kevin sinclair's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 September, 2006, 12:00am

One British institution that remains treasured in Hong Kong is that timeless and venerable organisation, the club. Nine years after the handover, clubs continue to thrive. In terms of membership and finances, they are healthier than ever.

But with our ageing population, some clubs and their members are facing trying times; people are staying alive and remaining healthier for many years more than in the past.

For many people, their club is the cornerstone of their lives. Especially for members of sporting clubs, the institution is the focus around which life revolves. Without their club, there is a huge gap.

What happens to these people as they get older? How do they cope when they retire and money begins to get scarce? Frequently, people have to budget; one non-essential item is the club's monthly dues. Sadly, they face the prospect of cutting membership; many would sooner lose a limb.

What are clubs doing to help long-time members? Often, not much. At the swank Hong Kong Jockey Club, a member has to pay dues for 50 years before being designated a life member. Then monthly fees are waived.

In reality, of course, virtually no loyal members reach this landmark. Most people are 30 to 40 before they can afford to join. After a half century of paying monthly fees they are likely to be at least octogenarians. If they are still tottering and living in Hong Kong, they can then go to the races and use the clubhouses without paying the monthly $1,000 dues.

A Jockey Club spokesman was unaware of cases of older members being unable to afford their monthly subscription.

'To be honest, we consider this is rather unlikely to happen, given our membership profile,' she said.

She's right, of course, with regard to the lofty 200 voting members who control the Jockey Club; some of the other 20,000 members may not be in such enviable financial positions.

The Jockey Club and other, more humble, institutions need to contemplate changing demographics. Many civil servants retire at 55. In business, 60 is the norm for ending a career. People can now expect to live for a quarter century or more after they stop productive daily work and after they cease to earn a salary.

For many, budgets are strict. Of course, many people leave Hong Kong on retirement, either expatriates returning to their homelands or Hongkongers going to join children abroad. But not all.

'Ageing membership is an issue that Hong Kong's private clubs need to address in the years ahead,' admits an official from one club which at present makes no such provision.

'Private clubs rely very much on the monthly subscriptions for their operating costs and waiving monthly subscriptions for seniors would have a significant impact on financial viability.'

But doesn't decades of loyal membership and, in the case of sporting clubs, many years of voluntary service deserve some rewards as age tightens the purse strings?

The Hong Kong Cricket Club thinks so.

General manager Nigel Stearns explains the club offers honorary life member status to anyone aged 70 who has been a member for 10 years.

This means monthly fees are waived; the old batsman who has been slashing the ball for decades can continue his game.

This seems fair.

The Hebe Haven Yacht Club cuts membership dues of the 18 active members aged over 70 by 50 per cent, club president Philip Boothroyd says.

The Hong Kong Football Club rewards members who have contributed services and efforts. Life membership status, which includes not having to pay monthly fees, is conferred by other members and voted on at the annual general meeting.

Some clubs have policies that confuse members, with benefits offered on an individual basis rather than as a fixed, widely known policy.

To me, it seems clubs need to come up with solutions that are transparent, simple and fair.

Of course, clubs are private bodies and what they do is their own business.

Every club committee has to make up its own collective mind and decide policies that the membership approve.

But overall, a transparent model might be for a club to set fixed age and membership qualifications. For example, one guideline could be that all members who reach the age of 65 who have been members for 30 years should be made honorary, non-fee-paying members.

This would allow older members who have paid dues for decades to continue to play a part in organisations that have been a focal point of their lives.