Be that as it may

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 February, 2005, 12:00am

Half-way up Cotton Tree Drive, near Hong Kong's Central business district, is a beautiful old colonial building. The main entrance has a set of white wooden french doors topped with a glass arch, and at the rear is a small garden that comes alive at night with the flicker of fairy lights.

Tables and chairs allow visitors and residents to enjoy afternoon tea on warm spring afternoons, or a refreshing sundowner at dusk.

A long curving wooden staircase connects the ground to the first floor and the residential rooms and studios are bright, airy and clean.

Meals are served in a high-ceilinged dining room where, staring down from the wall is a portrait of the namesake of this refuge for single women travelling in Asia - Helena May.

In 1916, the refuge provided 'physical and moral safety' for newly emancipated women arriving in a city described at the time as being 'packed full of ruffians and robbers'. Today, it still prides itself as a refuge for single females, even though the modern emancipated woman is quite different from her counterpart of nearly 100 years ago.

'When I crawl in at five or six in the morning I see this big picture of Helena May staring down at me and I'm like, 'Sorry love, but this is the 21st century,'' says one resident.

The Helena May represents many things to its residents, members and visitors; past and present; young and old.

To some, it's a hot meal and company after a tough day at work; to others, it's a place to meet like-minded professional women in a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere; while for some, it's a regimented girls' boarding school reminiscent of the 1950s.

'The welcome meeting isn't about how to find your way around Hong Kong, it's about what you can and can't do,' according to one former resident.

Residents say the building is littered with signs of do's and don'ts. In the communal utility room, residents are warned not to leave the premises after loading the washing machine. However, one should never remove someone else's washing from the machine, even if that person has left the premises. Heaven help the individual who does not follow the shoe and suitcase storage procedure in her room, or, sin of all sins, take a man to her room.

According to another former resident, this last rule has generated a form of gallows humour among many who pass through its hallowed portals. Watching a porter struggle up the winding staircase with an exceptionally large suitcase, some wag from the lobby was heard to shout: 'Make sure she hasn't got a man in there.'

The strict rule on male company ensures nights are passion-free. 'The only time the bed shakes is not when you're getting some loving, but when the trucks roll past,' a resident says.

Assembled in the club's Blue Room on a foggy, damp Saturday morning is a formidable group of present and former council members ready to debunk the popular and not-so-popular myths surrounding the Helena May.

Seated on comfortable overstuffed sofas and chairs are Elizabeth Cote, a past chairman; Elizabeth Latter, the vice-chairman; Lady Letty Chabot, a committee member; and Marjory Bent, the current chairman.

The atmosphere is prickly at first, but soon relaxes after the coffee arrives and the conversation begins to flow. The council is obviously proud and protective of its club and long tradition. The exodus of expatriates before the handover and the Asian financial crisis took its toll on the club's bottom line, but its future is looking brighter.

However, not all publicity is good publicity and the ladies are keen to dispel the myths surrounding the club and its operations.

Myth one: men. They've been allowed in as associate members since 1974. However, in the early years the doorman did have a gun and men are still not allowed upstairs to the residential floors, not least because of the shared bathroom situation.

'If you came out of the bathroom in your own home you wouldn't want to bump into a stranger,' says Latter.

Myth two: the door is locked at 11pm. There is a bemused silence from the group in response to this. This has never been the case because all residents have keys, there is a night watchman on hand and swipe-card entry is being considered.

Myth three: shoe and suitcase storage. A missive from previous management to aid the cleaning of rooms, they say.

Myth four: more do's and don'ts than a public swimming pool. 'Like anywhere that has 28 people living in a confined space, you need rules and regulations,' says Latter. 'The list of rules may have grown over the years because residents would have asked for them. They wouldn't have come from [the council].'

According to Cote, many of the restrictions at the club are for health and safety reasons and because the building is protected.

'We'd like to have a freer and looser environment, believe us,' she explains, before Bent chimes in: 'We're open to views from anyone who feels they have something to say about the future of the club.'

While they admit some of Helena May's residents have been 'fusty, dusty' and the welcome could be handled better (a pack will soon be available), it is a progressive, forward-thinking club run by women, for women; something that is rare today.

'There is no place in Hong Kong that offers a club for women,' says Cote. 'Men can join, but women call the shots.'

A tour of the club reveals recent renovations have created a spacious garden, modern studio apartments and conference facilities.

The Computer Corner and Blue Room have 'adults only' signs, offering club members a haven away from the family.

'It's somewhere you can go to get away from the children,' says one of the ladies, before adding with a laugh, 'and some days you might want to get away from the men. Actually, you'd better not print that.'