RANGOON — It’s not likely that you’ll find a plentiful stock of chinlone balls anywhere other than Burma, unless you happen to visit Greg Hamilton’s home in Canada.
His apartment in Toronto is filled with the woven rattan balls, which are ubiquitous in the streets of Rangoon and throughout Burma—as the focal point of the country’s most popular traditional sport—but mostly unheard of outside Southeast Asia.
“The balls are very, very special. I have all kinds, balls made from gold, from elephant hair, small balls, big ones. And then I have some that were given to me by special teams or people, old balls that hold special memories,” says the 60-year-old Hamilton, who has been playing chinlone for more than 30 years.
He is one of few foreigners to practice the sport, and not just casually. For decades he has devoted hours each day to the challenge of mastering the couple hundred maneuvers that skilled players use, advancing enough to join a Burmese team at one of the country’s most famous chinlone festivals in Mandalay. In 2006, he made an award-winning documentary, “Mystic Ball,” about his experiences.
These days he continues to visit Burma almost every year, but most of the time he plays alone, in a small park in Toronto. When he returned to Rangoon earlier this month, he surprised his Burmese friends with a video of him practicing back home, juggling a ball with his feet outside in the middle of a blizzard, with negative temperatures and snow blowing past.
“I enjoy playing alone,” he tells The Irrawaddy, “but sometimes, or maybe often, I wish I had at least one other person to play with.”
The draw of chinlone
It was the sound of the ball that initially caught Hamilton’s attention, back in 1981 when he saw one for the first time in Toronto. He was a professional flutist and a freelancer then, but he spent much of his time training in a Chinese martial art.
He came across a Burmese expatriate practicing chinlone in the park and started asking questions after hearing the distinct clicking sound that the rattan ball made when it was kicked. Quickly enamored by the game, he decided to craft a homemade version of the ball from crumpled paper and began practicing, usually outside or in a narrow hallway of his apartment.
In 1986 he traveled to Rangoon for the first time, and his inspiration to learn new skills grew. The real training began in 1997, when he went to Mandalay and fell under the tutelage of a legendary ball maker and player. Three years later he was invited to join a well-known Burmese team at the Waso chinlone festival, a famous sporting event that sees more than 900 teams from around the country. He was reportedly the first foreigner to ever join.
Continuing to return to Burma almost every year, Hamilton found a sense of community that had been absent in many ways from his life in the West. As a child he had seen his mother only occasionally because he grew up in foster homes, and he frequently got into fights, usually over racism and name calling. He remembers joining a wrestling competition in primary school and quickly overcoming his opponent, an Indian boy who started crying at the loss. “My mother told me I had to go over and apologize for beating him,” he recalls. “We became friends.”
“It’s one of the only memories that stuck with me, of an interaction with my mother when I was really young. It’s strange the little things that can affect us,” he adds. “Later in life, I was very competitive and I never wanted to lose, but at the same time I didn’t want other people to lose.”
Chinlone was a perfect fit. Usually six people play on a team, forming a circle and passing the ball back and forth without using their hands. One player goes into the center and performs tricks with the ball, creating a sort of dance as the moves are strung together. The others walk counterclockwise around him or her, offering support by saving the ball and returning it in the event that the soloist loses control. The goal is to perform the most difficult and beautiful moves without allowing the ball to drop to the ground, when it goes dead and a new round begins.
At official chinlone competitions, one team performs at a time, with judges selecting a score partly based on the style of the moves. But for the most part, people play for fun, gathering outside on the streets around dusk when the air starts to cool.
“There’s no winner or loser. It’s really a game that involves a lot of empathy and unconditional support for the other player or players,” Hamilton says.
The sport requires constant concentration, and in that way can become meditative, he adds. Players often practice every day, with a one-pointed focus on the ball over an extended amount of time. Some say that after long periods they experience a trance-like state or a feeling of bliss, known in Burmese as jhana. “Time seems to get stretched out,” Hamilton says. “I often feel like I’m flying.”
These days, Hamilton is acting as an unofficial ambassador for chinlone outside Burma. In addition to directing his documentary, which has been screened at more than 35 film festivals in many countries, he has tried to promote the sport by taking local teams abroad to perform.
He sees potential in chinlone for peace-building, in much the same way that the UN agency Unicef has used football programs to create a stronger sense of community and friendship, especially among young people, in certain countries after violent conflicts or natural disasters. Chinlone could be better suited for this purpose due to its cooperative nature, he says.
During his recent trip to Rangoon, he helped organize a chinlone event at the Myanmar Peace Center, joined by Canadian Ambassador to Burma Mark McDowell. The ambassador, who is learning to play, also supported a Canada-Burma friendship chinlone festival in Mandalay.
In some ways, chinlone is catching on. In 2013, amateur teams from Japan, the United States, Thailand and Germany reportedly played at the Waso festival. But promoting the sport in the West is tough. There’s a steep learning curve, and it takes a significant investment of time to pick up the techniques. Many people lack the desire or determination to stick with it because they lack context for the game, having grown up without seeing it on television or in person.
Often when Hamilton goes to the park in Toronto, footballers or hacky sack players come to say hello and ask for a shot with the ball. Over the years, he has recruited a couple fellow players this way, and they join him sometimes for practice sessions. One is Iranian, and the other is a Canadian man who has also gone on to participate in the Waso festival.
“It’s usually more fun to have people to play with. But—and I’m not sure if it’s just natural for me, or partly out of necessity—I’ve also really grown to enjoy playing alone,” Hamilton says.
He thinks sometimes about moving permanently to Burma, where he will always have a team in Mandalay. Logistically it wasn’t possible under the former regime, and these days the rental prices for apartments are above his budget. So he will likely remain in Canada, where he designs jewelry, works as a freelance consultant and lives with his girlfriend of 30 years.
And he will continue his daily chinlone routine, playing alone for hours at a time, focusing on the feel as he uses his knees and five parts of his feet—the top, inside, outside, Achilles’ heel and sole—to keep his target in the air.
“It appears from the outside that I’m just hitting the ball like this, the same, the same, the same,” he says, juggling the rattan ball on his foot over and over again. “But in reality,” he adds, “each one is different.”