A story behind a story: from art to car racing
Over the years I have written stories that don't fall under the usual definition of culture. In 2011, I wrote a magazine feature about how some Hongkongers took their passion for car racing to China. It was published in Post Magazine.
This story began with an art-related acquaintance - I met Vincent at an event at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. It turned out he was an art enthusiast as well as car racing. I found it fascinating as I knew no one who participated in car racing (I don't even have a driver's licence to begin with) and I didn't know car racing was in fact a big thing to some people in Hong Kong.
So I followed Vincent for two races in China and there I experienced a whole new world.
Back then, Vincent said his dream was to have his own art gallery. I thought he was joking. But years later, his dream came true.
Vincent Chan Fook-shing undoes the buckles of the five-point red seatbelt and climbs out of the boiling hot modified Volkswagen Polo he has just taken for a spin around the Shanghai Tianma Circuit. He takes off his white helmet, a huge grin on his face. 'That was better than sex,' he says. 'That was awesome.'
The 43-year-old art dealer-turned motor sport enthusiast unzips the front of his fireproof suit. He is one of a group of elite Hongkongers who can afford to take their expensive car-racing dreams north.
'Finally I have raced at all the racetracks in China, and this one has probably been the most fun.'
Chan has just competed in the Polo Cup, a race under the umbrella of the China Touring Car Championship (CTCC), the country's largest motor racing competition, with eight events at seven racetracks.
Still holding his helmet, Chan dashes to catch up with his 'little master', another Hong Kong driver, Andy Yan Cheuk-wai, who is competing in the next race for the Changan Ford Racing Team. Yan, 27, is going head to head with blogger Han Han, who made Time Magazine's 100 most influential people list last year thanks to his well-read, and occasionally controversial, blog. Han became a champion driver in 2007, with the Shanghai Volkswagen 333 Racing Team.
Engines are thundering on the track as drivers wait for the green light. Skinny models in ultra-mini mini-skirts pose next to the cars, breathing in petrol fumes through plastic smiles. Fans roar when Han makes his entrance.
The sport on the mainland attracts not only Hongkongers such as the wealthy Chan and aspiring professional Yan, who cannot realise their dreams in their track-less home city, but also international car manufacturers that know a good marketing opportunity when they see one. China is becoming a powerhouse of car manufacturing and sales. Last year, motor sales on the mainland hit a record 18.6 million, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.
'We don't need to promote the races overseas,' says CTCC chief operating officer Cheng Guang. 'We need to focus on local promotions. The car market in China is bigger than that in Europe and the US, and their manufacturers have to do business here.
'To the Chinese government, car racing is a branding exercise, a platform to connect with the international world. This is not something Hong Kong can do.'
Founded in 2004, CTCC, formerly known as the China Circuit Championship, is now a national event with the official approval and support of the State Bureau of Sports.
'If you do not make it a national brand, it's impossible to make car racing happen,' Cheng says. 'Without the government it's impossible to organise this kind of motor racing. We have tracks being built, one after another. Who else can make this kind of investment?'
Cars are beginning to be seen as more than just a means of transport, Cheng says. 'Driving is becoming a form of luxury enjoyment and sports competitions are the ultimate of such enjoyment. China doesn't have a history of motor sport, but we are getting there. We have a future.'
This race - a season opener for CTCC 2011 - has attracted 12 teams, which are competing in two categories based on engine size: 1600cc and 2000cc. The biggest commercial supporters are foreign carmakers with joint ventures on the mainland, such as Volkswagen, Ford, Honda and Nissan. And success does not come cheap.
'If a team is determined to win they will have to spend at least 20 million yuan [HK$21.8 million],' Cheng says.
Not as fast or glamorous as Formula 1, the touring-car races are promotional exercises as much as they are competitive.
'We bring [members of motoring associations] to the tracks, show them around and even let them go for a spin so that they can experience the awesomeness of legal speeding,' Cheng says. 'And gradually, they will fall in love with the sport, and the cars of course.'
'Racing has been a very good platform to promote our products,' says a spokesman for Ford China, which, with Changan Motors and Mazda Motor, operates the Changan Ford Racing Team. 'We brought motor racing culture to China in 2006 ... and over the past five years we have won three overall championships, winning 15 races at CTCC - the best for any racing teams at this race.'
