Tim Hamlett's Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 January, 2008, 12:00am

A veteran journalist and Baptist University academic, Tim looks at the issues facing the city. E-mail him at hamlett@hkbu.edu.hk

I am not going to repeat that old joke about the Jockey Club being part of the Hong Kong government - perhaps the most powerful part - but, really, this body is occasionally very tactless, to put it mildly.

When the club announced in September that it was considering allowing horse owners to bring their children onto the racecourse for meetings, I thought this was a non-story. Someone in the club would realise that this was a catastrophe in the making and knock the scheme on the head.

There we were, though, in Saturday's Post, with the scheme up and running, and anti-gambling groups complaining that the officially appointed body that is supposed to monitor gambling matters had not even met since September, much less considered their complaints.

The basic public relations problem here is simple. If it is harmless for children to visit racecourses, then any adult visitors should be able to take their children with them if they wish to do so. If it is harmful for children to visit racecourses, then there is no need to believe that the ownership of a horse bestows some magical property on the proprietor's offspring, so they are immune to the harm suffered by other people of the same age. Accordingly, the offspring of horse collectors should be excluded like everyone else.

Frankly I was not convinced by the spokesman's assurance that of course visiting children would not be allowed in the places where betting took place. That should have read the places where official betting took place. If the club supposes that no betting takes place anywhere else, then they are living in a dream world.

But, then, living in a dream world seems to be what Jockey Club officials are good at. Let us start from square one. The club is not primarily a social club for its members. Nor is it primarily an organisation for raising charitable funds. Nor even is it primarily an organisation for running horse races. It is an organisation that provides facilities for people who wish to gamble.

Don't get me wrong. I like horses. Horse racing is a fine, healthy sport if you are a jockey or a trainer. But unlike other sports, it does not attract a crowd of connoisseurs who enjoy watching it. It attracts a crowd of addicts who like betting. If betting was effectively prevented at race meetings, you wouldn't get enough people going through the turnstiles to support a dog kennel, let alone a stable.

Many of the gamblers actually do not bother to visit the racecourse. They put their wagers on in the club's large collection of betting shops, most of which - significantly - are in the poorer parts of town. Your average Hong Kong betting shop has all the discreet charm - and some of the atmosphere - of a National Health Service VD clinic. This is because the club enjoys a legally enforced monopoly. It does not have to try harder. It is the only game in town.

The monopoly is a historical curiosity. It is a monument to the colonial conviction that gambling was a social evil if conducted by the locals, but respectable if conducted by their rulers. It is common in other places for a group of rich toffs to run horse racing. After all, this is not a cheap pastime. Only in Hong Kong do the rich toffs have a legal monopoly on everything. Free markets, anyone?

I'm not opposed to gambling. I was taken to racecourses when I was a child and came to no harm. I have played games for money with friends and had a short but lucrative career as a bingo caller. There is nothing wrong with small bets between friends and some games do not make sense without them.

On the other hand, if you have a large money-making organisation in charge of providing gambling, then they are going to encourage it and they are going to encourage people to do more of it, with more money. This is how capitalism works. No doubt the Jockey Club would say it did not need to make a profit, but one still notes the unmistakable note of pride when increases in betting turnover are announced.

Efforts to persuade people to gamble more and often should be spared until they are old enough to make their own mistakes. No doubt there are different rules in different places. A racecourse is a social institution, and in different societies it has different significance. In Hong Kong a racecourse is best considered as a large open-air casino, and children are not generally allowed in casinos.

Another surprise in Saturday's report was that the 'programme ... did not break the law'. Apparently the law is silent on the question of whether children may be admitted to racecourses.

It shouldn't be and they shouldn't be.