Crowded by a tangle of trees, the entrance could be that to a ghostly theme park. The heraldic emblem on the gate features two crossed flagpoles, each standard bearing the cross of St George and the enigmatic letters “VRC”. Other signs warn “Members Only” and “No dog is allowed” in English and Chinese, and potholed concrete tracks wind towards a clubhouse hidden beneath a mass of acacia, ficus, flame of the forest, camphor and maple trees, many damaged by the recent Typhoon Mangkhut.
At the end of the driveway lies a small car park, some potted plants, that crossed-flag emblem again, and the main clubhouse of the Victoria Recreation Club, founded in 1849.
The clubhouse itself – a cubist confection hidden away in Tai Mong Tsai Tsuen, in Sai Kung Country Park, before the Pak Tam Chung barrier, in the New Territories – is not so old, dating only to 1966. Walk through its doors, and down a long flight of steps to a rocky beach, and there one might be greeted by laughter, the clinking of glasses of white wine, and children wading in the waters of Emerald Bay against a backdrop of gumdrop islands. Some guests will remember when they themselves played here as children. Others might wheel their elderly parents under the trees and through the boatyard to the beach.
The VRC’s peaceful setting belies the controversy in which it and Hong Kong’s 23 other “private sports clubs” (as the government describes them) now find themselves, victims of skyrocketing property prices and an identity crisis that pits legacy against the rapid pace of the city’s integration with mainland China.
The 24 clubs benefit from heavily subsidised private recreational leases. Other, even grander clubs that have different lease structures, some effectively in perpetuity, such as the Hong Kong Club and Shek O Country Club, have discreetly kept their heads down. But all of them face a cultural wave in which their core purpose is being challenged.
the colonial society into which the clubs were born was hierarchical. British and white expatriates were at the top of the caste system, but it also served to knit together the diverse community of the British Empire, and to include Chinese, Eurasians, Portuguese from Macau, Sikhs and Parsees, Hindus, Jews and even smaller groups such as the Nepalese and Filipinos. As part of the empire, Hong Kong represented a vision founded on diversity.
Post-1997, however, the government has gradually eliminated even the use of the term “minority”, so that ethnic groups are now categorised as Chinese or non-Chinese. The clubs are stranded in this environment, uncertain whether their idiosyncratic passions belong in a changing Hong Kong. Even the terminology used to describe the “recreational clubs” has a vintage quality, and they can sometimes appear to be of another age. They are threatened by two distinct government approaches that alternately view the clubs as potential land for public housing, or seek to change their lease terms to reflect market prices for land.
From the 19th century, the British colonial government used land grants to appease the patchwork of communities filling up its new city on the China coast. Some of the grants were for religious communities, others for sports. And while the former helped groups remain tightly within faith-drawn boundaries, grants for sports triggered something new – institutions that crossed social and ethnic lines. Hong Kong became the sports capital of Asia, if not the entire British Empire.
In 1908, J.W. Bains, then sports editor of the English-language China Mail newspaper in the territory, wrote, “It is questionable whether [in] any other part of His Majesty’s dominions sport has so many adherents proportionately as are to be found within the narrow confines of Hong Kong.”
And these were not just the tamer pastimes such as croquet and badminton – enthusiasts engaged in virtually every sport that could find space in the original city of Victoria and beyond. Hong Kong’s sprawling community of sports enthusiasts today, in fact, clearly bears DNA that was implanted into the city in the 19th century.
With Hong Kong being based on a free-market ideology, keeping public services to a minimum and spending no money on public sports facilities for its first 100 years, the clubs paid the bills for their clubhouses, equipment and training. Governors and commodores presided benignly over the competitions, balls and annual meetings of activities that were both self-sustaining and helped keep rebellious tendencies under control.
The VRC was at the centre of it all, and the pacesetter in swimming and rowing, its core sports. The Cross-Harbour Swim, an annual event organised by the club from 1906, ended on the slipway of its grand Edwardian clubhouse, located on the waterfront roughly in between where the People’s Liberation Army headquarters and City Hall are today, flanking the former British naval depot. With its “modern” saltwater swimming pool, the VRC sponsored the city’s leading swimming competitions.
The VRC was established as a rowing and sailing club on the waterfront near the long-since demolished Murray Pier in Central, and made up of former members of the Canton Rowing Club, which had been formed in 1837, in what is now Guangzhou. The club’s first regatta was held within months of its founding, with a sailing competition among six “cutler rigged” craft and an imitation Andaman catamaran, called The Ghost, as well as races for “wherries, four-oared gigs, cutters, houseboats &c”.
