The riot-starting sneaker that helped me find myself

Sneaker expert Adam Cheung remembers the moment he realised trainers were so much more than just an accessory

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Hero image in post

Sneaker expert Adam Cheung remembers the moment he realised trainers were so much more than just an accessory

By Adam Cheung05 Sep 2023
6 mins read time
6 mins read time

It was the summer of 2005, and I was visiting my grandparents in Hong Kong. We were strolling through the cramped, narrow and claustrophobic streets of the Mong Kok district, when suddenly, we were struck by a raging typhoon that seemed to come out of nowhere.

The winds were fierce, the rain even fiercer. I remember feeling this intense pang in my chest. I was anxious and scared, – the roaring thunder certainly didn’t help – but looking back, I’m glad that it happened because it changed the trajectory of my life forever.

Mong Kok is like a concrete maze that hasn’t been renovated since the early ‘60s. When the typhoon struck, one of the first things that we did was enter an old building for shelter. The plaster covering the inside walls was crumbling with age and most of the once-glossy floor tiles were smashed to pieces.

As we slowly and cautiously walked through the complex, we were greeted by the loud buzzing of halogen lights and the hustle and bustle of shops, each one only as big as an office cubicle. We turned the corner, and suddenly, a blinding bright white light shone from the end of the hall. My curiosity got the better of me, and without knowing what I was even running to, I darted towards it.

Stepping foot inside the store, one of the first things I noticed were the Italian marble surfaces that were wildly different to anything else in the building. Industrial style floating shelves lined the walls, and these were decorated with hundreds and hundreds of tiny Bearbrick figurines. To the left side of the shop, there were five or six gleaming glass cabinets, each with sneakers in them. But one pair in particular quite literally took my breath away.

Made from a very fancy leather and suede construction, it was painted in various shades of grey throughout and accented with fiery pops of red across the inside and along the bottom of the sole. To the sides, a crisp white Nike Swoosh glided through, and around the heel was an intricately embroidered pigeon graphic that, with its little beady eyes, stared straight into my soul.

At this point, I had no idea what I was even looking at, but I knew straight away that this was something special. Suddenly, my anxiety from the storm had drifted away and in its place was a feeling of pure euphoria, an emotion that I hadn’t experienced in a long, long time.

When the typhoon finally calmed, we headed home as fast as we could. Realising that I didn’t catch the name of the sneakers, I marched straight to the family computer to try and find them. We were still using dial-up internet at this point so looking for any info was like trying to find a needle in a very slow-loading haystack. When I eventually found the trainers in question, I was stunned to find that they were made in collaboration with a Chinese creative based in New York City, and it was – and still is – considered one of the most iconic pairs of all time.

Dubbed the Staple x Nike SB Dunk Low “NYC Pigeon”, this trainer was released in March 2005 and created by the owner of Staple Design and streetwear hub Reed Space, Jeff Staple, whose real name is actually Jeff Ng. Regarded by many as the first hyped sneaker before sneaker hype was even a thing, only about 150 pairs were made. On the day of its release, it infamously caused a mini riot on the Lower East Side of Manhattan as thousands and thousands of people tried to get their hands on a pair. Things got so bad that the NYPD had to be called out, and those who were lucky enough to secure the drop were escorted home by authorities as they were reportedly being followed by others trying to get their hands on a much-coveted pair. The next morning, the scrummage made frontpage news on the New York Post. All of this, over one shoe.

Obviously, the rioting part wasn’t great, but in many ways, I felt quite proud. As a little Chinese kid who was born and bred in the UK, life wasn’t hard, but it certainly wasn’t easy either. Almost every day, I’d get racist remarks thrown at me or microaggressions like “Wow, how is your English so good?” or “But, where are you really from?” Reading Staples’ story and learning about how much influence he had on the industry made me feel that maybe one day, I could do the same. And while I’ll probably never be able to afford the “NYC Pigeon” unless I decide that I no longer need one of my kidneys, – right now, my size on StockX is reselling for around £130,000 – even knowing its backstory was hugely empowering for me. And so, around 2011, when I finally started earning my own money, I began my trainer collecting journey.

While a lot of people see this as a little materialistic, for me, it’s a hobby that’s deeply cathartic. From the weeks and weeks of research to the thrill of the chase, being able to add to my own personal collection has always made me feel so good. This rang particularly true in 2017, when the late Virgil Abloh announced that he was collaborating with Nike for a truly groundbreaking collection. Unlike anything that the world had seen before, the American sportswear giant gave the Off-White designer full permission to deconstruct ten of its most legendary silhouettes from the sole up. Even to this day, it’s regarded by many as the most sought-after collab in history, and when I actually managed to grab a pair, it felt like my biggest achievement ever.

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My parents, who are very, very traditional, always described my love for shoes with the Chinese phrase “吃飽了撐的,” which basically means that I’m just wasting my time. They wanted me to pursue a career in STEM or become a lawyer, but academia was never my thing, and in my heart I always thought that I could actually make a living off something that I genuinely loved. And here I am, doing exactly that.

It might not be for everyone, but working with sneakers brings me an infinite amount of joy. From the collecting itself to the tightly knit community formed around their pursuit, trainers have played a huge role in my life over the past 20 years, and I’m sure that they’ll continue to do so for the next 20. Who knows? Maybe one day a little Chinese kid will read my story and feel inspired to listen to their own gut and follow their own dreams.

I had the chance to speak to Jeff Staple recently, and he shared one piece of advice with me: “I don't know what the secret to success is, but I do know the secret to failure – it's ignoring what you really want just to try and please everyone else.”