17 July 2014

Join the Club 入會須知


You have reached a midlife plateau. You have everything you thought you wanted: a happy family, a well-located apartment and a cushy management job. The only thing missing from that bourgeois utopia is a bit of oomph, a bit of recognition that you have played by the rules and done all right. A Porsche 911? Too clichéd. A rose gold Rolex? Got that last Christmas. An extramarital affair that ends in a costly divorce or a boiled bunny? No thanks. How about a membership at one of the city’s country clubs where accomplished individuals like yourself hang out in plaid pants and flat caps? Sounds great, but you’d better get in line.

Always a good sign


Clubs are an age-old concept that traces back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The introduction of coffee beans to England in the mid-17th Century spurred the proliferation of coffeehouses for like-minded gentlemen to trade gossip about the monarchy over a hot beverage. In the centuries since, these semi-secret hideouts evolved into main street establishments that catered to different social cliques based on a common profession or pastime. The idea then spread across the English-speaking world, from the British Isles to colonies like America, Australia, India and that tiny speck of land on the south coast of China that would go on to become a shining beacon of capitalism.

In Hong Kong, a place where status is gold and exclusivity is king, private clubs are as much a vestige of our colonial days as they are a symbol of success. Many expat communities have long planted their flags on the city’s prime real estate, with the American Club in Central, the Japanese Club in Causeway Bay and the Indian Club in Tai Hang. For a decidedly unathletic city, we have a full suite of sports clubs, from golf and yachting, to football, cricket and rugby. There is also a growing number of members-only restaurants like the China Club, the Kee Club and the unmistakably Victorian Chariot Club.

The American Club has a country club house in Tai Tam


While the city’s affluence has grown significantly in the last half century, the number of club memberships hasn’t. The waiting lists to get into the more prestigious clubs are measured in years, sometimes decades. Since most clubs require referrals from existing members, applicants are known to weave intricate webs of social connection to befriend the right people to secure a sponsorship. Sometimes they go a step too far. Last year, two gentlemen went from the clubhouse to the big house, from sitting at the bar to sitting behind bars, after they were caught bribing long-time members of the Hong Kong Jockey Club to lie about the length of their acquaintanceship.

But this is Hong Kong after all, which means there is always a way to skip the line so long as you are willing to pay. The transferability of most club memberships has created an active secondary market and allowed those with means to buy their way in. A friend of mine Richard recently sold his membership at the Aberdeen Marina Club – a family heirloom passed down to him after his parents moved back to their native Malaysia – for a whopping HK$3 million (a third of which was kept by the club as a “transfer fee”). Rich, who has a natural disdain for elitism, was over the moon when he received an offer in less than a week after he listed his membership with one of the handful of agencies specialising in private club placement. The buyer didn’t even bother to haggle. When it comes to perpetuating the urban myth of these ultra-exclusive clubs, money is no object. In fact, the more costly the membership gets, the more coveted it becomes. Economists call it a “Veblen good” – commodities whose demand and price move in the same direction in violation of the basic laws of supply and demand.

The prestigious Aberdeen Marina Club


If you wonder what it is about these private clubs that make people pay a fortune – sometimes risk prison – to get in, then look no further than the famous 80s sitcom theme song that sums it up for you: sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. Indeed, there is something inherently comforting and almost narcotic about hearing someone say "Welcome back, Mr./Ms. [Insert your surname here]." In the developed world, members-only clubs are the last bastion of English aristocracy. They are one of the very few places in the middle class milieu where respect and camaraderie can be bought and sold, and where you are greeted as if you were all four Beatles on a reunion tour each time you walk through the guarded doors.

But Hong Kong is also a pragmatic city. The costs and benefits of every investment are carefully weighed, especially for a big ticket item like club memberships. Even the deep-pocketed would be hard pressed to shell out millions just to feel like Norm in Cheers. For bankers and insurance agents who have their eyes on the big fish, it is all about the networking. The Aberdeen Marina Club, for instance, is where property tycoons like the Lees, the Hos and the Kwoks rub elbows and chug down a pint at one of the four in-house restaurants. Or so I heard from Rich, who used to spend his weekends there with his parents until he hawked his membership for a vacation home in Phuket. “Very few members actually own a boat at the club,” my friend observed. Rich is right: who gives a flip about sailing when A-list celebs are lying around like red meat in a shark tank? And who fusses over the seven-figure joining fee when you can earn many times more in future business?

Where everybody knows your name


The quintessential human nature to want to belong – and to move in circles beyond one’s reach – is what makes private clubs irresistible. If you look hard enough, however, you will notice that this club mentality has already seeped into mainstream society. Hotels, airlines, credit cards and even cell phone manufacturers (Vertu comes to mind) have long rebranded themselves into members-only clubs, offering concierge services, lounge access and other VIP benefits that are designed to make outsiders feel left out, like the kid who wants a train set but gets a sweater on Christmas Day. To dumb it down for the masses, these programmes are often tiered – silver, gold, platinum and super duper titanium – so that social climbers can see the progress they have made and the distance left to go.