He declines to say how much Ford has invested in motor sport on the mainland but, after winning the CTCC championship in 2009 and last year, sales of the Ford Focus, the car used to race, reached a monthly record of nearly 20,000 in January.
Kelvin So, who runs Hong Kong team China Dragon Racing, says motor racing would not have thrived on the mainland if not for the Hong Kong-Beijing Rally, first held in 1985. 'Perhaps Hong Kong's mission to promote motor sport is completed,' he says.
BACK AT THE CIRCUIT, Chan has caught up with Yan, who is on the track, waiting for his Ford Focus to be readied by engineers flown in from Britain. Reporters and television crews are taking pictures and bothering celebrity drivers such as Han, who is being tailed by privileged fans who have scored passes to get pre-race access to their heroes. Chan pats Yan's shoulder and wishes him luck.
Chan and Yan met in 2009 through mutual friends and Chan says his 27-year-old mentor regularly offers him tips on driving techniques. To return the favour, Chan sponsored the young driver for a while. As Chan tells Yan about the Polo Cup race - he didn't win - the young models, ordered by their manager to hold their chins high and stand straight to accentuate their figures, interrupt the conversation, posing next to Yan in front of dozens of reporters. Yan forces a smile.
'That's part of the job,' the camera-shy driver says.
Yan, who has been racing since he was a teen, starting on go-karts, is among just a handful of Hong Kong drivers who have been signed by a mainland racing team.
'As a Hong Kong driver you need to put in extra effort to secure a position,' says Yan, who is aiming for a top-three finish. 'China's professional racing teams, which are funded by car manufacturers, tend to give more resources to mainland drivers as they are the people they want to groom.'
Yan was 19 when he started racing touring cars at events such as the Hong Kong Touring Car Championship (HTCC), which, despite its name, never took place in the city. It was organised by the Hong Kong Automobile Association and first held at the Zhuhai International Circuit in 2002. Last year it moved to the Guangdong International Circuit, between Zhaoqing and Sanshui. China Dragon Racing is one of the teams that regularly competes at HTCC events.
To pursue racing, Yan relied on the support of his father, who runs a garage business, and sponsorships from family and friends such as Chan, who is used to owning six cars, including a Ferrari, but is often chauffeured around Hong Kong in a family seven-seater.
Yan's big break came in 2009 when he was signed by Changan Ford, which pays him a salary (which he declines to reveal) and covers some of his expenses.
'I'm very fortunate,' says Yan. 'Motor racing is not like any other kind of sport, like running, which you can do anytime, anywhere. For motor racing, the first thing you need is a track, which we do not have in Hong Kong. Then you need a car, which could cost about HK$1 million in order to meet the requirements of the 2000cc category. It costs about HK$2 million to race for one year. How can a young man afford such an expensive sport if there is no financial backing?'
Yan has a strong enough reputation to attract sponsors - not only motoring companies but also local dessert chain Chung Kee. But they cover only 70 per cent of his racing costs at most.
The expense means Hong Kong has not produced many young drivers in recent years, says Yan. 'Most of the drivers from Hong Kong are aged between 30 and 40, because they are the ones who can afford to race. But it's too late to begin taking part in any kind of sport professionally if you are starting out at that age.'
Chan's love affair with motor racing began in Canada, to where his family moved ahead of the handover. He began racing for fun. Back in Hong Kong, developing a career in the art business, his passion was revived; through friends he got back into motor racing, taking part in HTCC races in 2007 and investing in a racing-car service company.
In 2009, he took part in the Radical Cup China, established by a British manufacturer of open-cockpit racing cars, winning second and third in Shanghai and Chengdu, respectively.
Chan and a group of like-minded friends - mainly lawyers, doctors and businessmen - take their motor racing seriously, even though they race at an amateur level. Their passion has led to the formation of Holiday Racing, which won the overall second-place HTCC team award last year. Chan, the team manager, says its name reflects the nature of racing for its members. He says the experience of travelling from track to track has allowed him to witness the growth on the mainland.