The VRC’s first formal clubhouse was a mat-shed – a large, airy but not very sturdy structure made of wood and woven thatch – that opened only in 1860. Members had to hike up the hill to the gym, a few blocks away, opposite St John’s Cathedral. A more substantial building (along with the “swimming bath”) was built in 1872, but lasted just two years before, in 1874, HMS Hamer, a ship berthed next door at the British naval dockyards, broke loose from its mooring in a typhoon and drove through the premises.
“The claim raised by the Victoria Recreation Club for damage sustained owing to the Hamer being cast ashore near their premises appears to me to be quite preposterous,” fumed the commodore in chief, Vice Admiral Sir Charles Shadwell, mirroring a perennial government opinion of such clubs as being freeloaders. “A typhoon must be looked upon as a visitation of God and all parties must bear their own loss.”
In 1900, as the government undertook land reclamation to expand the naval dockyards, the VRC was forced to move for the first time, to a location across the harbour, at the bottom of Austin Road, near the Kowloon Naval Yard, before the government reinstated it at the new Murray Pier, near the rebuilt naval yard, in 1906. When the site on newly reclaimed land was granted, a condition was that every governor of the colony was to become president of the VRC during their term of office.
In 1908, Sir Frederick Lugard, governor when the new clubhouse opened on May 24, then celebrated as Empire Day, turned a silver key in the lock of what was already the “oldest club in the colony”. The red-brick building had “cool shaded verandahs”, a “powerful telescope on a movable stand”, and a “first-class gymnasium” and boathouse.
Designed by the firm of Denison, Ram & Gibbs, which had just finished building the Matilda Hospital and would go on to design the Old Halls at Hong Kong University, the Helena May and the Repulse Bay Hotel, the new VRC “house” was an imposing structure, jutting into Victoria Harbour. The gymnasium served as ballroom for the opening, at which champagne flowed freely. The building, noted the South China Morning Post, was “very central, being only a little way beyond the Hong Kong Club, opposite the offices of Messrs. Butterfield and Swire”.
Bains called it a “cosmopolitan club”; in the linguistic code of the time, that meant it was open to non-Caucasians. In the pre-war period, its athletes and leadership alike were a cross-section of the Hong Kong middle class – Eurasians, Portuguese, Parsees, Indians and overseas (but not local) Chinese, as well as British and a sprinkling of Americans and Canadians, among others.
They were not necessarily rich. The first recorded profile of members (from 1899) saw the chairman, Captain W.C.H. Hastings, a resident of The Peak, complain that the club’s 400 members would suffer when it was moved, especially “boys over 14 and others whose finances did not permit them to take part in Launch parties or join other clubs”.
The “cosmopolitan” description reflects a gradual change in Hong Kong society as it evolved from naval encampment to a major port. If the merchant class were international, and government solidly British, the middle-management ranks of hongs and government were increasingly Portuguese and Eurasian.
Catherine Chan, a scholar of Portuguese communities in colonial Hong Kong at the University of Bristol, describes Hong Kong’s clubs as a reinforcing mechanism of British colonialism. Club members became honorary Caucasians, since British Caucasians were at the top of the colonial hierarchy, she says, and competition for membership was an aspect of a highly competitive society.
British barrister and VRC member Nicholas Pirie, 70, contends that while racial and ethnic discrimination was part of Hong Kong’s colonial reality, the clubs were a tool of social integration. “The clubs provided an opportunity to meet on a first-name basis people at a high level,” he says. “My first week here, I was invited to the home of Jardine’s senior counsel. You don’t get that type of social integration with government in most places. In those days, you talked to people and that’s how you formed policy. Where else would you meet the chairman of the Urban Council?”
It was not until 1952, however, that moves were made to allow local Chinese to become VRC members (Chinese with foreign passports had long been admitted). The general committee, the governing body of the club, agreed that “there was no reason not to enlarge the basis of membership by accepting Chinese members” but decided to defer the matter until the club was incorporated, which would not occur until 1964. From the 1960s on, Chinese joined the club in increasing numbers, as the refugees of the 50s joined the middle class as professionals and businessmen. Today, Hong Kong Chinese dominate the membership.
In the early 50s, the first great post-war land reclamation was under way, and the VRC was told it had to move once again, despite its licence, which had been issued on May 4, 1908, after the club had agreed to allow the governor to nominate the chairman and up to half the members of its general committee. In compensation, the club was offered HK$250,000 and the promise of a new piece of land.
