first person

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 September, 2005, 12:00am

Eleanor Sackett is executive director of the Matilda Sedan Chair Race Charities. The annual race, first held in 1975, has raised $36 million for Hong Kong charities and is on course for its biggest fundraising year so far this November.

The sedan chair race used to be perceived as a gweilo event - mad dogs and Englishmen in the midday sun, running around The Peak in teams of eight carrying someone in a chair. Now we have a real mixture of locals and people from international companies taking part. Each year we get better known.

There was a time when sedan chairs and rickshaws were the only forms of public transport at The Peak. There was no road wide enough to drive a car from Central up to The Peak, so there were sedan chair carriers instead. The half-way stop was where the Ladies Recreation Club now is, and The Peak Lookout, formerly The Peak Cafe, used to be the sedan chair garage and repair shop.

The race started 30 years ago, when the Matilda Hospital was threatened with being closed down. The hospital launched the event. It wanted to get some publicity and one of the nurses had an interest in history and knew about sedan chairs. She said: 'Just for fun, let's do a sedan chair race.'

The first race was from The Peak Tram to the hospital as that was the way patients used to be carried to the hospital. There were only four teams in that race, but I think the attention it drew helped to save the hospital. In the second year, it got more popular and it just grew very quickly from that.

There are 53 teams this year, which is a record. When I took over as executive director six years ago there were 32 teams. Last year, the event raised $2.5 million for local charities, the highest amount we have given away.

There's never really been any issue of cultural sensitivity about the race because it's such a fun event, and very often the passengers tend to be petite Asian ladies. It is the reverse of the situation when 'coolies' were carrying the westerners.

Nowadays, it is westerners carrying Asians. It is perceived as fun; people who take part always come back. There is fantastic support on the day. Some teams dress up, some of them beyond recognition. They have such a good time.

It is a unique event. A lot of effort goes into making it as easy as possible by the teams taking part and trying to find the lightest possible person to carry.

The rules have evolved over the years. Passengers have to be over 16, alive and human. First it was just over 16, and then one team brought an elderly cat along as passenger. Then the rules were changed to say the passenger must be over 16 and human.

Then a Hong Kong University team brought a skeleton from their laboratory. It was the skeleton of a 40-year-old man. After that, we said the passenger had to be alive. That is how the rules have evolved.

Charities do struggle in Hong Kong, but I think people's attitudes are very good here towards giving. What is a little more difficult is finding people willing to put the effort into taking part in the event.

People say: 'Here's the money but we're not sure if we can find eight people to run.' It is getting eight people together to train a few times and take part on the day that is a challenge.

Over the years, the course has developed and it has become a circular track of 3.2km around Mount Kellett. Only three or four teams enter that Course A category. The more popular course is the 2.1km Course B which attracts 95 per cent of the entrants.

One of my problems is finding fit teams to do the tougher course. Each kilometre carrying a passenger and racing is very exacting. There just aren't enough tough guys out there willing to take up the challenge.'

More information about how to support the Sedan Chair Race on November 13 and the afternoon bazaar that follows it is available at