With the exception of horse racing, few outdoor pastimes in Hong Kong enjoy as much social status as golf.
Golf also offers a useful adjunct to local business life. Its open-air nature allows confidential discussions to be held in a relaxed setting, without the danger of details being overheard or even (given the considerable distances between groups of players) lip-read.
The game, apparently, also provides a useful opportunity to observe someone close up, and thus helps enable an executive to judge an individual’s suitability for a role. Manners and general behaviour over post-game drinks at the “19th hole” also offer significant clues about an individual’s background and circumstances.
In all, a “casual” round of golf offers much more than simply whacking a little white ball along stretches of carefully irrigated, well-tended grassland.
As an added note of selectness, the game is seriously expensive in Hong Kong; club membership waiting lists are long, and can take over a decade to process. As the much-beloved local buzzword “exclusive” demonstrates, lengthy committee lists ultimately serve to keep certain people out.
The “royal and ancient game” has been enthusiastically played in Hong Kong since the colony’s earliest years; the first golf holes were located in the middle of the Happy Valley racecourse. Although the Royal Hong Kong Golf Club was formally established there in 1889, the sport had probably been played in that location for some years beforehand. Other courses soon followed; Deep Water Bay’s nine-hole links were laid out in 1898, and a private course at Shek O was developed in the 1920s, as an attraction for the residential development created there at that time.
Following the New Territories lease, in 1898, and after the Kowloon-Canton Railway line opened to the border in 1910, access from Hong Kong’s urban areas became much easier.
Farmland near Sheung Shui was purchased, and a full-scale golf course had opened by 1911. Three 18-hole golf courses are found in Fanling today. Every so often, in a means to deflect rising public anger at Hong Kong’s burgeoning wealth gap, some media noise occurs about building public housing on the land occupied by one or all of them.
Golf mania initially spread across Asia, far from its first beginnings on the windy shores of St Andrews, mainly due to the expatriate Scottish presence. Golf-course developments burgeoned across the Far East in the late 1980s and 90s. Increased popularity was linked to steadily rising prosperity, along with the emergence of middle-class spending habits patterned on the Western model. The cultural influence of Japan, where golf courses had burgeoned during that country’s post-war economic rise, also played a significant role.
Asia’s oldest surviving course is India’s Royal Calcutta Golf Club, established in that city in 1829. Hong Kong also had a golf club with a “royal” title at one time, but in the lead-up to the 1997 handover to China, frantic second-guessing of the new colonial master’s future intentions saw this heritage sycophantically dropped.
In post-colonial India, however, no such nonsense prevailed; Calcutta’s club, given its royal designation at the time of King George and Queen Mary’s visit to that city in 1911, still retains the title – and the sense of history and continuity that goes with it – almost 70 years after independence in 1947.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong