Hong Kong’s top guns may be loaded, but they do not always hit their targets. Guy Nicholls hunts down the country gentry who shoot clay at a remote weekend hideout
Contrary to expectations, the honorary secretary of the Hong Kong Gun Club does not wear a cravat, wield a shot gun, sport leather-shouldered tweeds or wander around in green wellies and a deerstalker. Instead Wyman Li is a kindly chap who is armed with nothing more menacing that a portable phone. No whiff of cordite and heather, no feather-flecked hair, no knuckle-crunching handshake.
When Li it not working at the Hong Kong Sanatorium, which his family owns, he is most often found shooting the breeze and the clay at the upmarket gun club. While blasting a flying saucer-shaped mixture of tar and concrete to Middle Kingdom come may not be everyone’s idea of fun, to Li and the 600 members of the Hong Kong Gun Club it has a sure-fire therapeutic pleasure. The ultra-exclusive establishment was formed in 1947 by the hunters of Hong Kong who sought an umbrella for the collective slaying of birds, bucks and deer in the New Territories. However, since 1980 and the banning of live game shooting, members have had to curb their killer instinct and make do with blasting away at artificial targets. The club was moved from the countryside of Tsuen Wan in the Sixties and is now situated 10 miles up Route Twisk.
Originally a male-dominated organisation, the club is changing slowly and it currently boasts about 20 women members. “We are certainly not an all-male club,” says Li. “The women who come here do so because the enjoy shooting, not because they want to watch their husband shoot. One of the most unusual things about our club is that we do not have facilities for family members. We don’t encourage children in the club as accidents can happen. Getting hit by a shotgun blast is very different to getting hit by a tennis ball. The victim is likely to suffer from something considerably more serious than a bruise and a bump.”
Although Li admits that some of the members got to China to hunt live animals, he stresses that there is no official relationship between the HKGC and Chinese hunting organisations. “The Chinese clubs only cater for the novice and are not very sporting,” he says. “Basically, they tie up the game and give you a gun to shoot it with.” Most of the members of the Hong Kong Gun Club are content to set their sights on improving their clay-target marksmanship and shooting range prowess. Clay pigeons are shot with a shotgun, while shooting range targets are shot with either a pistol or a rifle. There are essentially two forms of clay-target shooting, trap and skeet. Trap boasts more variety as there are five stations with three machines and every time you call for a target you do not know which machine is going to throw it up. Skeet – the Swedish word for shoot – wan invented by the Americans and simulates all the different targets you are likely to encounter when shooting game. There is one high house and one low house which throw up targets at differing trajectories.
The extraordinary growth of the popularity of clay-pigeon shooting in Hong Kong can be attributed to a number of factors. While the banning of hunting has obviously had a major impact, the stalking of certain wild animals has always been dependent on the seasons. Clay pigeons suffer from no such seasonal restrictions and can be hunted all year round. Furthermore, clay is considerably less expensive than traps full of live birds. Despite these advantages, it took a while for clay pigeon shooting to take off in Hong Kong as many erstwhile hunters were sceptical that clay could ever satisfy their blood lust. Targets were originally glass balls with feather inside, but as these did not fly very well a saucer-shaped object made of clay gradually evolved. Not dissimilar in shape to a frisbee it flies reasonably well and with a bit of imagination almost looks like a pigeon.
The Hong Kong Gun Club boasts two clay target ranges and a 25-metre and a 50-metre rifle range. Apart from clay-pigeon shooting, ‘practical pistols’ a sporting pastime which is based on military and police training programmes in the US, is the most popular activity at the club. However, the sport does have certain drawbacks in Hong Kong, “Pistols are pain to be interested in as you can’t keep them at home,” says Li. “You have to place them in storage, pick them up on the way to the club, and then take them straight back afterwards. You can’t go wandering off.”
By law, pistols must be housed in one of the territory’s four armouries or gun shops, while a shotgun can be kept at home with police permission. “At present we do not have the facilities to store guns at the clubhouse,” says Li. “One of our top priorities is to get an armoury as it will make life a lot easier for our members.”
Most of the club’s membership are well used to having life made a little easier for them. Indeed, the expenses involved in shooting have helped make the club a tad elitist; its membership can be accurately dubbed the ‘financially elite’. To use a gentrified expression – membership has its privileged. Among the privileged few are Domini Chan and George Ireland who have been shooting at the club for some time and newcomers Ray Chan and Dr Peter Chan who are already being tipped as the hotshots of the future. “The majority of the members are at least in their 30s when they join and are anywhere from senior management to owners of enterprises,” says Li.
This is just as well as both clay shooting and practical pistols are very expensive sports. Ordinary club membership costs from £17,500-£30,000 and there is an annual subscription as well. Out on the range, a member’s average daily expenditure is $500-$800 on shooting alone. Those members who enjoy a gin and tonic or two while discussing the day’s targets and indulging in general bore talk may find themselves looking down the barrel at a fast-disappearing £1,000 note. Each round of clay consists of 25 targets and the club charges $1 per clay. Ammunition costs $2.25 per round and shooters average one and a half shells per target. In effect, every time a member pulls the trigger it costs about $4. Expenses for local championships, tournaments and various shooting parties also come out of the shooter’s pocket.
But being blue-blooded when it comes to footing the bar bills and making regular appearances at the buckshot and barrage parties is not the end of the story for members of the Hong Kong Gun Club. Character also plays a big part. “Clay-target shooting is an absolute game,” says Li. “Shoot at a target with a pistol and before too long you will be able to hit the paper, and eventually to hit the target itself. With clay, you either hit it or you don’t. As most people who start clay shooting only hit 10-20 per cent of their targets in the first six months, perseverance is vital.”
Not surprisingly, members who are used to closing multimillion-dollar deals before breakfast find it disconcerting to discover that destroying a clay saucer is out of their range. “Clay-target shooting is a big ego destroyer,” says Li. We are talking of well-established people who have pride and position. They come to this game and discover some people hitting more than 90 per cent of their targets, while they are only managing to destroy 10 per cent. Psychologically, that is a very big hurdle to overcome.
The club adds insult to already-bruised egos by sounding a horrible hooter when a gun-toting member shoots wide. Furthermore, a referee will gleefully yell “miss” loud enough for the whole range to hear. Who said clay-pigeon shooting was not a cruel sport?
“For a lot of people, it’s very difficult to get past the first stage,” says Li. “But shooting is an incredible challenge and for those who persevere it can become worthwhile for egos and wallets. It is also a challenge from the standpoint that it is one of the few sports that I, as a 47-year-old, can still be competitive at internationally. We are one of the few sporting clubs where no one retires, and T M Chow is still one of our top shooters at the age of 60. At the moment, I am on top of my game and one of the best shooters here, but if I went in for something like golf I would be lucky to finish half way up the ranking.”
Some members enjoy trips to the gun club because it is a nice outing – they find it relaxing and fun – but others are far more competitive. There are only about ten seriously competitive shooters at the club and they will each spend about three days a week out on the range. These elite few constitute the backbone of the Hong Kong shooting team. Unfortunately, the last time that this team went to the Olympics was back in 1984, when its performance was somewhat disappointing. “You have to take into account the fact that we were once a hunting group and are now in the process of becoming more serious shooters,” says Li. Indeed, sportsmen who are prepared to spend more than $50,000 on a shotgun and anywhere from $50,000-$150,000 on annual expenses have to be taken seriously. And if Hong Kong’s elite marksmen are gunning for glory at the next Olympics, who can say that they will not be bang on target?
If you’d like to have a chat about what I could write for you, please give me a ring on 07747 636 938 (UK). Or drop me an email.