The Hong Kong Sevens, free from the city’s mask mandate and travel restrictions, were off to a slow start on Friday amid a persistent drizzle, but early bird fans still embraced the spirit of the event with colourful costumes and pints of beer.
Donning a pirate outfit, 20-year-old Hugh Smith arrived at the Hong Kong Stadium in the early afternoon with his university friends.
“I can already tell there’s a lot of energy in the building. I’m really excited,” said the computer science student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
He was among the first wave of fans to fill the stadium as the three-day tournament kicked off with the women’s competition, which appeared to have had a slow start.
Secretary for Security Chris Tang Ping-keung was also seen among the crowds, cheering for the Hong Kong team while holding a drink in his hand.
The South Stand, usually the epicentre of the tournament packed with fans in the fanciest of costumes, was largely deserted amid the light rain.
“Normally, you can’t even get into the South Stand,” said Pat Flippin, a 69-year-old retiree from the United States who lived in Hong Kong for six years before 2018.
He said he felt the stadium was emptier than he had remembered it.
“A lot of people don’t understand what’s going on in Hong Kong. The government, the protests and other things. So they don’t know politically what’s going on,” he said.
Flippin, who had spent the past year touring the world to see the Sevens tournament in Cape Town, Vancouver and Los Angeles, said those who were “a little apprehensive” to visit Hong Kong were missing out.
“[It’s] the best rugby on the whole circuit,” he said.
The seats would not stay empty for long, according to the organisers, who said one-day admissions for Saturday and Sunday had been sold out a month ago. More than 23,000 people had been admitted to the 40,000-seat stadium as of 7.30pm on Friday.
Also largely absent at the stadium were masks. While the requirement was relaxed when the Sevens returned for the first time in three years last November, with spectators being allowed to remove face coverings when drinking, the current tournament is the first to be held without the citywide mandate.
“We got masks, but we haven’t been using them,” said Samoan businesswoman Meaalofa Sulutolu, 56, who is on a four-day trip to Hong Kong with 21 fellow business owners to support her national team. Friday’s rugby game was her first one outside New Zealand.
“There seems to be more people, more international presence,” she said.
Sulutolu added they were all looking forward to the two other features the city is known for – dining and shopping.
Theo Berthuit, 27, travelled from Shenzhen with his friends to support his home country team, France.
“We plan to put on different costumes each day,” said the furniture company worker, who was wearing a Flintstones outfit.
Berthuit, who is visiting Hong Kong for the second time after the return of cross-border travel earlier this year, said “everything was better” in the city despite it being more expensive.
“It’s been great! We can be here, have a drink, do whatever we want, so it’s perfect,” he said while holding a jug of beer.
Hongkongers were also soaking in the atmosphere. Jessie Ng, who is in her 40s and works at a yoga centre, was sipping beer with her friends from the Sha Tin Shapei Rugby Football Club.
Ng, who also began learning rugby after her five-year-old started playing the sport, said watching it with her fellow club members meant she could grasp the rules a lot quickly.
“You can see the great atmosphere and players in action, while on TV you can’t really determine the distance and the proportions,” she said. “It’s much more exciting to be here.”
Ng’s child was among a number of students sitting in the mostly empty upper stands.
Tiffany Yau, 16, a Secondary Five student from the Yuen Long Merchants Association Secondary School, said seeing so many students made for a great atmosphere during her first time at the tournament.
“Our teachers have specifically reminded us that the Hong Kong teams would be playing in three matches and we must show support,” she said.