The lease clause HK's top clubs would like to forget

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 May, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong's eight most exclusive private sports and recreation clubs are not as exclusive as they might seem. All are required by their land leases to allow schools and youth organisations to use their facilities - if the government asks them to.

It means that the city's youngsters can in theory enjoy the surroundings of institutions such as the Hong Kong Golf Club in Deep Water Bay - where the city's richest man, Li Ka-shing, plays golf - the Hong Kong Country Club, Hong Kong Football Club and Craigengower Cricket Club.

But, in the decades that these requirements have existed, no government department has ever made any such request and organisations that might have taken advantage of the rule say it is news to them.

The clause was applied to the properties of the eight clubs - which also include the Chinese Recreation Club, Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club, Kowloon Cricket Club and Hong Kong Cricket Club - because they paid nothing or a nominal amount for the prime sites on which their facilities sit.

'Is it real?' asked seasoned social worker Sze Lai-shan, who said she had never thought about booking private clubs for the underprivileged children's groups she organises.

'Aren't these clubs only open for members? Will they really let us in? Do we have to pay? If it is free, it will be an option for us when planning activities for the children.'

Officials of departments that should be helping such groups to pry open the clubs' exclusive gates seem just as confused, as are the clubs.

A Social Welfare Department official said neither he nor his colleagues had heard about such arrangements and he could not find any written requisition record. Neither the Leisure and Cultural Services Department nor the Education Bureau had made any such request either. The Home Affairs Bureau said it had not invoked the land clause because it had not found the need to.

Under the clause, officials have to give the clubs not less than six weeks' notice in writing, ensure the use is not at weekends or public holidays, and that it does not interfere with care and maintenance. The clubs are allowed to keep their buildings and other areas, such as swimming pools, exclusively for members but have to allow the visitors to use toilets, changing rooms and open space.

The leisure department said clubs such as the Craigengower Cricket Club, Hong Kong Football Club and the Chinese Recreation Club had occasionally opened for lawn bowls, rugby and tennis competitions, so it 'has not invoked the relevant clause in the land lease by writing to the clubs requesting them to open up their lots for sports meetings/activities'.

Calls to the front desks of the clubs to inquire about application procedures for schools and youth groups also found little or no awareness of the clause. The Hong Kong Country Club, Hong Kong Golf Club, Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club and Craigengower Cricket Club said they strictly served members only. The Hong Kong Cricket Club and Kowloon Cricket Club said they had rented their fields to international schools before and were willing to rent them to kindergartens for about HK$3,000 a day.

The Hong Kong Football Club and Chinese Recreation Club said schools could try their luck to see if their applications were approved.

Queries to the club managements about whether they were aware of the special conditions and whether they had opened their gates to the public before drew a response only from the Hong Kong Golf Club. 'As you know the HKGC is a private members' club and we do not divulge this information that you require,' it said.

Former Town Planning Board member Dr Ng Cho-nam said the government should press the private sports clubs to genuinely open their land to the public. 'Open space is a precious asset in highly populated Hong Kong, and these lands were given to the clubs for free, so it is no more than fair to require them to let the public in on non-peak hours. If those rich tycoons don't want to share their open space with the public, they should buy the land for market price.'

The market price for membership of some clubs is in the millions of dollars - if you can find one.

The 121-year-old Hong Kong Golf Club, where early-bird visitors might see Li Ka-shing and an entourage of bodyguards arrive at the nine-hole golf course at 19 Island Road shortly after 6.30 most mornings, long ago stopped recruiting new members.

A transferable corporate membership to use the Deep Water Bay course and three full 18-hole courses in Fan Ling costs more than HK$9.5 million on the second-hand market.

Yet according to the lease for the Island Road site, signed in December 1981, the club is required to open the land 'for sports meetings or other similar activities of schools, youth clubs, welfare organisations' when required to by the 'competent authorities' in charge of education, social welfare, recreation and culture. The former colonial government wrote the condition in when the club was granted the land free of charge in September 1898.

Similar conditions apply to its Fan Ling facilities at 1 Fan Kam Road as they do to the properties of the seven other clubs which paid nothing or a nominal amount, like HK$1,000, for their land.

Social workers and schoolteachers say they wish they had known before that they could apply to use the facilities. 'It's always been a headache in finding venues for sports training and interschool games,' physical education teacher Suen Chung-him said. 'For example the Hong Kong Schools Sports Federation needs a hilly location to organise its annual cross-country tournament. For years, the competition took place at the Fan Ling golf course but no student was allowed to use washrooms inside the golf course and thus the federation had to arrange portable toilets outside the club.'

Suen also did not realise there was a chance for schools to use the outdoor courts and fields of private clubs. 'I mostly take our school teams to government facilities run by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department for regular training, but these venues are usually fully booked three and four months in advance. It is quite difficult to find a place if we want to add a few sessions for next month,' Suen said, adding that finding soccer pitches was a particular problem.

Social worker Sze, a community officer of Society for Community Organisation, has been organising programmes for underprivileged children. 'We have not thought about venues other than the public community centres, which are free but need to be booked five to six months in advance.'

All clubs, private or public, must be registered with Home Affairs Bureau's Licensing Authority, which says it is up to them to ensure they comply with any special conditions.