The club’s then honorary secretary, later to be its long-time chairman, Portuguese Arnaldo “Sonny” de Oliveira Sales (pronounced SAL-es), lobbied tirelessly, first for a replacement on Chatham Road, in Tsim Sha Tsui, then Hung Hom, where land reclamation was under way, going so far as to instruct the government to leave a hole in the ground for the 50-metre swimming pool he envisioned at that location.
It never happened. The government came back with a partial solution – a small site in Deep Water Bay – in September 1953, a few months before the Central clubhouse was demolished. Sir Michael William Turner, chairman of Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, as well as of the VRC, shared news of plans to build a boathouse with changing facilities, a bar and a small lounge “thus enabling us to keep the flag flying while negotiations continue for a site for the main clubhouse”.
The Deep Water Bay boathouse opened on June 5, 1954, as a rowing club, with 14 rowing sculls, including two “recent acquisitions” from the Shanghai Rowing Club. To celebrate, it held Hong Kong’s first post-war rowing regatta, presided over by the governor, Sir Alexander Grantham, and Lady Grantham and followed by a “housewarming dance and barbecue to which tickets, of necessity, have to be restricted to 150”, according to a report in the Post.
The boathouse was built using undressed stone from the site “to harmonize perfectly with its surroundings”, wrote the Post. It doubled as a general clubhouse “until such time as the site for the new main clubhouse and swimming pool in Kowloon will become available”. The building’s “outstanding feature” was a “long and wide (55’ X 17’) veranda facing the sea with a most magnificent view of hillside and bay”.
The new location was cramped and a long way from downtown. It was a poor consolation for Sales. The only route to the site was along Wong Nai Chung Gap Road (the Aberdeen Tunnel would not open until 1982), and Sales pushed for a site that would enable the club to maintain its role at the centre of Hong Kong sports. In 1961, when he finally capitulated and began negotiating for the site in Sai Kung, he noted optimistically, “Should we succeed in getting the site we are after, we would certainly have a delightful location, and we would be following the present trend, completely foreign to the VRC of olden days, of looking for recreational facilities well away from the congested urban areas.”
When the new main clubhouse finally opened, on April 24, 1966, the governor, Sir David Trench, by tradition the president of the VRC, put on a club tie and drove out to join the celebrations. Some of the club’s glamour had returned.
In Sai Kung, the VRC’s closest neighbour is the base camp of Outward Bound Hong Kong, with its kayaks and a single tall ship for training cadets. Looking back up the hill, trees hide the VRC acronym that, before it was overgrown, proclaimed the building’s identity to passing junk parties, yachts, water-skiers and swimmers below.
In the quiet clubhouse lounge, through the better part of a long, sleepy Sunday afternoon, Pirie, Nana Barros, 84, and her husband, Quito, 79, reminisce.
Lisbon-born Nana and Hong Kong-born Quito, both ethnic Portuguese and the club’s oldest members, were teenagers when they joined the VRC, in the late 40s, and spent most of their time in its saltwater swimming pool, in Central, then the most modern in Hong Kong. (Its swimming coach, Lykke Rose, had competed in the Olympics.) Pirie came later, in 1975, long after the VRC had moved to its present sites in Deep Water Bay and Emerald Bay.
The trio talk of the personalities that have enlivened the VRC over the decades. The conversation has a dusty feel, of a past in which colonial secretaries rubbed shoulders with barristers and the chairman of the Urban Council.
When the Emerald Bay clubhouse opened, the grounds were brush. It took a former secretary of the civil service, Martin Rowlands, to tame the wilderness by introducing its mix of exotic trees and plantings. After Rowlands retired, in 1985, Pirie took up the role of the VRC’s unofficial master gardener.
He drags a visitor outside to examine the acacias, which have a contagious disease that needs immediate attention. He shows off plant beds that he has nurtured from seedlings from his own garden. A few years back, Pirie’s pruning of trees led another member to report him to the media, and a subsequent annual general meeting devolved into a shouting match over flora.
Of all the characters that have presided over Hong Kong’s oldest club, none was more significant or colourful than Sales. He was alternately honorary secretary, chairman or vice-chairman of the VRC continuously for 67 years, from 1946 to 2013, and he ruled the club with an iron fist. “Sales did a lot of good for Hong Kong, but he blocked a lot of things for the club,” says Quito Barros. It became a private fiefdom for the self-styled “mayor of Hong Kong”, who decreed how many people could join the club and when, and where they could sit.
“Sales used to ring me up: ‘You’re coming on Sunday, aren’t you?’ He had a black Jaguar and I had a blue one,” says Barros, who arrived early one day and mischievously sat at Sales’ table. “Ten minutes later, Edith [Sales’ wife] walked in, glared at me and sat in the other corner. Sales came in after her and didn’t bat an eye.”
