Rules Set Square by Guy Nicholls

Club membership may have its privileges, but it also has its petty rules. Guy Nicholls turns over a few old leaves and discovers a new meaning to doing things by the book.

We watched in silence as the earl sliced his ball into the thick undergrowth at Deep Water Bay. “Oh, Lord, whatever am I going to do now?” he cried, as he sank to his knees at the tee, head in his hands.

“May I point out, sir, that a competitor shall not ask for, or willingly receive, advice from anyone except his caddie,” bristled an ex-military type, who was waiting impatiently to tee off. The earl greyed, and then went scarlet. He stood up to face his finicky accuser. “My dear sir, I was talking to myself. Don’t tell me – I suppose there’s a rule against that, too?” he huffed and marched off.

They had both scored a point, although the earl later lost a few due to the disappearance of his ball. In 1922, the rules concerning the procurement of advice in stroke competitions at The Royal Hong Kong Golf Club was written down in black and white. Nowadays it still holds, although it is not listed in the club’s bylaws, and exists only in promulgations from St Andrews which are acknowledged by the club’s committee.

Rules reflect the character of a club and give an indication of the nature and spirit of club members. But times have changed; society is less formal and, within limits, more tolerant. The once-stuffy clubs of the pith-helmet-and-pink-gin period have altered their outlook on the little worlds they have created for their members. 

Some strains of die-hard pomposity still survive, albeit in a diluted form, while mores which now seem excruciatingly unimportant have disappeared.

Evidence of belligerence, stubbornness, charm, chauvinism, slyness and sloth can be found in club rule books, if you read between the lines. Quite often a rule is written to prevent or control a common occurrence, revealing a certain trait in the character of the membership concerned.

Concise knowledge of a club’s rules is desired by the committees which create them, while members are often the last people to find out about them when it is too late – a fine imposed, a car towed away, embarrassment, shame and, at worst, expulsion, are all examples of the fates which lurk in the corridors and facilities of Hong Kong clubs. However puritanical a committee’s expectations, no member can know all the rules.; but he (or she) is always presumed to have known the one he (or she) has broken.

It can be a hard life, living on the edge, treading the fine line between what is allowed and what is not – a continual headache which might, in part, explain the profusion of bars in such establishments.

Club rules are designed to cover every eventuality; extraordinary or ordinary, there is almost always an ordinance in need of careful surveying. Take, for example, that last bastion of sexual inequality, the Hong Kong Club. A single woman may be delighted on the one hand to learn that she has been elected a “subscriber” (the word used to refer to a ‘female member’, as only men are officially allowed), and alarmed on the other to find that there are reams of rules by which she must abide.

From lobby to lightning conductor, the place is a labyrinth of sexual elitism. There is a Men’s Bar, a gentlemen’s dining room, a gentlemen’s reading room, a men-only hairdresser, and a men-only Bowling Alley and Bar. A subscriber, however, will be bowled over to discover, and subsequently have to try and remember, that she is allowed to toss a few balls on the second Monday of each month in the company of the select sex. To be fair, she can drown her sorrows in the Red Room Bar or the Member’s Bar (after 5pm), provided she is accompanied by a member and not solely in the company of her fellow subscribers.

She is welcome in the Ladies’ Lounge, although one surmises that this facility is a mere political and compassionate offering. Or perhaps it was established so that the boys know where they can find the rarer of the species.

The line may be fine, but it well-marked for those treading high-heeled through the Hon Kong Club. Insubordination will be pointed out with glee by the men. Perhaps John  Dryden was thinking of men’s attitude towards women in their club when he penned the following: “In friendship false, implacable in hate, resolved to ruin or rule the state.” Then again, perhaps he was thinking of something else. 

Somewhere else, over on the other side of Hong Kong island to be precise, there is an establishment famed for its non-discriminatory policies regarding the sexes, creed or colour. The Hong Kong Country Club, which recently celebrated it 30th anniversary, is so laid-back in the face of the miscellany of nationalities within its membership that the relaxed atmosphere is reflected in the dress codes. Slacks and open-necked shirts are de rigueur in the clubhouse.

However, such “smart informal wear” of the multi-racial Benetton-esque genre is subject to seasonal adjustments: during the week, between November and March, jackets and ties have to be worn in the Lounge and restaurants. In the Garden Room and Garden Bar, a by-law for the absent-minded reminds that “persons must be fully-clothed at all times…” Over on the tennis court, the rule is, “conventionally acceptable dress”, which could mean anything (as long as it is something).

A couple of noteworthy edicts illustrate that the relaxed ambience which seeps thought the club does not compromise the establishment’s dedication to personal hygiene. On prohibits the dressing and undressing of children, in particular the changing of infants’ nappies, at the poolside. The other is a decree stressing that “parents are responsible for accidental calls of nature by their children and may not, by right, call upon club staff for assistance”. Little Jimmy’s age is not specified. Hygiene standards are hopefully double in the pool which uses water re-cycled from Ocean Park’s nearby training pool.

