"If you want to read a blog to get a sense of what is going on in Hong Kong these days or a blog that would tell you what life was like living in colonial Hong Kong, this blog, WALTER'S BLOG, fits the bill." Hong Kong Blog Review
"After a race, the ritual moaning starts as the crews dissect the day's events, ruminating over perceived etiquette infractions."
The young men — and it was primarily men— who built the British Empire were an uninhibited lot. Shy and quiet types wouldn't cut the mustard holding the reigns of power while cajoling the natives into submission. Yet, with all that bluff and pluck came an enthusiasm for the outdoor life, sports and adventure.
Today, the sports clubs of Hong Kong are the most resilient memorial to the fact that the Brits exported their games with them. They sent cricket to India, rugby to Samoa and football to the Aborigines.
In colonial times, 'the club' fulfilled a particular role; something of a refuge, a home from home, allowing the newly arrived Expat to integrate, but only with his own. It isolated him from the local community because a chap could 'go native' without proper guidance.
But membership also greased the wheels of business.
Jan Morris observed in Pax Britannica, '…whenever the wandering Briton wished to find the company of his kind, he'd get an invite to the club and soon be standing at the bar as if he owned it.' Pretending to be grander than they were was pretty much de rigueur.
The sports clubs provided an outlet for all that youthful energy of these thrusting types. Formed as a diversionary consolation for the vexations of colonial life, today's clubs are more integrated, although still offering an intriguing window on a sub-set of Hong Kong society.
My job gave automatic membership to the Police Officer's Club. This safe space allowed cops to vent, letting off steam without 'outsiders' within ear-shot. Then some 20 years ago, I joined a sailing club. As part of the process, I learnt to sail and did my bit as a volunteer.
Hong Kong's sailing clubs are a significant enterprise with large clubhouses, boatyards, thousands of staff and a full racing calendar. Our superb harbour, Sai Kung's islands and the south side provide world-class sailing conditions. Whatever you fancy, from the large motor yacht — assuming you are super-rich — to the single-person dinghy, it's all on offer.
These days, the clubs have dropped their colonial undertones, although the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club kept the title unchanged in a small act of defiance. Also, Expats manage all the clubs, although the membership is predominately Chinese.
Would you please stay with me as I go amateur anthropologist? In recent years, exposure to the local sail-racing scene gave me absorbing insights. I've seen the petty rivalries, cliques, competitions, and the hard work that goes into this sailing malarkey.
I reckon all sailors score high on the sociability index. That's the nature of the beast. Crews working together is essential even for a fraction of success in such a competitive environment.
There is a hierarchy of sorts, although where you sit depends on perception. Big money super motor-yachts with top-heavy structures, adorned with every gadget, draw the disdain of the old salts. One such three-tier monster, owned by a businessman, is so out of kilter it can't turn in a moderate swell for fear of capsizing. So confined to the bays, she drifts around, never to face the open ocean.
The guys who love hoisting sails by hand are another extreme, even forgoing the coffee grinder winch. Also on the fringes are the rowers and paddlers, all muscle power, with no frills. These sub-sets strongly identify, "We are Rowers" came the stern rebuke when I mistakenly called them 'paddlers'. Sorry.
The crews range from the semi-professionals through to the weekend warriors. Either way, the competition is intense.
Racing is a serious business. The Committee boat sits supreme, setting the course, marshalling the starts and overseeing the whole shebang. Volunteers keep wind readings, checking off the boats as these arrive on station, while the Race Officer — a semi-god for the day — sets the route.
The course laying is an art, as much as a science. Position the marks (big floaty things that boats go-round), wind deflections discussed, course times estimated against wind strength and boat speed. "There is a wind shadow behind Sharp Island," "Don't forget the shift east as the afternoon arrives". Amongst the volunteers, matriarchal memsahibs seek to dominate with various degrees of success.
Flags and horns command the entrants to line up for the off. Then, as the skipper's jockey for position while avoiding collisions, calls of protestation fill the air, "Give way", and less polite shouts.
Then, once the fuss of the start is over, the committee boat settles to a routine, recording rounding times, and sounding horns for the finishers.
After a race, the ritual moaning starts as the crews dissect the day's events, ruminating over perceived etiquette infractions. Anxious skippers await the decisions on formal protests as the committee adjudicates. Others offer a 'liquid handshake' to appease an offended party, knowing full well that role reversal awaits in the coming weeks.
Mark you, the clubs are as much about the social life as sailing. For new arrivals in town, especially young women, it's an opportunity to mingle without the insidious dangers of the bar scene. One lady told me, "It's a safe 'flirting' zone because social norms hold people in check".
Plus, you can soon 'belong'. The exotic appeal of dragon boating is an immediate draw to the newbie. That soon wanes. Although, even the most blatantly incompetent (that's me) can don a life-jacket, whistle and gloves to pretend you've served decades before the mast. But don't ask them to tie a reef knot.
Alcohol that cools the fervour — especially after a race — is more or less compulsory. Not too much, but indeed enough to lift the mood and drive the teasing banter along. Then on departure home, it's all wild embraces and hugs, given as if some treasured aunt is off on a long trip.
So while the colonial era retreats, with the illusion of Empire (Jan Morris again), and Britain is an island once more, hints of grandeur linger. The Aberdeen Boat Club displays the fire control panel from the sunken Queen Elizabeth, an apt epitaph perhaps. At the same time, the emblems of long gone warships adorn the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club walls.
How bizarre that such symbols receive scorn in the homeland while they enjoy acceptance as quaint echoes of the past in a former imperial possession. There is a good deal of easy analysis on offer these days about the merits or otherwise of the British Empire. I always wonder why the most ardent critics are found in Britain itself.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.