Sales turned down foreign members, including French engineers from the nearby High Island Reservoir construction site in the 70s. “If they were to come, the place would be busy – noisy – because there would be people there,” says Barros.
Fragile and bedridden at age 98, Sales remains honorary life president of the VRC. After he stepped down as chairman, a trusted lieutenant, Frank Pfeiffer assumed the role for three years, having served as honorary secretary for 20 years.
“When I first became secretary,” Pfeiffer recalls, “and the lease renewal came up, Sales would call someone, and it would get done.” After 1997, he says, Sales rejected the idea of inviting Tung Chee-hwa, the first chief executive of Hong Kong, to continue the role the colonial governors had of being VRC president. “Sales wanted Emerald Bay as his private club,” the German, now 78, says. “But if it weren’t for Sales, the club would have died.”
Under Sales, the VRC played a key role in building institutions that would link Hong Kong’s sports enthusiasts with the world. He founded the Amateur Swimming Association of Hong Kong in 1950, was on the executive committee that drafted the constitution of the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Hong Kong in the same year, and as honorary secretary of the VRC, applied for Hong Kong to join the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
In a 2004 interview, Sales said, “The Commonwealth Games was being held in 1950 in Auckland and they got in touch with the VRC, asking if Hong Kong could send a team,” and adding, “I was the honorary secretary of the VRC and I made an application to the IOC. Our application was supported by Sandy Duncan [an official with the British Olympic Committee] and we became members of the IOC in 1951.”
The club was where Hong Kong’s first Olympic swimmers came to train. Sales paid out of his own pocket to fly Hong Kong’s first four Olympians to the Helsinki Olympics, in 1952. Sonny Monteiros, Cynthia Eager, John Cheung Kin-man and Irene Kwok Kam-ngor had all first competed against each other in swimming competitions organised by the VRC.
As chairman of the Hong Kong Sports Federation and Olympic Committee (a position he held until 1997), at the 1972 Games, in Munich, Sales negotiated with the Black September terrorists, who killed 11 Israeli athletes and a West German police officer. Members of the Hong Kong delegation who were being held hostage together with the Israelis were freed after Sales walked into the Olympic Village and negotiated directly with the terrorists.
As head of the Urban Council from 1973 to 1981, Sales was responsible, among much else, for the network of public sports centres across the city.
Born in 1920, in the French concession on Shamian island, on the Pearl River at Canton, Sales and his family moved to Hong Kong in 1929, where the youngster learned English and studied at La Salle College and the University of Hong Kong.
In 1942, the Japanese commandeered his house in Hong Kong, and he fled to Macau with Edith, who was from a Macanese family. His fluency in English got him a job with the British consulate in Macau, but after the war, he headed straight back to Hong Kong and a job with Arnholds, a lesser known German counterpart of the 19th-century British and American trading houses.
In 1946, Sales joined the working committee that was attempting to rehabilitate the VRC after the Japanese occupation, during which it had been looted and damaged. Its swimming pool had been filled in with concrete, and the roof was missing. Sales became honorary secretary of the committee, modestly inquiring whether his lack of a British passport meant he was disqualified.
His fellow working committee members were nearly all Portuguese holders of British passports, and long-time residents of several generations, with roots in Macau. Names included Arculli, Barretto, Guterres, Ribeiro, Roza-Pereira, Soares, de Sousa and Xavier, and many had been members of the board, or general committee, “at the outbreak of hostilities in the Pacific”.
In the years leading up to the second world war, the Portuguese made up a substantial part of Hong Kong’s middle class. By the late 30s, when other expatriates had fled the colony, Portuguese and Eurasians remained. After the war, some of Hong Kong’s major business institutions – the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, China Light and Power, Jardines and Swire – hired them quickly in a city whose population had shrunk by 40 per cent under the Japanese.
Even before the Japanese occupation, virtually all the “clerks”, who would be counted as mid-level managers today, had been Eurasian or Portuguese. British names had all but disappeared from the VRC’s general committee and the membership was eclectic. Alfonso Barretto was the club’s honorary secretary. The athletic stars of the VRC included rowers and swimmers the Soares brothers; the colony’s champion water polo player, Jindoo Hussein; and backstroke champion, Smalley Rumjahn.
“These were people who wouldn’t be able to join clubs elsewhere,” says Pirie. “It was racist but also based on where you worked.”
According to Nana Barros, “The VRC was upper-middle-class; people of a certain education. Among the children I knew, their fathers were friends of my father. Everyone knew everyone else.” There were so many Portuguese in the club, she says, because they were good swimmers, arguably because of the mother country’s reputation for seafaring.
