sevens here four times but hasn’t been back at the event since 2003, his last appearance. When we bumped into him on Friday he told us he was here on a “sort of pilgrimage, with my missus and her mate”, both of whom had gone shopping but would join him at Hong Kong Stadium on Sunday.

Now living in Australia, the former scrum-half won 29 caps for Fiji at XVs but lamented that even now rugby was not as lucrative a career prospect for Fijians as in other nations. “There is more support than there was when I was playing but there’s still not a lot of money or sponsorship,” he said. “Despite the fact that everyone in Fiji plays from the moment they can run.”

Rabaka’s first experience of the Hong Kong Sevens came in 1992, when he played in the Fiji side that beat New Zealand 22-6 in the final, the second time they had won three tournaments in a row here. His main memory of the game is that it was raining.

More discomforting was the Scottish rain he experienced the following April, when he played in the very first World Cup Sevens at a muddy Murrayfield, losing to England in the final.

Rabaka recalled fondly, however, that “in those days you just ran from one end of the pitch to the other, just like playing touch,” adding that Sevens is now more of a structured game. “It’s become more physical, there’s more breakdown, more stoppages. And the players are more muscular.”

Standing 6’2”, Rabaka weighed 14st in his playing days. A skelf of a lad.

 

SUNDAY

Tales abound of amatory trysts of every stamp at the Hong Kong Sevens. Some (including former Scotland captain Andy Nicol) have even met their future spouses during the event.

Love is a many-horned beast, however – and chance encounters often play out less providentially. Or at least so it was for two Canadian men whose eyes met across across the rows at Hong Kong Stadium on Friday. After several glances to and fro, the penny dropped that they knew each other; or rather they knew of each other – from having had the same girlfriend; non-concurrently, I understand.

Of course, for all we know this may be an everyday occurrence in Canada, where the winters are very long. Equally hard to verify was the boast, heard second hand, of a man who claims to have achieved sexual congress one year at the Sevens with seven different women – in one day – and that, furthermore, several of these conquests occurred inside the stadium itself; in the environs of the South Stand, inevitably.

However implausible such figures may seem, it cannot be truthfully said that prudishness holds sway in that area of the stadium. One American expat lady – stressing, in that way that girls do, that she doesn’t normally do these sorts of things – recounts one year taking home a Smurf. Having painted herself red for the occasion – she had dressed as a ketchup bottle – she awoke to find the mingling of colours had left purple smudges all over her apartment.

No doubt you are wondering whether Mr Seven at the Sevens wore a costume. Sadly I have been unable to settle that question; but anyway it strikes me that the age of smartphones and social media may have put the brakes on such activities. One imagines there are downside risks to it, if you will, for people “high up” at Standard Chartered.

Incidentally, our source reports back that “actually, it turns out seven might have been closer to two.”

******

They come from all corners of the globe for the carnival of rugby that is the Hong Kong Sevens – albeit mainly from Anglophone rugby strongholds like New Zealand, Britain and, erm, the United States. The roster of nations able to compete at Sevens suggests, indeed, that it may in fact be more of a genuinely global game than XVs.

On a personal level I have been frustrated in my search for visitors from Germany. It may be simply that they are more reserved than people from countries like Wales and Australia, who tend to festoon themselves in national insignia even for simple endeavours like nipping out to the shops for a loaf of bread. But the Germans’ absence is another missed opportunity to address one of the great sporting mysteries, namely the non-existence of rugby in Teutonic nations.

Also untraceable so far have been spectators from either the Cook Islands (population 19,569) or American Samoa (55,159), both of whom are represented in the qualifying competition this weekend. It would seem counter-productive that these territories compete in both rugby union and rugby league and no doubt they would be well-advised to consolidate operations; but clearly the very fact that they are putting out teams of players capable of not always getting completely trounced (I’d back them against a German select, certainly) is remarkable in itself.

As an aside, I note that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a significant presence in American Samoa, with 37 congregations. If any of their members have taken the pulse in the South Stand at Hong Kong Stadium this weekend, we would love to hear from them.

******

The phrase, I think, is “well-intentioned”. There exists a branch of the Hong Kong government called “the environment bureau” – perhaps you are dimly aware of it – and it has teamed up this weekend with the HKRFU and (don’t laugh) Sevens co-sponsor Cathay Pacific to mutter about about environmental impacts and the like.

