Column #32 Kowloon, Hong Kong
Monday, January 1, 1997
Kowloon, Hong Kong
The Hong Kong that guide books describe is a vibrant mix of East and West, old and new, where the “abacus is almost as prevalent as the pocket calculator” and “high-tech architecture soars above ancient temples.” At dawn, according to the guide books, elderly Chinese practice “tai chi chuan” (sort of like shadow-boxing) in “cool green parks while street cobblers prepare to ply their goods” in the narrow, steep, back streets of the city. And after dark, (although the guide books never mention this), if you know where to look below the endless glow of neon signs, the familiar “thunk, thunk, thunk” of darts activity can be found, just as it can be almost anywhere else in the world.
Time and again I am reminded of how international the sport of darts really is. The ability of shooters from extraordinarily different cultures (who, under normal circumstances, couldn’t give each other directions to McDonald’s) to compete, share in the humor and the tension of a game, and even to debate the finer points of play is almost uncanny. I suppose this is all because of the “language of darts”, that special connection — that unique ability to communicate — that simply exists between people who share a love for the sport and a basic understanding of the rules. For a couple of darters, without a lick of language in common, to come together and enjoy a few games of 501 over a beer and under the smoke in the back room of a neighborhood pub would seem to be the most natural thing in the world.
This is exactly the experience I have just had at a little place called the Schooner Pub (54 Hillwood Road) in Kowloon, Hong Kong. Someone at the Hong Kong Darts Association suggested I give this pub a shot. I wasn’t the slightest bit disappointed.
I walked into the Schooner just after the dinner hour and was immediately struck with how far away from home I was — the place is thoroughly Chinese. Except for the corner where the dart board hangs, the light is very low. Lanterns around the perimeter of the bar flicker with red and green lights. There’s the usual karaoke machine. The music — and absolutely all of the conversation — is Cantonese.
I ordered a Heineken (by pointing at an empty bottle I saw on the counter) and sat down near the dart board in the back of the bar. The waitress brought me a tiny bowl of crunchy things that looked like french fries but tasted like Screaming Yellow Zonkers. Later, when she noticed I was running low, I took a chance by saying “Budweiser” and was surprised (but pleased) to have a bottle placed in front of me. A beer at the Schooner, regardless of brand, runs just 18 Hong Kong dollars (about $2.50). Unfortunately, a bowl of the Zonker-like things will run you about half that amount. I say “unfortunately” because I ate six bowls of them!
The only dart board was already occupied so I wrote my initials on the chalkboard (hoping this was the custom) and sat down to watch while I sipped my beer. The set up is excellent. The area is carpeted. The oche is raised. The light is bright. To the right of the throwing area is a large glass case crammed with several dozen trophies and silver cups won by Schooner’s darts teams in something called the 33rd League Division. I couldn’t wait to get to the line…
Eventually the shooters motioned to me to come over. The loser (Wong Chun Sang) of their last game drew up a fresh board and wrote his friend’s (Sam Ma Man-Yuk) initials above the left column. He picked up my initials from the bottom of the chalkboard. Somehow we decided to flip a coin… and the night began.
We moved back and forth to the line. After each checkout the loser would step up to chalk. The winner would step back to the line. Game after game we pounded each other. An hour. A couple beers. Two hours. Three hours. The evening sort of flowed. The night took on a rhythm. A natural rhythm. A familiar rythm.
I realized we were talking. Each to the other in a different language but in words and sounds and body movements we all seemed to understand. Cantonese and English fused. The sport of darts took over. The connection was complete. We slapped hands to compliment each other’s good darts, shared the agony of the wires, laughed at each other’s fliers and commiserated over possible closes. Occasionally we even questioned each other’s subtraction. I could have been throwing with my friends back home…
Not once did a word of common language (except for “Budweiser”) pass among us. And not once did it matter.
That’s because we all knew the language of darts…
From the Field,
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