Though both residents of Hong Kong, Nana and Quito and their families, being Portuguese, were not sent to the prisoner-of-war camps by the Japanese and enjoyed relative freedom of movement, and so spent part of the war in Macau. Quito’s father, though, was incarcerated and tortured as a spy for the British while Nana’s father ran an actual espionage network from a shoe-repair facility on his roof in Macau.
After the VRC opened the Sai Kung clubhouse, in 1966, the Deep Water Bay boathouse remained a social-gathering point, but gradually lost its ascendance in rowing. The club drifted. In the 80s, as Hong Kong was just becoming aware of a future beyond its colonial status, property prices soared and both Deep Water Bay and Emerald Bay were losing members.
“There was a period when sports were not part of the culture,” recalls Pfeiffer. “Ninety-nine per cent of the members didn’t want to open up the club. The VRC was in dire straits. It was a dead club.”
Through a combination of luck and coincidence, competitiveness returned in the form of dragon-boat racing, which was then just becoming established as a global sport following the creation of the International Dragon Boat Federation, in 1991. (The Hong Kong Tourism Board sponsored the first international dragon-boat race back in 1976, launching a competitive sport that now involves national teams from Australia to Uganda.)
In 1993, Des Mabbott, a sports enthusiast and head of health and safety at the University of Hong Kong, called up the VRC to ask if he could use the Deep Water Bay site as a base for his dragon-boat team, which was then competing for the university. When Pfeiffer, the honorary secretary, managed to wring a yes from Sales, the Hong Kong Island Paddle Club (HKIPC) moved in with dragon boats and, a year later, outrigger canoes.
The HKIPC began to challenge Hong Kong’s established dragon-boat teams, who came from fishing guilds across the territory and considered the foreign teams lightweights without knowledge of, let alone respect for, tradition. The HKIPC became one of the dominant dragon-boat and outrigger teams, formally merging with the VRC in 2011. The club’s membership soared from a few hundred to more than 1,200.
“Paddling” was a break from the VRC’s past, but Deep Water Bay became the go-to place for other non-motor water sports that were new to Hong Kong, such as surf skiing (in a fast, kayak-like boat made of lightweight materials) and paddle boarding. Each sport now has thousands of passionate adherents, and the VRC can take credit for providing the initial ingredients.
In mid-September, a few days after Typhoon Mangkhut swept through Hong Kong, Steve Palmier, the burly Canadian coach of the VRC paddling club, and five others were removing a section of tree that had come down in Deep Water Bay during the storm, crushing boats beneath it. VRC chairman Wu Kam Shing and sporting convenor Alex Leung Sai-yiu were making the rounds, taking note of the destruction.
The force-10 typhoon had destroyed three dragon boats along with numerous privately owned surf skis and outrigger canoes. The grounds looked like they had been hit by a bomb, with the storm surge having swept an iron walkway, which weighs a few tonnes, more than 30 metres across the boatyard, crashing into boats along the way. Some 30 members hauled rocks, moved heavy boats and took down trees deemed at risk of falling. Then they went into the Deep Water Bay clubhouse, sat around a long table, drank beer and discussed the next competition.
The VRC’s most significant legacy may be that it remains ethnically and linguistically eclectic. English and Cantonese are the main languages heard around the club, but there are many more, from French, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian and Romanian to Mandarin.
The VRC’s first Hong Kong Chinese chairman, Wu began moving the club in new directions from his appointment, in early 2016. He grew up in Macau and first visited the club with an uncle in the early 80s. “It was a very small club, for relaxing and swimming,” he says. “There were no sports. My uncle gave me the idea that it was something very special.”
After attending university in Canada, Wu returned in 1997 and once again saw his uncle, who swam from the VRC in the morning and practised qigong at the club. Wu joined in 1998, taking advantage of the secluded location to practice qigong and tai chi, both meditative sports. Now he owns a surf ski and goes out in it when he can spare time from running his construction company.
He hopes to open up the VRC for water sports for youth and the disabled. Wu has also forged ties with Hong Kong’s Portuguese clubs, Lusitano and de Recreio.
And so, the VRC has survived. Something about it – perhaps its age or its lack of polish, its modest kitchens or the equally modest furniture – makes people feel comfortable with each other.
Groucho Marx once said about resigning from the fictional Delaney Club, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” The VRC is a club at which the American comedian would have felt at home. The clues it offers to Hong Kong’s identity are the same ones that we see on every street corner today – of diversity, tolerance and inclusion. Its closure would be the city’s loss.
Edith Terry is a journalist and honorary secretary of the Victoria Recreation Club. She has been a member since 2000.