'When we first raced in Guangdong last year there wasn't even a hotel, let alone massage parlours and other facilities [around the track],' he says. But, within just one year, hotels, restaurants and even factories have been built around the circuit. 'These tracks bring economic opportunities. Just imagine, during that weekend you have more than 100 people coming to spend a few nights there - accommodation, catering, entertainment.'
Hong Kong drivers may not have a track or the support of their government, but they do have history. So says Hong Kong has produced more winning drivers than anywhere else in Asia except Japan, winning titles from the Macau Grand Prix to the Asia Touring Car Championships. After the first Macau Grand Prix, in 1954, and up until the handover, Hongkongers - Chinese and Caucasian - drove away with 14 major titles, in cars and on motorcycles.
Motor sport in Hong Kong began in the 1950s with small races at locations including Shek Kong Barracks and the HMS Tamar site. The Motor Sports Club of Hong Kong was established in 1952 and staged the first Harper Hill Climb, up Golden Hill, Kowloon Reservoir, the next year. The event included a motorcycle race called the Caltex Cup.
The year after the first Harper Hill Climb, the club's first secretary, Paul du Toit, joined forces with Automovel Club de Portugal's Carlos Humbert da Silva to stage the first Macau Grand Prix, won by Eddie Carvalho, a member of the Motor Sports Club of Hong Kong.
'I'm sure the number of people who can drive outweighs those who can play football,' So says. 'But the government never treated car racing as a serious sport.' He says one reason could be the image presented by illegal racing. But, he adds, mainland operators 'look for Hong Kong people to take part in the races, absorbing our skills and networks'.
So says his team raced in CTCC competitions between 2005 and 2009 but had to pull out due to a lack of backers. CTCC regulations prevent drivers from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan from racing in the 1600cc category.
'To sustain a team you need HK$10 million to HK$20 million a year,' he says. 'Without support from car manufacturers, many teams cannot continue. Now Hong Kong teams are pulling out while mainland teams are growing. You have to be like a star in order to get sponsorships, but how many can be like Han Han? Now we can only take part in races on a part-time basis.'
Meanwhile, the full-timers are aiming high. Hongkonger Sam Hui, who runs Ghia Sports, one of the largest racing teams based in Zhuhai, says he has been looking for young mainland drivers such as 19-year-old rising star Sun Zheng.
'Unlike many in Hong Kong who have to worry about school and making a living, Sun doesn't have these worries,' Hui says. 'His father can support him, so he can dedicate his full attention to the sport.'
Sun has a lot of potential - as well as having rich parents he is good looking and well-mannered, but fierce and ruthless on the track. 'We have a lot of hope for Sun. He's a semi-professional and he's earning a salary and sponsorships,' Hui says.
Cheng predicts that, as the car market continues to grow, so will racing. 'Then we can find a way to groom young drivers and our races can help them gradually climb the ladder so that we can have a national racing team,' he says.
Sun, who is studying motor engineering in Beijing, is less optimistic. He criticises regulations that bar non-Chinese drivers from entering CTCC events.
'There's no point if you just race against Chinese drivers,' he says. 'Foreign teams would love to have a Chinese driver, for commercial reasons, but our standards are still very behind [those of other countries]. We must go overseas and bring the experience back if we want to improve.'
TRACKSIDE, THE CARS ARE lined up in the sun, engines revving. The stands are full. The green light flashes and they're off.
For 30 minutes the only sound is that of roaring engines. Yan, who came third in the qualifier, maintains his position while waiting for the opportunity to move up. Chan follows his every move, explaining the nuances of the game to a friend. The crowd screams when a mainland driver crashes on a sharp turn, and roars even louder when Han is forced to pull out because of a mechanical failure. After 25 laps, Yan crosses the finish line in second place. He has got what he wanted; a place on the winners' podium and a champagne shower.
Both Yan and Chan will continue to live their motor racing dream on the mainland: Yan is preparing for the next race, in Zhuhai, next weekend; while Chan, who will also compete in Zhuhai, is pursuing an another, relatively down-to-earth passion.
'I'm hoping to open my own art gallery,' he says.