Shyama Peebles always preferred to be in a pub-quiz team of one. Her strategy rarely paid dividends but the affable Australian never missed a contest, despite usually ending up with the wooden spoon. Opponents agreed that her habit
of leaving the pub for a cigarette during the sports round left her at a distinct disadvantage.
In what was to be her final quiz, before she passed away in March, Peebles reluctantly became a team player and, with a little help from friends, finally won first prize. Now, on the last Thursday of every month, contestants in the China Bear pub quiz in Mui Wo, on Lantau, compete for the Numero Uno Memorial Trophy in her honour.
Hong Kong has a thriving pub-quiz scene. On weekday evenings, bars across the city fill with punters flexing their frontal lobes in an effort to recall the name of Bulgarian currency or the year Braveheart won the Oscar for best picture.
It's relatively easy to arrange a pub-quiz crawl around town. You're unlikely to find much general knowledge action on a Friday or Saturday but you'll be spoilt for choice on Mondays and Tuesdays - nights when business tends to be slower.
I've decided to sample a cross section of quizzes to understand the motivations of quizmasters and team members who sweat it out in the hope of winning a bottle of wine.
As a Lantau resident, I begin my research at the China Bear. The monthly quiz is a joint effort between co-owners James Tierney, who devises the questions, and Paul Docherty, who delivers them.
Television screens that are usually tuned to sports channels display updated team scores and video clips during the music round, although some regulars feel the screens would be better used to provide subtitles for those unfamiliar with Docherty's broad Glaswegian accent.
Tradition dictates that much thought goes into team names. Brainache, an anagram of China Bear, is ingenious and Mui Woefuls is also impressive; more impressive than the team's performance, in fact.
The quiz is an informal affair - a cross between a bingo evening and an open-mic comedy night. Besides the main contest, there are impromptu questions for teams to win a round of drinks ("How do you spell the name of the Icelandic volcano that erupted in 2010?") and picture rounds that involve identifying celebrities, album covers or national flags, with more drinks up for grabs.
A pub quiz is only as good as its questions and the challenge for Tierney is in catering to a multinational crowd comprised of Old Lantau Hands, pilots and tourists. This means staying away from British soap operas, for example; whereas British music and football are recognised globally and thus fair game. There are, invariably, a few aviation-related puzzlers hidden in the geography round to keep the pilots happy. ("Which city used to be served by Dum Dum Airport?")
There is much conferring to be done over the origins of the humble pub quiz. Anecdotal evidence suggests trivia evenings began in Britain in the early 1970s, with a number of establishments claiming to have started the trend. The Bridgend Quiz League in Wales documents its history back to 1973 on an informative website.
Regardless of who got there first, most quizzers agree that the arrival of the board game Trivial Pursuit in 1982 was instrumental in raising the profile of general-knowledge contests by lifting them out of the smoky saloon bar and into the family living room.
The word "quiz" itself has been around since at least 1780, when it was used to describe "an odd person". For anyone mystified that some people actually know who won the English football FA Cup in 1923, the conflation of "quiz" and "odd person" remains uncannily apt.
I'm in something of a comfort zone at the China Bear but not sure if I'm ready for more competitive contests in Central and Wan Chai. I head over to the Island Bar, on Lamma, to continue my learning curve.
There's an easy-going atmosphere at the Yung Shue Wan watering hole. Participants all seem to know each other and no one takes the quiz too seriously. There's plenty of good-natured banter, some of it levelled at quizmaster Dave Wilkinson when his computerised sound system fails him, which happens more than once.
Teams swell through the evening as new members arrive off ferries. The Island Bar doesn't serve food, so complimentary sandwiches are provided during the interval. A nice touch.
I've left nothing to chance and have joined a strong quartet who opt to play their "joker" (double points) on the music round. The pressure is on but the group know their stuff and my role is limited to polishing off the sandwiches.
I leave laid-back Lamma on the final city-bound ferry, clutching an entirely undeserved bottle of chablis. Prizes, as any quiz veteran will tell you, are not why you take part. They tend to be modest and usually come in the form of alcohol or food. One reason for this is the ever-present spectre of cheating.
Frowned upon by the purist but indulged in gleefully by the over-inebriated, the use of modern technology to outwit the quizmaster is becoming widespread. Favoured methods include surreptitiously texting a friend; googling answers on a smartphone or "recording" a song on a phone app that promptly displays the artist and track name.
It's a lot of trouble to go to for a free pizza though.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) quiz has little in common with its Lamma counterpart. The dress code stipulates no singlets, shorts, T-shirts or flip-flops - which, incidentally, is what most people at the Island Bar were wearing. There's also an entry fee of HK$1,500 for a team of up to six, with a meal included.
Fourteen teams do battle in the best attended "function" I will visit during my research. The quiz takes place in the main dining room and lacks the atmosphere of more intimate venues. Not for the first time, the questions go largely over my head.
