The Hong Kong China Lacrosse Association couldn’t ask for a more impactful 13-month stretch.
In July, the men’s national team placed 13th in the 2023 World Lacrosse Men’s Championship, up 14 spots from the 2018 event. Then next August, Hong Kong, China, will host the 2024 Women’s U20 Championship, the first time the event will be held in Asia.
The immense progress is a sign of the investment that has propelled Hong Kong to one of the top lacrosse organizations in Asia and a top-15 organization globally.
From the time current women’s head coach Gemini Fan and men’s assistant coach Jordan Wong became the first paid employees in Hong Kong Lacrosse around 2014, the organization has plowed ahead to organize youth programs, lay foundations in schools and raise awareness for the sport.
“We’ve come along seven years now, and we’re a pretty solid second in the immediate region,” said Raymond Fong, chairperson of the HKLA board of directors. “Our men’s team ranks number 13 in the world, which is a big jump from 27 at the last championship. All the hard work that has been happening is starting to pay dividends.”
Fan became immersed in lacrosse at boarding school in the United Kingdom. Pretty much everybody played, and it was part of the culture.
When she returned to Hong Kong, she started to get more involved in spreading awareness for the sport. She’d go to schools and teach the game to physical education teachers, so they could pass along that knowledge to their students. After starting with four primary schools, she started developing relationships with a youth organization that helped expand education to other schools.
Around that same time, Wong had returned to Hong Kong after studying there as an exchange student a few years prior. He’d just wrapped up his college career playing at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, USA. Lacrosse was starting to be played by university hall teams in Hong Kong.
Then after the 2014 Men’s Championship, Wong helped introduce a high performance program, allowing players to train year-round. Paired with development academies for younger players to learn the sport, this created a strong infrastructure for growth.
Now, Fan said, they have kids starting to play lacrosse from as young as 6 years old.
“We have our own courses, some with youth organizations, some we do on our own, some we do with a government department,” she said. “And then we also have development academies and U20 teams going as well, starting to train for next year’s world championship.”
The youth programs began sporadically six or seven years ago. Things have become more structured over the last four to five years, with an increase in overall programs, staff and trained coaches.
But the work continues. Kelvin Mak, the former men’s national team captain who is now the association’s development manager, works to organize classes for kids across Hong Kong. He’s also hoping to partner with more schools, non-government organizations and other associations that might not specifically focus on sports but on child development more broadly.
“We try to introduce lacrosse to the organizations so that they can help us to recruit kids, and then we can set up the lacrosse aspect,” Mak said.
In addition, Mak still makes sure to visit P.E. classes to demonstrate how to play the sport and help organize competition within and between schools. He’s also worked to set up a “Lacrosse Funday” to boost awareness and participation.
The work appears to have paid off so far. Per Mak, they had about 200 kids involved in their youth lacrosse programs three years ago. Now, that number has tripled to 600.
And, not only has participation increased, so has the opportunity for kids to see a successful future for themselves representing Hong Kong Lacrosse on an international stage.
“Their vision is now to try for the Hong Kong team in the future, which is what we want,” Mak said. “We are on the right path.”
The HKLA still sees more progress to be made. After all, awareness for the sport still isn’t where they’d like it to be.
“People see us holding the sticks, and they wonder, ‘What is that?’” Wong said.
Wong said people’s natural curiosity about how to play the sport lends itself to continued expansion, even as they’ve changed the game to fit in school gymnasiums, with smaller nets and sticks.
“There are more and more people who know about the sport through some of our promotional stuff on social media or traditional media,” added Fong. “People do know that lacrosse exists in Hong Kong, and they could participate in it.”
Using social and traditional media platforms to push awareness is part of a three-part plan Fong outlined for the organization’s focus moving forward.
The first thing is to keep raising awareness. They have used aggressive social media campaigns to, as Fong put it, “bombard” the platforms with information about lacrosse in Hong Kong.
The second piece is receiving recognition from the government, schools and other organizations. Already a key ingredient beyond their current infrastructure, furthering those ties will help embed the sport more deeply across the region.
Finally, Fong said, proving their teams can have success will only help accelerate the other two components. In the last two years, Hong Kong has made sure to send teams to all the major world championships. And then, of course, the 13th-place finish in the men’s championship in July helped immensely.
“The most important thing for us right now I think is getting buy-in from the government and sponsors. If we don’t have the resources or the manpower to support the program, it’s very difficult to maintain and keep growing,” Mak added.
“With the result we had in San Diego, I think we have the attention of the government and also some other parties, and that helps us a little bit in keeping the growth going.”
That success in July wasn’t coincidental either. Fong explained the key piece heading into preparations for the event was getting commitment from players. With no professional leagues, all players are university students or have full-time jobs. Securing the necessary level of commitment early on from everyone made the endeavor far more successful.
“Are we committed?” Fong remembered the players being asked. “It was a quick answer. Everyone said, ‘Get me the resources, and we will deliver.’ So that’s how it started.”
The resources included a thorough strength and conditioning program, and a nutritional program. Pointing to the increasing respect for the sport in the region, Fong noted that lacrosse is one of the only sports that has its own gym. That setup certainly helped the men’s national team and should also serve to provide further opportunities for youth development.
“All the developments are finally starting to produce younger and skillful players,” Fong said. “Before we had that program, basically all of our players were from one university. They didn’t start playing lacrosse until 18 or 19, which can be too late if you’re going to compete at the world level.”
The infrastructure paired with positive media attention following the men’s championship is a recipe for success moving forward.
“I think it will help us in 10 years’ time,” Wong said. “We’re just seeing a few players in our system now who played in high school, but we still don’t have enough. Hopefully in 10 years’ time, that’s when we can say our 13th-place finish really helped us bring up more kids from the local communities.”
One of Fong’s key focuses moving forward is having a lacrosse-specific field constructed in Hong Kong.
“It’s a metropolitan city, so land is precious,” he said. Usually, they use soccer fields and reserve time on them.
“That is a big challenge even when we try to show them our development and success: ‘Look, we have developed. We have done well. We can do Hong Kong proud. Just give me one pitch,’” Fong said.
There’s also an added emphasis on developing more coaches to supplement the expanded pool of players and securing access to equipment. Hong Kong hosting the women’s U20 championship next summer should only help further these efforts.
“I think it will help to put our mark on lacrosse and tell the government about the sport, that there are a a lot of people playing it in the world, and it can bring some kind of sports tourism to Hong Kong as well as some attention,” said Fan.
Lacrosse expanding across Asia would create several advantages for Hong Kong, most notably in terms of travel.
Currently, if the HKLA wants to play internationally, it may has to go to Australia, Europe or North America. Having more opportunities to play Japan, Singapore, Thailand and other neighboring countries would help everyone expand and improve competition internationally.
With still lots more work to do, the future of lacrosse in Hong Kong looks brighter than it ever has before.
“We have grown a lot for the past 10, 15 years,” Fan said. “I think we’re all very excited about the youth that we have now coming up as well because that will definitely help us to grow even further.”