Jake's View

Time for the Hong Kong Club to end its embarrassment of riches

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 4:00am

A newspaper columnist has a way of making enemies. One or two members of the Hong Kong Club have told me over time that they would relish my trying to join as it would give them great joy to fling blackballs in my direction.

Today I shall make the prospect even more joyful for them.

I have in my hands a copy of the club's 2012 accounts, which make it clear that it is time for the club to take some new directions or risk incurring the disdain of the larger Hong Kong community.

But first, some general observations, made not only as a know-it-all journalist who has no business prying into the affairs of a club of which he is not a member, but also in wearing my other hat as treasurer of the Foreign Correspondents' Club for the past five years.

We run a tighter ship at the FCC. That much is immediately obvious. Without citing exact numbers and fully accepting that one reading of one year's accounts does not give a complete picture, I recommend to the Hong Kong Club's directors that they reconsider their management agreement with the Peninsula group the next time it comes up for review.

Ditto renovation costs. My eyebrows rose. I think you people would do well to invite a few more contractors to bid for the next job.

But now to those new directions. The entire 24-storey Hong Kong Club Building reverted to the club's ownership in 2009 after the expiry of a 25-year build-operate-transfer agreement with the developer, Hongkong Land.

The club's gross rental income now runs at HK$154 million, almost twice the total annual income from food and beverage sales. The bottom line surplus is less, however, as there is a HK$50 million operating deficit.

I'm puzzled as to why the operating number is so heavily in the red with the menu prices it charges and when it has no occupancy costs, but let's get back to that bottom line.

It shows a HK$76.8 million net surplus and transfer to the general fund for the year. The question is what to do with this pot of money as it builds up year after year, which it will do unless the directors decide to wave it all goodbye through inattention to operating costs.

There is one obvious answer to this conundrum. It is to establish a Hong Kong Club charities trust. The club is in a position to stamp its name on one or two worthwhile and needy causes in this town by not only funding them, but also engaging its members in their work in a way that will bring it huge credit.

The members know that this opportunity beckons and the chairman made a concession to it in his report by referring to "the club's position in the greater community of Hong Kong".

However, the membership is divided. One faction argues that charitable work is a personal matter and not an appropriate activity for a club.

It's nonsense. As in fiction, Bertie Wooster speaks only for the Drones (gentlemen's club) and the 19th century elements of a few other clubs within a mile of Piccadilly Circus in London. Everywhere else in the world a club charity is recognised as an obvious focus of club membership. A poor man's club like Rotary does it as a matter of course. Why not the Hong Kong Club?

One reason, of course, is that this club likes talking more than doing. The argument on whether members should be allowed to continue trying to break the legs of pinsetters in the club bowling alley lasted years before automatic pinsetters were installed. Every barrister who thought himself out of practice in court was given an opportunity to hone his debating skills.

So they will probably get around to it sooner or later. The only difficulty is that later, probably very much later with this bunch, may be too late. The reputation of Marie Antoinette still suffers more than 200 years after she said, "Let them eat cake", although she probably never even said it. The Hong Kong Club risks the same enduring criticism with its growing cash hoard.

You hold your annual meeting tomorrow, fellows. Get a start on it.