From the Jockey Club to the Diners Club, the golf club to the alumni club, memberships confer status, cache, and if it all works out, business opportunities and upward mobility. While a segment of society continues to fight head over heels to get a foot in the door, it is perhaps instructive to point out that there is one club so exclusive and so one-of-a-kind whose membership no amount of money or social connection can buy, and yet it requires no application form, no referral and no joining fee. If only we take a step back to see the forest for the trees, we will realize that the ultimate club is the one that each of us is born into: our own family. It may not be much of a status symbol in the conventional sense, but its membership is more selective, fulfilling and useful than what any brick-and-mortar private club can ever offer.

The world's most exclusive club


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This article previously appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."

As printed in MANIFESTO


02 July 2014

We Have Spoken 我們發聲了


I have taken part in every July 1 march since I moved back to Hong Kong in 2005. That makes yesterday’s march my ninth. I have the routine down pat: I will put on a black T-shirt, eat a hearty lunch and agree on a time to meet my friends in Causeway Bay. I will bring both sunscreen and a small umbrella because the Hong Kong summer, like its politics, is never predictable. Take this year for instance. Who would have thought that Beijing would release the bluntly-worded White Paper – an assertion of total control over the city and a bonanza for protest organizers – less than a month before the most politically sensitive day on our calendar?  

A crowd like no other


At the Central MTR station, I was about the only man in black. I must have missed the call on social media to wear white to mock the White Paper. But it didn’t matter, because our minds were somewhere else when the train reached Causeway Bay. We were awed by the sheer number of people inching away from the platform. It was like a Chinese New Year flower market except this crowd was bigger and more orderly. There is a lot on our minds these days and we wanted to say it with our feet. And the people have spoken.

I met up with a friend in front of Sogo. Matthew, a Shanghai native, is a law professor at Hong Kong University. This is his fifth year in the city but his first time joining a march. I told Matt that people came out not only because of the White Paper but also to vent our anger over a laundry list of issues: the northeastern NT redevelopment bill, Beijing’s stance on the 2017 chief executive election and its outright dismissal of the unofficial referendum on election methods in which nearly 800,000 Hong Kongers had participated. I also told Matt that we must enter Victoria Park to be counted by the police, and that authorities routinely under-report the headcount to downplay the level of public frustration. But it didn’t matter, because I was there and I saw it with my own eyes. The size of the crowd this year was not like anything I had seen the other eight times. I knew the people have spoken.

Causeway MTR station


Over the course of the march, I took pains to visit as many as sidewalk booths as I could. I waved at Lee Cheuk Yan (李卓人), union leader and chairman of the Democratic Alliance. I shook the hands of all three Occupy Central organizers – Benny Tai (戴耀廷), Chu Yiu-ming (朱耀明) and Chan Kin-man (陳健民) – and told them how thankful I was for all that they have done and still to do. I also chatted with Erica Yuen (袁彌明), chairlady of People Power. She offered to meet me at her party booth near Wanchai’s Southorn Playground if I wanted to talk more and ask her a few questions. I said “sure,” although I knew I probably wouldn’t see her again for the rest of the day. I had to move with the crowds and stay with my friend. But it didn’t matter, because I had no questions and she need not give me any answers. The turnout yesterday was more powerful than any statement a politician could make. For the people have spoken.

People Power's Erica Yuen


By the time we reached Admiralty and the office towers in Central came into view, the sun had begun to set. The sky suddenly dimmed and the rain started to come down in sheets. Colorful umbrellas pop-opened like daisies. I couldn’t tell whether the untimely downpour was angel tears or a divine intervention to disperse the crowds. But it didn’t matter, because someone somewhere started playing “Under a Vast Sky” (《海闊天空》) through a megaphone. The song, written by a beloved 80s Cantopop band, speaks of ideals and defiance and is the closest thing to a national anthem we have. The marchers instantly broke into song, and the words sent goose bumps all over my soaked body. Rain? What rain? The people have spoken!

Rain? What rain?


We left the rally near Pedder Street. At a café, I went through the photos on my phone and posted some of them on Facebook and Instagram. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then these images would amount to a history book. The pictures of citizens streaming down Hennessy Road, of old people and young people and people in wheelchairs, didn’t just record history, they reclaimed it. After I said goodbye to Matthew, I bowed my head and said a prayer for the students who would remain on Chater Road for an overnight sit-in and who would almost certainly be removed by riot police. I also prayed for the upcoming Occupy Central showdown, a battle that we can’t win but still must fight. Perhaps that, too, doesn’t matter, because the people have already spoken.

They need all the support they can get




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This article appears on SCMP.com under the title "Hong Kong has spoken."

As posted on SCMP.com