Their big idea, according to our information, is “to minimise the environmental footprint of the event and trial new ideas and best practices that could be applied to other major events in Hong Kong in the future.”

Seemingly this involves sending out the bureau’s new mascot, “Big Waster” – who has a very large, swollen-looking head, presumably from inhaling bus fumes or something – and some student volunteers, to harry people about recycling. There are also a few recycling bins, somewhat indistinguishable from the other bins, dotted around the stadium. And that’s about it. Maybe some shrubs have been consecrated – I don’t know.

By my own admittedly rough estimates, Hong Kong Sevens weekend produces enough plastic waste (from beer cups alone) to litter all of American Samoa, methane (from various sources) equivalent to half the annual emissions of Argentina’s cow population and an asteroid cloud’s worth of other gases from whatever it is planes run on these days; not to mention frazzling Shenzhen’s power grid in the mania for fancy-dress costumes.

In short, minimising the Sevens’ “footprint” will be far from straightforward. It is to be hoped Big Waster understands the magnitude of his responsibilities.

 

MONDAY

My colleague Tim Noonan averred yesterday that the attraction of rugby for many female spectators is in large part to do with watching physically fit men run about. His thesis was supported by comments from one interviewee, a girl called Jessica (not her real name), who referred in glowing to terms to the “specimens” on show.

It is be hoped none of the players read Tim’s column – the objectification of men is a serious issue and can be very damaging to male self-esteem. It got me thinking about the levels of actual rugby fandom at the Hong Kong Sevens, though. My own observations tell me that sections of the audience have little interest in rugby and come primarily to ogle each other.

With this in mind, it seemed to me the best way to further probe these very pressing questions would be via what is referred to as the off-side test: asking women to explain how the off-side rule works. It is widely accepted that off-side in football is quite beyond female comprehension. Would they fare any better with the rugby version?

A selection of the best answers: “When there’s a yellow card”; “Something to do with passing forward when the other team is behind; “If you’re about to score nobody can be in front of you”; “When the ball goes out on the touchline”; “f*** off you sexist ****”.

For the record, none of my colleagues who write regularly about rugby know any of the rules. In fact, such knowledge is generally avoided by sportswriters and those who claim it are viewed with great suspicion.

******

You don’t hear them quite so much nowadays, those jokes that start off with an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman – and sometimes also a Welshman – walking into a bar, and end with each of them confirming some national stereotype or other: thick Paddy, drunken Scot, English toff, that sort of thing. Political correctness – or more likely the exhaustion of the genre – has probably done for them.

I only mention this as of course the whole scenario will have played out in a thousand ways and with a thousand punchlines this weekend in Hong Kong. And as a Scot living abroad, I was curious to know how the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom might play into the social brew, as it were.

My findings were somewhat disappointing. Nary a Scot I encountered wanted to “go there” – so divisive has the question become, I gather, that people are on eggshells in social situations lest they unloosen a hail of brickbats from the other side.

It used to be that Scots exempted themselves from the old rule about no talk of politics or religion in company. What has happened to them? They cannot be accused of drinking any less, certainly.

******

I had hoped to report tales of anti-Russian sentiment at Hong Kong Stadium over the weekend. Foreign correspondents will know the feeling – “tensions” at least furnish you with copy; sadly for the news cycle, however, players representing the world’s newest pariah nation received only the most half-hearted smattering of boos as they took to the field to face Japan yesterday.

Not to worry. I will, instead, convey the major incidents from the match, which the Japanese won 19-14 in extra-time.

Hostilities got underway with the Russians well fired up – they considered that one or two of their opponents looked a bit effeminate; seeing the Japanese engage in conversation with players from European teams before the game had also riled them somewhat.

After racing in front with two tries, they attempted to camp on the Japanese 10 metre line, calling a plebiscite on the question of whether they should remain there (the results are still being counted). The Russians then came unstuck as the Japanese mounted a comeback and ultimately clinched it on sudden death. Vladimir Putin declared his team’s elimination unacceptable, however, adding that all options for settling the score would be considered.

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The West’s exam stress

A version of this article can be found at Spiked

One supposes people are right to be concerned about how simply dreadful Western schooling has become, as confirmed by the most recent statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. We already knew that Britain ranked 26th for maths, 23rd for reading and 21st for science in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league tables. Last month, however, it emerged that, in Britain and the United States, even the offspring of professionals are letting us down: apparently they’re being outperformed in exams by the children of factory workers and cleaners in parts of the Far East.