Given that many club rules are prophylactic, having been laid down following complaints or unfortunate incidents, one shudders to think what the Country Club’s recreational facilities must have been like in days gone by: romping, running, jumping, bombing, games of chase, bicycles, tricycles, skateboards, roller skates, pedal/mechanical cars, battery-operated toys, televisions, videos and musical instruments have all been banned from around the now-becalmed water of the swimming pools. Spare a thought for the parent who is done for a double-infringement when chasing little Jimmy after one of his excesses. The lifeguards are empowered to enforce all of the above and “members are particularly requested to cooperate with the lifeguards whose position in these matters is a difficult one”. One hopes the job is well paid.

Enjoying rather cushy jobs are the caddies over at the Royal Hong Kong Golf Club. Although they are not allowed to accept, according to the rules, any form of financial gratuity (a rule which applies to the staff of all Hong Kong clubs), they still get paid if there are delays or cancellations “because of inclement weather or other circumstance”. An extra bonus includes the right to accept a “soft drink or other refreshment” purchased by the member, guest or visitor who has hired them.

We have already discovered that a caddy is permitted as to the progress of his hirer’s game and can volunteer advice when called upon. Members of the club have to be rather more careful when articulating their thoughts, as a bylaw determines that “all members shall exercise restraint in their use of language”. Indeed, the written word is also subject to specific ruling when it comes to the reservation of starting times, and a particular decree bans the use of fictitious names and expressions such as “& Co”, or that delightful hanger-on, Mr “A N Other”. Sly bunch, those golfers – anything to ensure that they get a game.

When they are playing the mating game they need to be watched closely, as the existence of Rule 138 suggests. With the permission of the general committee, a full member who is not married may introduce a single lady as his guest, and she, in turn, can use all the facilities – except golf (and sleeping accommodation).

In general, however, the Royal Hong Kong Golf Club is more accommodating to the female that some of its rivals. An initial glance at the bylaw suggests that a marked degree of autonomy exists: “lady members” are so called and can operate their own committee and section to deal with matters of their exclusive concern, within the aegis of the boys on the general committee. In other words, they keep their own house in order, subject to the over-riding rights and powers or the committee. A rule that slips in later, however, quietly points out “that lady members may form their own section and call their own meetings, but they shall have no voice in the management of the club”. So much for women’s lib.

Rules blatantly pertaining to male exclusivity and astounding sexism have been toned down a tad since the chauvinistic days of yore. Seventy years ago, hefty restrictions were imposed on women, Teeing-off times read like rank and file army regulations: on Saturdays, “ladies may not start from the first tee between the hours of 1.44pm and 3.30pm, but may drive off after 3.30pm provided no men are waiting their turn to drive off”. And simply, “never on a Sunday”. Actually, regulations were pasteurised for everyone. For example: “No 1 Boy at Deep Water Bay Club House has received strict orders that no fresh milk other than that supplied by the Dairy Farm Co. is to be used. Should a sufficient supply from the Dairy Farm not be available, the boy has a supply of tinned milk which may be used.”

Caddies, as usual, were the focus of many commandments. “A caddie can earn 40 cents a day which is the wage of a man working as a coolie. They are therefore well paid.” The following regulation at the Happy Valley course – “Players are requested to keep their caddies off the rails when ponies are passing” – makes one wonder if they were paid too much, and were sitting idly, eyeing up the talent during the morning gallops.

Labouring the point takes up a great deal of space in the current bylaws of the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, where gambling rules and fines for other seditious behaviour are listed in a book of commandments the size of a small telephone directory. Surprisingly, one is permitted to partake of games of chance other than betting on horses: gambling with dice, dominoes, mah-jong, cards and tin kau is allowed at private parties (but pai kau is banned). However, such games must be played only on social occasions, have no admission fee, not involve playing against a bank, and not be “promoted or conducted by way of trade or business, or for the private gain of any person other than winning as a player of that games”. Sadly, that rules out Monopoly.

But the spirit of Monopoly does pervade the club, for it is seemingly keen to relieve members of their hard-earned readies away from the track. Detailed specifics concerning fines nag members at every turn. Some of the rules echo the pedantic Royal and Ancient spirit of the aforementioned golf club, the green of the golf course being transformed into the baize battleground of the Billiard Room; for example: “A permitted user who is a lady will not be admitted.” Again it is a man’s world, in which the boys face penalties in the form of hard cash. “Any member placing glass, ashtray, pipe, cigar or cigarette (heavy smokers, these gamblers) on any part of the table will be liable on first offence to a fine of $20, and suspension from play for any subsequent offence.”

Such offences are not to be taken lightly. Standing up, being a man about it, and playing a shot with both feet off the floor, will result in a fine of $10. The Jockey Club seems to enjoy the money game. Most clubs will penalise members financially in matters relating to billings, not billiards.

