Pint sized Emily Ho Yan Yee is a natural born leader. Don’t be fooled by her diminutive size as she is the strength behind the fast improving Hong Kong women’s kabaddi team.
The 24-year-old made her international debut at the International Kabaddi Challenge in the Malaysian city of Johor Bahru in 2018 and has been a permanent fixture in the side since.
Behind her 160cm frame is a determined athlete, who holds on strongly to the advice given by her father when she was much younger.
“My father once said to me, ‘Just go whenever you have opportunities’. His encouragement always reminds me to prepare myself well and take all opportunities,” said Emily.
The bespectacled lass also pointed out on the support from her friends on keeping her going.
“When I have any problem or question, they will help me immediately. When I feel sad in kabaddi, they will comfort me and talk to me,” she added.
Emily, who also captained the national side to the World Cup Kabaddi last year, picked up the game when she was pursuing a degree in Physical education at the University of Taipei.
“It was my Taiwanese friend, Chia Ming, who introduced kabaddi to me there. He brought kabaddi into my life,” said Emily.
It was love at first try with kabaddi for Emily.
“I love the surprise in the game. To me, kabaddi is like the cosmos. Even though it is only played on a very small court, I can feel the infinity. I can use different sports skills in this game. It is so incorporative. You never know what will happen in the next moment.
She added that she was also attracted to the game because of the challenges it posed.
“When I first played kabaddi, I only weighed 56kg. During matches, when I was raiding, the defense completely threw me off. And when I stood up, I found myself totally thrown off the mat itself,” said Emily.
Emily was determined not to be disheartened by the experience. Her experience in having played numerous other sports including , who also plays handball, basketball, volleyball, athletics and judo had mentally prepared her.
“At that moment, I told myself I need to be stronger – not to be thrown off the mat again. Since then, I’ve been working out to increase my weight and muscle to become stronger, said Emily, who now weighs 67kg.
For the record, under the World Kabaddi rules, the weight limit for women’s in international competition is below 75kg.
Upon her return after graduation to Hong Kong in 2015, Emily started introducing the game to her friends, who were also smitten by the game.
“We tried to find opportunities to let more people know this game but failed since we had no venue, no facilities, no networks… After all the failed attempts, I flipped my coin to the wishing well to hope that one day we could find all the resources,” said Emily.
It was two years before her fervent prayers and hopes were answered.
“Then one day I received a message from my Taiwanese friend saying that a a professor in Hong Kong was looking for kabaddi coaches and that he had passed my contact to him. Shortly after that I got the long awaited phone call from. After two years, my wish was granted – we’re really having kabaddi in Hong Kong,” said Emily.
The call was made to her by Wyman Tang is an Anthropology lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is also the president and co-founder of the Kabaddi United of Hong Kong (KUHK) with Lo Yuk-kwong. Wyman is also an executive member of World Kabaddi.
There was no stopping the development of kabaddi in Hong Kong after that.
Even then, Emily never thought she would be able to represent Hong Kong in the game. When Hong Kong was invited to play at the International Kabaddi Challenge in Johor Bahru, Emily was in seventh–heaven.
“It was dream-like. But when I heard the announcer called out Hong Kong in the tournament, I realized that I was really playing kabaddi for Hong Kong. It’s for real!” she said.
“One of our opponent teams was Auckland from New Zealand. All of their members were very strong. We’re told that they’re used to play rugby, boxing and even MMA. We thought they were totally out of our league. But somehow we had a very close game. In the first half of the game, we’re leading. But in the next half, they found out our weakness – we’re only good at catching huge raiders but not the fast ones. They kept sending the fast raiders. In the end, we lost the game,” she added
On top of that a number of players also picked up injuries and were downcast with their performances.
“On the last day, we had hot pot together on the street, and we were very quiet. As a team captain, I was worried. I was thinking if they were so discouraged that they would give up this game after returning to Hong Kong. But one of the team members broke the silence and asked, “When will we have our next training?”
She said that was the ice-breaker as they started opening up and started a constructive discussion and became very lively again.
“I always feel very grateful for my team members’ courage, teamwork and dedication to this sport,” she reminisced.
We are rather new. Most of us have only played kabaddi for one to two years. It’s difficult for us to achieve very good results in international tournaments in such a short period of time. But we’ve been improving,” said Emily.
At the World Cup in Melaka last year, they came back even stronger both mentally and physically.
“Many said to us that we have improved a lot. We’re learning from experience. We always say to ourselves: since we’re new, we should venture more! Newborn calves should not be afraid of tigers!” she said.
Emily added that with the sport being very new in the island state, it had both advantages and disadvantages.
“The disadvantage is that it’s difficult for us to recruit new members since not too many people know this game. But the advantage is that we can try many new things since people don’t know this game,” she added.
Among the initiative that the KUHK started to promote the game was the Parent-child Kabaddi Class. And Emily also took up the challenge to teach classes in the programme.
“In the weekend, many Hong Kong parents want to have family time with their children. They may join some sports classes. But in the end, only the children are playing and the parents are sitting at the bench surfing the internet. We came up with the idea to have both parent and child playing kabaddi together,” she said.
They made changes to the kabaddi rules to make it workable and also exciting for both the parent and child.
“For example, the parent could only use one hand to catch the child and there could be two child raiders when raiding… The class was quite successful. In the end, the kids gave us a very memorable gift – drawing a picture of us. We still kept the picture. In short, we would try many new things to promote kabaddi in Hong Kong,” said Emily.
At the elite level, they started mixed team training sessions.
“When outsiders visit us, they’d are surprised to see our mix-gender training. They’d think how the women can compete with the men in such a vigorous game. But we would show them that it’s possible. In fact, women in our team are very strong. They would never shy away in front of the boys. In our training, it’s not uncommon to see our women members super-tackling the male members. Personally, I strongly advocate for women participation in sports,” said Emily.
She said that Kabaddi a very “addictive” game.
“Once you try, you’d fall in love with it. Yet, you may experience many challenges when you continue to play this sport. But unity can overcome all kinds of difficulties,” she added.
Emily now stands tall among her kabaddi peers in Hong Kong. She is also now a qualified Technical Official having passed the Level One Course last year.
“Kabaddi has turned me from a little woman to a big woman,” she said.