Places to unwind and build contacts

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 August, 2007, 12:00am

Once a week, Checkley Sin Kwok-lam, the managing director of a finance company in Hong Kong, wakes up at the crack of dawn and drives down to the Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club to begin a round of golf at 8.30am.

He plays a short nine-hole game for three hours, before heading into the office shortly before midday for the main day's work.

Sometimes, when the day is over, at about 5pm he heads off to Parkview in Tai Tam for an evening in the residential housing estate's popular gym and swimming pool, before grabbing some food and heading home.

'I am my own boss, so I can come and go as I wish,' said Mr Sin, who has 10 memberships at clubs around town including the Hong Kong Jockey Club and the Foreign Correspondents' Club.

His company, First Credit, handles mass market retail loans.

'Usually, there is a business reason for playing golf,' he said. 'It's a good way to get on friendly terms with clients. We play four hours of golf, and then finish the evening off with a nice dinner. It is handy to build contacts and relationships with business partners and potential clients.

'Of course, nowadays I go more for pleasure. When I started doing this, nearly 10 years ago when I was the head of another finance company, I used to do it more for business. Nowadays, I know all my business contacts quite well already, so I go out more for pleasure and to relax. But there is still the occasional business [opportunity] around,' he said.

Mr Sin said he noticed that in times of economic hardship, his peers in the banking sector were less likely to have memberships.

'It wasn't that they couldn't afford the membership, it was just that the economic troubles meant they were generally not in the mood.'

Asian bankers are riding the windfall from the natural growth in the volume of transactions produced by an extended economic boom.

The increased banking activity has also meant that working days are likely to be longer, filled with meetings that are more tense, and generally more stressful.

So where do the movers and shakers in Hong Kong's glitzy banking field go for a drink and to catch up on the latest gossip at the end of the day?

'The Hong Kong Cricket Club is very popular with expats because of its location outside of the city, whereas the Craigengower Cricket Club [in Happy Valley] is where the rich Chinese bankers prefer to hang out because of its convenient, easily accessible 'downtown' location,' said Louis Tam Kai-man, director for Garway Membership Services, a company which works as a link between club members and potential buyers.

The Hong Kong Cricket Club, founded in 1851, is situated in the heart of Hong Kong Island, surrounded by the hills and greenery of the Wong Nai Chung Gap. With its 25-metre outdoor swimming pool, bowling alley, sauna facilities and two restaurants serving European and Chinese cuisine, it has long been a popular location with businessmen trying to escape the hustle and bustle of the city below.

Another popular hangout for local bankers is the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which has three separate, self-contained clubhouses across Hong Kong - Happy Valley, Sha Tin and Beas River. Typical clubhouse facilities include a gym, tennis courts, squash courts and a full range of catering facilities.

'People like to come by to show face. It's a bit like a game where people have to show up to be included in some informal who's who list,' said one Chinese professional in finance, who declined to provide his name.

'I joined the club in 1992 because someone told me that it was a symbol of status. However, I cannot easily make friends there, because most of the members concentrate on gambling which I never do,' commented another Chinese banker.

Hong Kong's golf clubs also remain popular, as the wealth generated from the banking boom results in record numbers of finance professionals who can afford the hefty membership fees.

'I would sell myself to be a member of the Hong Kong Golf Club,' said one investment banker, who also asked to remain anonymous.

Garway's Mr Tam noted that the market for club membership was good and continuing to improve, with club memberships becoming more and more difficult to get for the most prestigious institutions in town. Indeed, at the Hong Kong Golf Club, located in Fanling with its three 18-hole courses and a nine-hole par-three course at Deep Water Bay, along with its swimming pools, tennis courts, excellent restaurants and top class accommodation, it takes an estimated 30 years of waiting before anyone can hope to join the ranks of its 300 members.

Membership at the most prestigious, colonial clubs is not cheap. The Clearwater Bay Golf Club, Aberdeen Marina Club and the American Club sell memberships at HK$3.1 million, HK$1.5 million and HK$1.4 million, respectively.

Mr Tam noted that this was a ranking that reflected their popularity with bankers.

'On average, major banks have 10 memberships per club reserved for their top executives,' added Mr Tam, whose clients include major financial institutions Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and HSBC.

Meanwhile, for younger bankers on less pay, the typical hangouts are likely to be trendy clubs such as Kee and M1NT, which offer more affordable entertainment options to escape the stress of a hard day's work, and who are usually attracted by the young and vibrant atmosphere.

'I like the dance floor, the club scene, people at the entrance are friendly and I don't have to shout the whole night,' one banker from Credit Suisse said.

M1NT, which was opened last year to fanfare and a string of controversies, such as the fact that somehow it has not seemed to manage to attract the rich Chinese, nevertheless counts famous Hong Kong actress Michelle Reis among its members, said Frank Philippe, general manager of M1NT.

Kee, which opened its doors in the heart of Lan Kwai Fong six years ago and comprises two elegant salons, a small library and a Venetian dining room, has the advantage of being considered as having one of the best Italian chefs in Hong Kong, according to another Hong Kong banker who originally hailed from Italy.

'What attracts bankers is precisely the fact that they can mingle with a wide range of other professionals here,' said Marc-David Nathan, the maitre d' of Kee club. 'Our members embrace all walks of life and include business professionals and celebrities as well as artists, musicians and film producers.'

A cheaper option is to rent a membership, but the possibility is quickly disappearing as many clubs have banned rental and limited transfer of membership in an effort to maintain the standard of members and encourage life memberships, explained Garway's Mr Tam.

Number of years it takes to

join the Hong Kong Golf Club