'It is the responsibility of the applicant to ensure that his premises do comply with the lease conditions, deed of mutual covenant and other regulations or laws of Hong Kong,' the authority said.

The government can modify the leases in the next two years if it wishes. The Hong Kong Golf Club, Hong Kong Football Club, Craigengower Cricket Club, Kowloon Cricket Club and the Chinese Recreation Club have to renew their land leases by Christmas Day next year.

The leases of the Hong Kong Country Club and Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club will expire in April and June 2012, respectively. The Hong Kong Cricket Club renewed its land lease in 2008 for 15 years.

The Lands Department confirmed that it had received renewal applications from the Football Club, the two cricket clubs and the Chinese Recreation Club which would be circulated to the Home Affairs Bureau for policy input and 'concerned departments' for suggestions of conditions to be included in the new leases.

'In general, a condition requiring the lessee to permit the lot or any part thereof to be used by schools or welfare organisations or government-run activities for specified periods when required by the competent authority is inserted in the lease,' it said.

But it added that whether there was any need to seek use of the land was up to other departments.

Former town planning board member Ng said the government should keep the public informed about the right to access to such privileged turf. An associate professor of geography at the University of Hong Kong, he suggested the Lands Department should renew the leases only for three to five years and keep a close eye on whether the clubs opened to schoolchildren and welfare organisations.

'The government can keep the present written terms unchanged for a few years and tell everyone about his or her rights,' he said. 'If these clubs fail to fulfil their responsibilities, then the Lands Department can further tighten its control by directly specifying particular opening hours for the public each week. If the club operators still refuse to co-operate, the Lands Department can resume the land ownership.'

A member of the Town Planning Board for six years until April, Ng advised lands officials not to sign any more long land leases. 'The last time we renewed these leases was mostly in 1981. If the government continues to grant long leases and the clubs refuse to abide by government conditions, we will have to wait for another three decades until we have a say again.'

Lease details

Land size and premium of the eight private clubs

Club (Address)

HK Golf Club-Deep Water Bay Club House (19 Island Road)

Land size (square metres): 66,500
Land premium (HK$): Nil
Annual land rent (HK$): 3% of rateable value
Rateable value* (HK$): $10.8 million
Lease expiry: Dec 25, 2011

HK Golf Club-Fanling Club House (1 Fan Kam Road)

Land size (square metres): 1,618,742
Land premium (HK$): Nil
Annual land rent (HK$): $1,808
Rateable value* (HK$): $54.2 million
Lease expiry: Aug 31, 2020

HK Country Club (188 Wong Chuk Hang Road)

Land size (square metres): 21,090
Land premium (HK$): Nil
Annual land rent (HK$): 3% of rateable value
Rateable value* (HK$): $10.4 million
Lease expiry: Apr 3, 2012

HK Football Club (3 Sports Road)

Land size (square metres): 29,500
Land premium (HK$): $1,000
Annual land rent (HK$): 3% of rateable value
Rateable value* (HK$): $28.5 million
Lease expiry: Dec 25, 2011

HK Cricket Club (137 Wong Nai Chung Gap Road)

Land size (square metres): 18,448
Land premium (HK$): $1,000
Annual land rent (HK$): 3% of rateable value
Rateable value* (HK$): $11.1 million
Lease expiry: Jul, 2023

Craigengower Cricket Club (188 Wong Lai Chung Road)

Land size (square metres): 12,535
Land premium (HK$): $1,000
Annual land rent (HK$): 3% of rateable value
Rateable value* (HK$): $17.5 million
Lease expiry: Dec 25, 2011

Chinese Recreation Club (123 Tung Lo Wan Road)

Land size (square metres): 16,490
Land premium (HK$): Nil
Annual land rent (HK$): 3% of rateable value
Rateable value* (HK$): $23.3 million
Lease expiry: Dec 25, 2011

Kowloon Cricket Club (10 Cox?s Road)

Land size (square metres): 25,100
Land premium (HK$): Nil
Annual land rent (HK$): 3% of rateable value
Rateable value* (HK$): $10.3 million
Lease expiry: Dec 25, 2011

Clearwater Bay Golf & Country Club (139 Tai Au Mun Road)

Land size (square metres): 1,291,600
Land premium (HK$): Nil
Annual land rent (HK$): 3% of rateable value
Rateable value* (HK$): $36.5 million
Lease expiry: Jun 30, 2012

*Latest figures released by Rating and Valuation Department this year

How the clubs responded

We would let schools book our facilities as a favour, but strictly on weekdays and depending on availability.

Kowloon Cricket Club

Lawyers' and doctors' associations have rented our courts. Schools can write to us to see if our bosses say yes, but there's no guarantee.

Chinese Recreation Club

We rented out our lawn bowls green to kindergartens a few years ago. We offered schools a special rate of about HK$3,000 to HK$4,000 for the morning session at the time.

Hong Kong Cricket Club

It depends on the situation.

Hong Kong Football Club

We will not open our limited facilities for school sports activities as we only serve our members.

Hong Kong Golf Club

We can't let everyone in. Our golf course is only open for members or experienced golfers with accredited score cards.

Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club

First of all, only our members can book our facilities. Besides, we only provide our open space for banquets, not school activities.

Hong Kong Country Club

Our field is merely for lawn bowls, not for other school sports.

Craigengower Cricket Club