Expulsion is threatened quite often in the club’s surroundings – perhaps members have gone too far in the past, depressed and frustrated when the sure-fire winner in the 2.30 race turns out to be an also-ran. In exercise areas, the rule that “rough-housing” will not be tolerated and violation will result in expulsion” is surely a hint of a latent tension in the air. Members seem determined to let off steam somewhere: “Pushing, games of chase and ‘splash-bombing’ are forbidden in the pool area, while in the exercise areas shadow-boxing, jumping and contact sports are not allowed, and “a permitted user must wipe equipment with a towel after use”.

Over at the riding school, rules forbid the galloping and jumping of horses and ponies – and stipulate that spurs must not be worn. Whips may be carried, but should be used with caution and discretion. One should certainly hope so.

A wayward bunch, these members, for Rule 11.8 reminds that trading and abetting are not permitted outside the club house: “A car park may not be used for the purpose of conducting business.” Yet, car parks in all Hong Kong clubs seem to be the only place in which one is allowed to use a mobile phone – presumably for non-business calls. And while carping on about car parks, some sort of award must go to Jockey Club members for their obvious persistence in breaking the delightful Rule 11.6 which states that “no vehicle may be permitted to be parked in an area designated ‘No Parking’”.

The Ladies’ Recreation Club also has a problem with the belligerence of its mobile members, their park-or-die instinct requiring such a specific rule as “no cars will be permitted to enter when the ‘Car Park Full’ sign is displayed at the entrance”. Other measures outlaw parking in non-designated areas, double-parking and the obstruction of driveways.

The LRC’s rule book is incredible. It bristles with instructions sectioning age groups and regimenting members into areas through which they can and cannot walk at certain times, what they should do and where they should do it, what they should wear and when they should wear it, and what they should not to do, where and when, and what should they wear whenever they are not doing it. Fairly wearing stuff for members, especially the junior ones, who must wonder what they have done to deserve such Dotheboys Hall restrictions.

Like the Jockey Club, the LRC is keen on fines. You are fined if you are over the age of 10 and do not produce your club ID card, if your locker key is overdue, if you forget to put your junior guest in ‘the book’. Indeed, you must be guilty of something is you are young and caught having a good time. 

Junior members must not be caught in the club after 10pm in summer, and 9pm in winter, and even then they are not allowed to leave via the upper walkway or the main entrance. Just when they may think that they have found somewhere to go, they are booted from the squash court if an adult wants a game. Once the grown-ups have finished, it will probably be after 5.30pm, when youngsters are not allowed to play anyway.

It was not long ago that a bell would sound for children to get out of the pool so that adults could swim in peace. But the committee obviously has the best interests of members at heart, as illustrated by Rule 3 in the pool ordinance: “Rubber rings and flotation aids may be used by non-swimmers.”

The LRC appears to have strictest dress code this side of Saudi. “Coordinated colours” must be worn on the squash courts, and a 70:30 white to colour-trim ratio per individual article of clothing must be observed in paying badminton. Members are, however, permitted to wear coloured warm-up suits in cold weather.

Like the Country Club, the Hong Kong Cricket Club is relaxed and informal. The only ties in evidence are when two teams draw a match. Indeed, the club has attempted to move with the times: women were finally given membership 20 months ago. However, it does seem to be stuck in the Sixties with a rule which insists that caps must be worn by bathers with long hair. Definitely not cricket in the Billiard Room is a game called “Billiards Five, and other violent and unorthodox games”: these are strictly forbidden. One wonders what must have happened on the evening that rule was made…

A rather worrying general rule at the Hong Kong Football Club hints at the possibility of violence. “Every effort should be made by members, subscribers, visitors and their families to resolve any problem verbally and in an amicable manner,” is states. Is the place crawling with Millwall supporters?

Amicable manners were obviously not in evidence when Rule 12.2 was enacted: “It is strictly forbidden to push anyone into the pool.” Practically all rules point out that puffing away on cigarettes is prohibited – in some of the most obvious of places: “smoking it not permitted in the sports hall, or on the roof of the sports complex”; “smoking is not permitted in any part of the squash court complex”, and the rather desperate “smoke is not permitted in the sauna”. The rule stating that “horseplay is strictly prohibited on the lawn-bowls green” is ironic in the light of the Jockey Club’s extension plans.

Indeed, is seems that many of Hong Kong’s clubs face an uncertain future. Many establishments have apparently been quietly sidling up to the Government to glean what, if anything, will afflict them come 1997. Advice has been minimal: it has been suggested that the clubs should adopt an “open membership” approach in the future, stay calm, and renew their leases. What new rules will be in store for members in anyone’s guess, but one thing is for sure – they will not be the same. And will the same old characters prop up the bar? One doubts whether the earl would feel quite so at home in the China Club. [1990s]

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