Perhaps Britons will take heart, in this reverse, from the fact that until fairly recently Team GB was completely useless at sport, too: at the 1996 Olympic Games, the country’s athletes came 36th in the medal table, behind Belgium, Algeria and Kazakhstan. We could have washed our hands of them and consoled ourselves with our prowess in pub sports, such as darts, but we didn’t – the powers that be jolly well rolled up their sleeves, put Lord Coe in charge of things and threw National Lottery funding at lots of people. In Beijing, in 2008, Team GB came fourth in the table, and in London, in 2012, third, winning just about enough gold medals to offset Gordon Brown’s firesale of the nation’s bullion a decade previously. Seemingly, British children partake in less physical activity now than ever before, but that is beside the point: the turnaround shows there is nothing inevitable about national decline.

For the right, at least since Thatcher and Reagan, halting such decline in the West has often been a powerful motivating narrative. The current British government’s Tory education secretary, Michael Gove, frequently appears to conduct policy as a form of warfare against his ideological opponents; but at least you know where he stands on this declining standards stuff – this rot, if you will. He believes the soft liberal emphases of prevalent teaching models must be diluted, that we must overcome our aversion to “passing on knowledge”, or rote learning, and that children need pushing a bit harder. In short, we need to copy how the Chinese and the Singaporeans do things – else our economic competitiveness will be increasingly blunted.

Who knows – maybe Mr Gove’s opponents on the left would argue Britain needs to be less competitive. The case against reducing all measurement of educational success or otherwise to a series of outputs that can be charted on international league tables has, at least, been forcefully made. But supposing his assumptions are all correct and our future prosperity depends on pupils performing better in core tests, then what next? Mr Gove’s underling, Liz Truss, led a delegation of English head teachers to China on a “fact-finding” mission last week. If hers was was meant to be a truly knowledge-based approach, it is to be hoped she kept her eyes wide open – for whatever the failings of British schools, China’s offer no panacea.

It should not, you will agree, require an actual visit to China to establish that pupils there and in many other parts of Asia perform well in exams. That is no secret. But nor should it be a surprise. They tend to start practising at an early age. In Hong Kong, for example, formal exams kick in at the outset of primary school. By secondary school, private tutors are viewed almost as compulsory if you want to keep up with your classmates: a University of Hong Kong survey last year found that 54 per cent of third form (age 14) and 72 per cent of sixth form students go for extra tuition after school.

In China, the average school pupil nowadays spends five hours more in school than his American counterpart each day, but cramming has lineage in the country. The imperial civil service exams, or keju, taken by teenagers for some 1300 years, lasted several days and covered everything from arithmetic to horsemanship and the writing out of lengthy quotations from Confucian classics. Their modern equivalent is the gaokao, the national university entrance exam; in recent years, an estimated 10 million or so candidates have competed annually for around six million spots at Chinese universities. Every year, Chinese newspapers fill up with tales of exam-time suicides. In 2012, it was reported that a school in Hubei province had hooked up gaokao hopefuls to intravenous drips while they studied – to save them the distraction of nourishing themselves.

But many in China – and in places such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore – believe their sons and daughters will find themselves better jobs at home if they have a degree from overseas. In the 2011-2012 academic year, there were 194,029 Chinese students studying in the US, accounting for 25 per cent of all foreign students in the country. The bill, for tuition and fees alone, can run to $200,000 per student, over four years. But here’s the thing – it would be wrong to assume that it is only the wealthy in Asia who are prepared to spend big on their children’s education. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a third of Chinese students studying abroad in 2010 were from working-class families. Research indicates high levels of consumer expenditure on education, across all income brackets, in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, and reports abound of parents selling their homes, grandparents forgoing retirement and household debt soaring to fund junior’s advancement.

It is hard not to be a little awed by that level of sacrifice, even if many in the West find it somehow anathema. It is conceivable, certainly, that Michael Gove, though himself lucky enough – or, rather, bright enough – to have won a scholarship to attend Aberdeen Grammar and then studied at Oxford in the days when that still cost nothing, sees a nobility in it. But the pertinent question must be this: what does it avail the debtors? Well, here’s another statistic: 25 per cent of Chinese Ivy League entrants drop out. And the reasons? According to university officials quoted by the Wall Street Journal last year, many Chinese students, accustomed to an education system that rewards rote memorisation and exam training, find it difficult to adapt to those institutions’ liberal arts bias, which exalts analytical and critical thinking. The Journal’s report added: “Students are sometimes forced to choose between working hard to assimilate culturally and keeping their grades up, a failure to be college-ready that could be linked to the large number of falsified application documents.” The newspaper then cited a study by Zinch China, a consulting group that advises American colleges, claiming an estimated 90 per cent of Chinese applicants’ recommendation letters are fake, 70 per cent of their essays are written by someone else and 50 per cent of their high school transcripts are manipulated.