Next port of call is The Globe, in Central, which appears to have almost too much of an atmosphere. Competitors sit on benches at one end of the pub while after-work drinkers prop up the bar at the other. At first it's hard to hear the questions over the happy-hour hubbub.
The quiz, hosted by managing director Toby Cooper, is timed to coincide with the Movember men's health charity initiative. Moustachioed team members gain an automatic joker round for their group and the questions each relate to someone famed for having a hairy upper lip.
Our team finishes a creditable second and, amid the euphoria, I start to wonder if there's a way of making a living from trivia. The man to emulate in this rather specialised field is Christian Drummond.
The English Literature graduate reportedly earns up to £60 (HK$750) an hour, or £60,000 a year, travelling around Britain and pitting his wits against pub-quiz machines that pay out if a player answers a string of questions correctly. Drummond is apparently able to recall the names of all 500 Charles Dickens characters, the populations of African cities and the number of sets in every Wimbledon tennis final.
I probably shouldn't give up the day job just yet.
The White Stag in Wan Chai hosts back-to-back Sunday and Monday quizzes, so those who perform poorly in the first instance can console themselves with the thought of having another crack just 24 hours later.
Glenn Berkey has been master of ceremonies at the Stag since 2005 and spends much of his weekend gathering material. The American estimates it takes him about six hours to prepare for each quiz. His questions are prompted by things he reads or sees on TV and from conversations that spark ideas. ("What did Lucien Laurent do of note in July 1930?")
Peer marking, or rotating the answer papers between teams, is standard practice at the Stag. It's quicker and keeps everyone involved, although on the down side, relying on drunken punters to mark accurately and honestly is fraught with risk as the evening wears on and the empty glasses pile up. More than one quizmaster has compared his role to that of a beleaguered teacher attempting to control a class of increasingly rowdy adolescents.
At one point, Berkey is interrupted by a vociferous team from Lantau, who point out that Chek Lap Kok is in the New Territories and not Kowloon. (We couldn't let it pass.) It's not always a good idea to challenge the authority of the compère, however. In Britain, a disagreement over a question ended up in court when the quizmaster sued a contestant for defamation after being accused of cheating. He won £5,000 (HK$63,000) in damages and estimated costs of £12,500 in a legal battle that lasted 2½ years.
In between appearances as a stand-up comedian, Nick Milnes finds time to emcee the Monday night quiz at the Brew House, on D'Aguilar Street. He's clearly at home in front of an audience and is happy to deal with any half-cut hecklers, or "spirited debaters", as he calls them.
"If someone feels strongly that I have an answer wrong, I hand them the mic and let them have their say," he explains.
Milnes reckons he spends about an hour getting each round of 10 questions together and his research can take him off on tangents.
"While I'm tracking down a half-remembered fact, I often stumble on an even more interesting question," he says.
There's a good turnout here and the quiz is notable for the categories that aren't included, rather than those which are. Old standbys such as geography, TV & movies, sports and music are replaced by aviation, religion, anatomy and a Hong Kong round.
A testing set of questions causes furrowed brows and quizzical looks but my group manage to hold their own. And despite another mediocre personal performance, I'm relieved to see that a rival team with a whopping 11 members only manages to finish second. If you're going to have that many in a team, you might as well google the answers while you're at it.
It's been an enlightening month "on the road" and to bring it full circle I've returned to my Lantau local. The pub is also hosting a Movember charity event and the place is busy despite the filthy weather.
Over the years, the China Bear quiz has raised money for a variety of causes, from breast cancer to Parkinson's disease; HK$30,000 was collected after the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami.
"We've been holding quizzes here for 17 years," Docherty says. "We used to run them once a week back in the 90s and the pub was always packed with airport construction workers."
The Scot has taken the evening off but in keeping with the Mui Wo multimedia tradition, tonight's guest quizmaster, Mark Roberts, delivers each round as a PowerPoint presentation. It's a slick audiovisual production with plenty of tantalising teasers to keep everyone on their toes.
"A good question should be guessable or at least invite debate," Roberts says. "And if it has a 'tip of the tongue quality', so much the better." ("What travels around a stadium at 27m/h?")
A group of Dutch tourists puts in a good performance on the night; possibly inspired by an event that took place in neighbouring Belgium.
In 2010, a pub quiz in the Flemish town of Ghent entered the Guinness Book of Records as the largest ever, attracting 2,280 participants, in 500 teams. Needless to say, a number of organisations around the world have their eye on surpassing that figure.
Now there's an idea for Movember 2013. I wonder if Mong Kok stadium is available.
- The Bulgarian currency is the lev
- Braveheart won the 1995 Oscar for best picture
- The Icelandic volcano that erupted in 2010 is Eyjafjallajokull
- Dum Dum Airport served Calcutta
- Bolton won the FA Cup in 1923
- Frenchman Lucien Laurent scored the first ever football World Cup goal
- What travels around a stadium at 27m/h? A Mexican Wave