Started in 1930s Chicago as a sport where men and women could compete on equal grounds, roller derby’s egalitarian and feminist message is resonating with people halfway across the world, in Asia.
“Roller derby is the exact opposite of the female oppression,” says Snooky Wong, co-president of the Hong Kong Roller Derby team.
Started in 1930s Chicago, the rush and spectacle that is roller derby has crossed over to Asia.
From the outset, the sport—which involves players circling each other on roller skates—allowed men and women to compete on equal grounds. And today, that egalitarian message is resonating with people halfway across the world.
Wong has been leading Hong Kong Roller Derby for the past several years. Having grown from a small group of five passionate derby enthusiasts, the club now boasts 25 players and has been instrumental in the sport’s growth in Asia. Last year in March, they hosted a Pan-Asian tournament, with teams coming from China, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates.
For the participants, mostly women, roller derby offers an outlet of expression that is not available elsewhere.
“Typically growing up here in Asia, the general attitude towards women and how they should act is that you’re not supposed to swear, you’re supposed to be-soft spoken,” Wong says.
Roller derby is the antithesis of these conservative expectations. Players race to tackle each other with the goal of helping their jammer, the team’s point scorer, pass the opposing team’s skaters. It is a physical, full-contact sport that can send skaters hurtling toward the rink’s walls and other players.
“When you hit someone perfectly and they fly off, it’s the best feeling ever.”
“When you hit someone perfectly and they fly off, it’s the best feeling ever,” Wong says with a grin.
Wong fell into derby when she saw the Whip It in 2010. The film, starring Ellen Page as a misfit teen who joins a roller derby team in Texas, has been credited with reviving the sport after it fell out of favor in the 1970s.
“When Whip It came out—the film about roller derby—it made it seem super cool,” Wong says. “That was the most influential film, I think, in my life.”
From the United States to Asia
Since the sport’s inception in the United States, roller derby has waxed and waned in popularity over the years.
Whipped up by sports promoter Leo Seltzer in the 1930s, roller derby was considered something new and exciting to entertain Depression-era crowds. At its peak, games were broadcast three times a week to millions of viewers at home.
But by the 1970s, the sport’s popularity declined. Many fans were turned off by the league’s increased theatrics and allegations of rigged results.
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Roller derby remained dormant until 2001, when a group of women in Austin, Texas, rebooted the sport, combining the traditional structure with a decidedly feminist bent.
They took on goofy nicknames inspired by the city’s drag scene and imbued the game with a feminist rock-and-roll bent.
In Hong Kong, the players have adopted a similar spirit, with players taking on “derby names.” (Wong’s is Karl Luna.)
For many, the game is more than just a sport. Derby prides itself on inclusivity and diversity, a space to exercise, have fun, and be part of a community among those who have been historically marginalized in society. But it’s still been a slow build.
“Roller derby isn’t really popular here in Asia just yet,” Wong says. “We’re working on it.”
Wong believes part of the reason is the full contact. To the spectator, the crash and bash roller derby can look daunting and violent, but players often come away with no more than a few bruises.
Importing the culture of roller derby has also been a challenge. Although Wong’s team has recently translated the rules to Chinese, it remains a foreign sport.
The club has been working on growing derby’s visibility, inviting international coaches to tour and conduct workshops.
In mainland China, roller derby has drawn many younger women who appreciate its progressive spirit.
Ella Zhang, who flew from Beijing to Hong Kong to participate in the Pan-Asian tournament last year, says derby has given her an opportunity to learn about the world outside her home country.
“Because you play with people from all over the world, you get to experience different cultures and everyone is very friendly,” she says. “It’s very interesting.”
“Everyone’s just happy to even get the chance to play,” says Optimus Grime, who flew from Scotland to Hong Kong to coach players at the tournament. “For some people, they’ve been maybe training for a year, and this is the first time they’ve actually had a team to play, which is super exhilarating.”
For the skate-obsessed Wong, the tournament was just one major milestone in the sport’s development in Asia. In May, she opened Madame Quad, the first roller-skating shop in Hong Kong, and hopes to continue the sport’s ethos through her store.
“Roller derby leagues offer this kind of community to visitors that’s inviting and welcoming,” Wong says. “I think that’s what makes it beautiful for me. That’s why I've really fallen in love with it.”