According to the Telegraph, Ms Truss’s visit to China “could lead to [English] schools adopting Chinese-style tactics such as more evening classes and eliminating time-wasting between lessons to boost performance in key subjects”. It also quoted her as saying Britain should learn from Chinese schools’ “positive philosophy”. It seems unlikely, then, that she will have returned armed with a dossier on falsified transcripts, but it doesn’t take much digging to corroborate some of Zinch China’s claims. School teachers on international programmes at prestigious high schools in Shenzhen spoken to for background on this article confirmed the inflation of subject grades by schools is common practice and unmonitored by overseas admissions authorities – the focus for schools trying to help pupils gain admission to American institutions is on preparing them for the US college admissions exam, the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), which consists primarily of sections on critical reading, mathematics and writing; scholastic transcripts are included in college applications, but there’s no way of checking that they give a true reflection of a candidate’s actual attainment.

What is also clear is that the pressure to gain acceptance to lofty seats of learning is not coming from young people themselves, nor even the Chinese state, but rather from those funnelling the cash: Chinese parents. Correspondingly, it seems unlikely they will accede to the government’s proposed fazing out of exams before the age of 9 and written homework before the age 12. Similar softening measures have been ignored in South Korea. In Hong Kong, a 2012 study found a third of students aged between 12 and 17 were depressed. It’s a wild guess, but parental pressure and expectation from early years might be factors.

In the 1850s, China was devastated by the Taiping Rebellion, in which an uprising led by one Hong Xiquan – who, following a nervous breakdown precipitated by his repeated failure to pass his keju exams, came to believe he was the brother of Jesus Christ – resulted in a civil war that killed tens of millions. A few short years later, on the other side of the East China Sea, Emperor Meiji – wishing to make his country wealthier – had set about Westernising Japan. But there was a problem: as the historian Niall Ferguson recounts in Civilisation: The West and the Rest, neither the Emperor nor his courtiers could work out which elements of Western culture were crucial to its economic success. And so they ended up copying everything from Western clothes and hairstyles to the practice of colonising foreigners. Unluckily, their adventures in empire-building came at exactly the moment when the costs of imperialism began to exceed the benefits. That particular experiment did not end well, as history records.

Ferguson refers to the East catching up on the West in the 21st Century as “The Great Reconvergence”. Let us, by all means, marvel at how China in particular has pulled that Reconvergence off. Let us even try to emulate aspects of the East’s success. But for heaven’s sake, let’s not persuade ourselves that Western education is in such a state that copying Chinese models will fix it.

A version of this article can be found at Spiked


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American hustle

This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

“Neat little ejaculations of like apparent power”. That is how the comedian Russell Brand – a man much-loved by women who take delight in the haphazard use of such words as “paradigm” and “hegemony” and have low self-esteem – last year referred to the act of voting. Mr Brand was urging people not to vote – “it just encourages the bastards” – explaining that he does not indulge in it himself. But the thing is, you see, he does. It may come as no surprise, if you are familiar with what goes on in Hollywood, that he is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes on The Oscars.

Ooh, The Oscars you say, if you … well, if you what, exactly? If you actually like films, The Oscars has nothing to offer; indeed, when this year’s awards are broadcast tonight you must avoid them – tuning in only encourages the bastards. If, on the other hand, you applaud shlock, canting humbug and the neat little ejaculations of like apparent (and what beautiful ambiguity resides in that grammatical double qualifier) power then by all means do tune in, and keep the world updated via social media with your thoughts on the contenders and the speeches and the dresses while you’re at it, for that will please Mr Brand and his cohorts very much.

Those cohorts, those august fellow Academicians do, of course, include many talented writers, directors, actors and people who can apply make-up. That is granted. But for the most part they are cranks, divas, studio presidents, drug addicts, sex addicts, Woody Allen, Bryan Adams, television pageant winners, Oprah, egotists, fops, public relations executives, deviants, Meat Loaf and Russell Brand. And often they are several of these things or people at once.

No, don’t encourage them.