Tsang Yee Ting — Hong Kong Karatedo Athlete — on how practicing karate helped her overcome having a heart condition and vitiligo
Jennifer Tsang Yee Ting (her friends call her JT) is a Hong Kong Karatedo Athlete supported by the HKSI. She turned professional 5 years ago at the age of 20 and currently competes in the Female Kumite under 50kg category.
Yee Ting started karate at age 6. She had been learning painting but felt it was a little boring and followed her elder brother to his dojo. Since then she’s never looked back from karate. Yee Ting developed vitiligo, a disease where her skin forms white patches, when she was 2 years old. She also suffered from a heart condition when she was young. Practicing karate helped her overcome her fear and shame of having vitigilo, and strengthened her physically enough to overcome the heart condition.
Yee Ting never envisioned she would become a professional athlete; in fact she didn’t know she could be one and didn’t realize there was that option until one day her coach pointed it out to her. In karate, students usually need to self-fund to compete in tournaments; after doing so many times and achieving some satisfactory results, her coach suggested she try out for the Hong Kong team.
Now, competing on the global stage, Yee Ting is frequently a medalist and has won championships such as The 6th East Asian Senior Karatedo in 2016 in Chinese Taipei and The 5th Urmia Karate Championships in 2015 in Iran. She has also won bronze twice at the Asian Karate Federation Senior Karatedo Championships in 2013 and 2015 and came 7th in the 2014 World Karate Federation Senior Karatedo Championships. She was the Hong Kong Most Promising Sports Starts Awardee in 2015. Her boyfriend, Chris Cheng Tsz Man is also a Hong Kong Karatedo Athlete.
Outside of training, Yee Ting loves to rest and sometimes participates in 10K runs with her friends. Living at the dorms of the Hong Kong Sports Institute, she also spends weekends visiting her family. She values the time spent with her family and enjoys having meals with them.
Can you share a little bit about your passion for karate?
I was super lazy as a child, and performed quite poorly in school. I wasn’t that type of person who was motivated to study; for some reason, as soon as I picked up school-books, I would just want to go to sleep. I once dozed off in an exam and when the proctor knocked on my desk to remind me to take the exam, I even negotiated with her to allow me to sleep for ten more minutes!
Practicing karate was different though. I was always motivated to go to training. While at school I was always thinking about karate, and outside of school I only wanted to go to karate training.
However, while I fundamentally have always enjoyed karate, there was a period of time in my teens when I developed a rebelliousness and I would skip practice and not go to my dojo. At that point, I did question what karate meant to me, and if I loved it. Then, one year my master didn’t allow me to compete in the Asian Junior Karate Championship; I was so angry and disappointed as it was held in Hong Kong that year. We had a falling out that led me to attend a different dojo.
It was going to this new dojo that reinvigorated my passion for karate. Compared to my previous dojo, which was quite focused on competition and performance, this new dojo took a traditional approach where I was able to develop a deeper understanding of karate not only for competition and performance, but the values and the art behind it. I think the change of environment, and being exposed to new ways of learning and practicing karate was necessary for me at the time.
Karate and other martial arts are sometimes stereotyped as rough and “boy” sports. How do you feel about this stereotype?
There definitely are still more boys than girls practicing karate, though the situation has changed over time. When I was younger, in a class there would be about 4-5 girls to 12-15 boys. But I’ve never thought of karate as being a “boy’s” sport, I guess because my father let me practice and my brother was there too.
Some of our other family members would ask me why I didn’t dance and why I did something so physically demanding. I think they were concerned for me because I had a heart condition and they didn’t want me to over exert myself. But karate was fun, I was enjoying myself, and I always thought, if I were to die from my heart condition, I might as well die from doing what I love. Thankfully nothing happened, and in fact, I truly believe practicing karate has strengthened me physically and mentally and now to my knowledge I no longer have a heart condition.
The stereotype that karate is for boys has slowly changed. I’ve seen many parents allowing their daughters to practice so their daughters can learn to protect themselves. I think it’s a good thing that more girls are practicing karate, and I certainly don’t like that there exists stereotypes in sports, let alone in karate.
In competition, how do you not let aspects such as being hit and kicked by your opponent affect your confidence during each bout?
Certainly being hit and kicked does make me lose confidence. It’s inevitable, especially as each bout is only 2 minutes long and there isn’t much time to catch up if I fall behind on points. But, I just have to keep going, stay in the moment and try harder to secure more points. Kumite (the type of karate that I practice) is based on a points system and we get different points for different strikes that are successful so if I fall behind sometimes I have to be more assertive and take more risks. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. But really, in two minutes I try not to be fazed by slip-ups and being hit. They happen and I accept that they happen.
The scoring rules changed in the past six months and now I’m adapting to these new rules. In this new system, at the end of the bout if the score is tied, the first person to strike and get points will win. This gives the advantage to the first mover. The good thing is I’m learning to grasp the opportunities as they come and when my opponent makes a mistake. In this regard, I’m learning to be more assertive.
