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From the curious to the surreal: The very Hong Kong art of street disco

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Recently, while enjoying an early morning run I was overtaken by an elderly gentleman walking his dog. Since this edifying experience, I have been forced to reevaluate the way I think about exercise. I appreciate that, over the years, my running style has changed from a confident purposeful stride, into a hunched shuffle, like a Shakespearean Richard the III hurriedly traversing the stage. So, in mixed company I now describe myself as a “jogger” rather than a “runner.” I also prefer to exercise in the mornings and from this increasingly pedestrian vantage point I have been able to study that great Hong Kong institution of Street Disco.

tired runner

File photo: Rennett Stowe, via Flickr.

If you are not familiar with the term, Street Disco describes a wide spectrum of early morning outdoor calisthenic behaviour that ranges from the strict discipline of Tai Chi through to synchronised aerobics and free form avant-garde ballet. At sunrise all sorts of esoteric physical exercise can be seen, that at any other time of day would be met with little understanding and perhaps even challenged by the long arm of the Hong Kong constabulary. Where else in the world can you dance around a park at dawn dressed in a pair of Kung Fu pyjamas, brandishing a metre long Samurai sword and be regarded as nothing out of the ordinary? If you did this in London you’d be shot.

street disco

Photo: Grainne Quinlan.

Despite emerging from a culture that is more often associated with rules and rigidity, Street Disco has surprisingly few conventions. Outside of the synchronised format, I have never seen two practitioners executing the same moves and each individual has their own unique style and repertoire. You may see one man stretching in a manner that looks as though he is in the grip of a mild epileptic fit, while close by an old lady spins with the grace and balance of a high velocity ballroom dancer.

Square dancing.

Square dancing. Photo: Wikicommons.

At its best Street Disco exhibits a surreal beauty and its ubiquitous presence in the parks of Hong Kong is a serene sight to behold. However, I draw the line at outdoor karaoke and it is the only branch of the art form that I cannot abide. Howling at the rising sun like wolves barking at a full moon these audio anarchists terrorise the neighbourhood and all who dare to be out of bed. I saw one such enthusiast on the Harbour Front windmilling both arms as he stood rigidly looking out to sea and singing the Whitney Houston classic “Saving all my love for you.” And while he remained insulated from the sonic vandalism he was creating by headphones the size of dinner plates, I felt like my human rights were being abused.

tai chi

Photo: Grainne Quinlan.

Fortunately, most Street Disco artists work alone and in silence, acting out their own slow motion gymnastic mime, oblivious to any external judgement or criticism. It is then from this transcendental state that the mind is able to wander the back alleyways of the subconscious, performing the cerebral housework necessary to maintain good mental health. This is partly the reason why people in such a crowded environment as Hong Kong still manage to get along. And so it is for everyone’s benefit that Street Disco not only survives but develops as the city becomes ever more busy and stressful.

I will continue to jog and maintain an interest in this most artistic of all early morning exercise routines, perhaps looking to take a more active roll when my knees finally give up. This will hopefully give me enough time to develop my own style and work on a few personalised moves. Perhaps I could combine a slow jog, with a bit of Tai Chi arm swinging and some mild meditation. Or will I then have simply become a “walker?”

From the curious to the surreal: The very Hong Kong art of street disco