In my category (under 50kg) speed is of essence as well. I’m also training to be more nimble and agile. This has in fact come in handy, like for example the other day I was walking and was almost being sandwiched by a grannie and someone else walking beside her. I recognized the situation quickly and make a small slide move to turn my body so I could get out of that situation before it happened.
Just a side note, sometimes I also want to see if I can put my karate skills to use in the real world. It sounds awful and naive, but for example, I’ve wondered that if I were attacked in real life, would I be able to use karate? My friends think I’m silly for thinking that, but I do hope that if put to the test in real life that I’d be able to react, stay calm and assess the situation and see if there’s an opportunity to strike, just as I would in a kumite match.
How has karate impacted you? What does it matter to you / why is it important to you?
Karate has given me the confidence to overcome developing vitiligo and also feeling unconfident academically. With vitiligo, even though I developed it from the age of 2 and I was very young, even at that age I knew there was something different about me compared to my friends. When I first developed vitiligo, the white patches first appeared on my back and my legs and feet. I felt different and even if my friends around me didn’t notice it or ask me about it, I myself was very conscious about it and I wanted to hide it. I also didn’t have much confidence in school because I was ranked so poorly in class; I was really always the worse student and the one with the worse grades. But karate gave me the confidence to accept myself for who I am inspite of my skin condition and poor grades. I was good at karate so I could at least say I was good at something. I can honestly say if I didn’t practice karate, I wouldn’t have been able to cope with vitiligo as easily either.
Can you share about your experience living with vitiligo as an athlete?
My family took me to the beach one day and when we went home my parents discovered I had developed a white patch on my back. It took doctors a long time to figure out what it was. Basically I was born with a condition where I cannot produce melanin. It means I’m not meant to be out in the sun as being tanned worsens the condition. The rate of development of these white patches is unpredictable and as I’ve gotten older, I have more and more patches, and I will continue to develop more over time.
When I was much younger, I felt so much shame and embarrassment. Because at first I developed vitiligo mostly on my feet and legs, in karate practice, I would always lower my pants to cover up as much as possible, and I would always shift around uncomfortably as I was conscious that people would see what I had. I didn’t want my peers to know and see; I didn’t know how they would react and I didn’t want them to mock me or think I was different. I would act so unnaturally.
After a while and through competition, I realized people weren’t looking at me and noticing my vitiligo. As I developed more patches, I no longer could hide them under my pants. And when I realized people weren’t noticing, I stopped caring too. When I noticed people weren’t judging me for having vitiligo, I stopped judging myself too. I stopped fearing what people would think of me.
My father had also been so supportive of me. He would tell me that I should stop caring about what people thought of me, and instead imagine I had a map on my body and that it was a gift. His support was crucial.
Having vitiligo hasn’t affected my performance on the karate field. It doesn’t affect who I am as a person. It doesn’t affect how hard I train. It does however, impact how I train. I’m supposed to run as part of my training, especially if I need to shed a little bit of weight before competition to compete in my weight class. I’m not supposed to run outdoors as I’m not supposed to be out in the sun. But I also much prefer to run outdoors than on a treadmill indoors.
For a while, I didn’t want to be out getting tanned in the sun. I have to admit in part because I was fearful of developing vitiligo on my face. I thought I wouldn’t be able to accept it. But Chris, my boyfriend also told me that how my face looks doesn’t affect how he sees me, and it shouldn’t affect how other people see me. He reminded me that people don’t like or dislike me because of my face, they like me because of who I am on the inside. His encouragement has helped me to decide that at the risk of developing vitiligo on my face — and I notice I slowly am now — I choose to run outdoors than indoors. I’ve really come to terms that my vitiligo will inevitably spread anyway. I’ve accepted it, I run outdoors, I go to the beach, and I don’t care as much anymore. I don’t live my life worrying about how I live affects my vitiligo.
My family had suggested I take medication to slow down the rate of white patches forming, but that medication would make me feel so sick during training that I would throw up the medication. It was awful. I refuse to take medication now, as I don’t want it to affect my training and sports performance. I prioritize my chosen career over my looks and skin condition, and I don’t want to waste my money on medication that impacts my performance only to slow down an incurable disease. I want to spend my money on what I consider to be more meaningful and on things that make me happier.
Moreover, vitiligo is part of who I am now. It’s been with me since I was 2 years old. It makes me me, just as karate is a part of me and makes me, me.
Karate will be included for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for the first time in the sports history. Do you have plans to compete there if you can? If so, how are you working towards it?
I definitely have plans to compete if I can earn a ticket to go. 2018 will be a crucial period where every tournament and competition counts so I can gain world ranking and I need to be ranked top 10 in the world. There will be some challenges, such as maybe needing to gain weight as the Olympic Kumite category is supposedly for 55kg and under. It will also be so competitive. If I train well and I can perform as well as I have been in practice, I’m confident that I stand a chance.
What aspirations do you have after karate?
I want to start a family and have children. I love the idea of starting my own family and becoming a mother. I’ve thought about it too, if I don’t make it to 2020 Tokyo Olympics, I’ll retire from being a professional athlete and try start a family.