Skip to main content

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 clubhouse 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
___________________________

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

As published in MANIFESTO







Popular Posts

“As I See It” has moved to www.jasonyng.com/as-i-see-it

As I See It has a new look and a new home!! Please bookmark www.jasonyng.com/as-i-see-it for the latest articles and a better reading experience. Legacy articles will continue to be available on this page. Thank you for your support since 2008. www.jasonyng.com/as-i-see-it

From Street to Chic, Hong Kong’s many-colored food scene 由大排檔到高檔: 香港的多元飲食文化

Known around the world as a foodie’s paradise, Hong Kong has a bounty of restaurants to satisfy every craving. Whether you are hungry for a lobster roll, Tandoori chicken or Spanish tapas, the Fragrant Harbour is certain to spoil you for choice. The numbers are staggering. Openrice, the city’s leading food directory, has more than 25,000 listings—that’s one eatery for every 300 people and one of the highest restaurants-per-capita in the world. The number of Michelin -starred restaurants reached a high of 64 in 2015, a remarkable feat for a city that’s only a little over half the size of London. Amber and Otto e Mezzo occupied two of the five top spots in Asia according to The World’s Best Restaurants , serving up exquisite French and Italian fares that tantalise even the pickiest of taste buds. Dai pai dong is ever wallet-friendly While world class international cuisine is there for the taking, it is the local food scene in Hong Kong that steals the hearts of residents a

The Moonscape of Sexual Equality - Part 1 走在崎嶇的路上-上卷

There are things about America that boggle the mind: gun violence , healthcare costs and Donald Trump. But once in a while – not often, just once in a while – the country gets something so right and displays such courage that it reminds the rest of the world what an amazing place it truly is. What happened three days ago at the nation’s capital is shaping up to be one of those instances. From White to Rainbow Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-to-4 decision on same-sex marriage, the most important gay rights ruling in the country’s history. In Obergefell v. Hodges , Justice Kennedy wrote, “It would misunderstand [gay and lesbian couples] to say that they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find fulfillment for themselves… They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”  With those simple words, Justice Kennedy made ma

The City that Doesn’t Read 不看書的城市

The Hong Kong Book Fair is the city’s biggest literary event, drawing millions of visitors every July. The operative word in the preceding sentence is “visitors,” for many of them aren’t exactly readers. A good number show up to tsau yit lau (湊熱鬧) or literally, to go where the noise is. In recent years, the week-long event has taken on a theme park atmosphere. It is where bargain hunters fill up empty suitcases with discounted books, where young entrepreneurs wait all night for autographed copies only to resell them on eBay, and where barely legal – and barely dressed – teenage models promote their latest photo albums. And why not? Hong Kongers love a carnival. How many people visit a Chinese New Year flower market to actually buy flowers? Hong Kong Book Fair 2015 If books are nourishment for the soul, then the soul of our city must have gone on a diet. In Hong Kong, not enough of us read and we don’t read enough. That makes us an “aliterate” people: able to read bu

Brexit Lessons for Hong Kong 脫歐的教訓

It was an otherwise beautiful, balmy Friday in Hong Kong, if it weren’t for the cross-Channel divorce that put the world under a dark cloud of fright and disbelief. Asia was the first to be hit by the Brexit shock wave. BBC News declared victory for the Leave vote at roughly 11:45am Hong Kong time – hours before London opened – and sent regional stock markets into a tailspin. The shares of HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank, both listed on the Hong Kong Exchange, plunged 6.5 and 9.5 per cent, respectively... It ended in divorce ________________________ This article appeared in the 29 June 2016 print edition of the South China Morning Post . Read the rest of it on SCMP.com as " After Brexit, Hong Kong voters should take a careful look at what our own localist parties are really selling localist politics ." As published in the print edition of the South China Morning Post

The Beam in Our Eye 眼中的梁木

With 59 confirmed deaths and over 500 wounded, the Las Vegas mass shooting is the deadliest one in modern American history. Places like Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, Sandy Hook, Orlando—and now Sin City—are forever associated with carnage and death tolls.  They don't get it Not a week goes by in America without a horrific gun attack in a shopping mall, a school or a movie theatre.People outside the U.S. can’t fathom why the world’s wealthiest country can be in such denial over a simple fact: more guns means more gun-related deaths. But they don’t get it, don’t now? Instead, they tell us foreigners to stay out of the debate because we don’t understand what the Second Amendment means to the Land of the Free. So the anomaly continues: each time a shooting rampage shocks the nation, citizens respond with prayers and tributes for a while, but their lawmakers do nothing to change gun laws. And we—the foreigners—shake our heads in disbelief and wonder how many more innocen

A Farewell to Arms 永别了,武器

America is a bizarre country. To be an American — or to live in America — is to accept a few things that defy common sense. For starters, pizza is considered a “vegetable” under federal law. Two tablespoons of tomato paste on the dough is enough to make the pie healthy enough to be served at every public school cafeteria. Speaking of health, emergency rooms across the country routinely turn down trauma patients who fail to produce proof of health insurance. Facing skyrocketing healthcare costs , the uninsured are left for dead and the insured are worried sick about rising deductibles and annual premiums. Not bizarre enough? Here's another good one: gun shootings have become so commonplace that the evening news no longer reports them unless they are deemed a “shooting rampage.” And each time after a massacre, gun enthusiasts line up outside Wal-Mart to stock up on assault weapons for fear of tougher gun laws. That’s right, in America you can buy a military-style semi-automatic rifl

Dining Out... - Part 1 出街食-上卷

The Michelin Guide published its first Hong Kong/Macau edition in 2009. Since then, the little red book has sparked spirited debate and sometimes even nationalistic rumblings among citizens. Hong Kongers balk at the idea of a bunch of foreigners judging our food, when most of the undercover inspectors sent by the guide can’t tell a fish maw from a fish belly or know the first thing about dun (燉), mun (焖), zing (蒸), pou (泡) and zoek (灼) – to name but a few ways a Chinese chef may cook his ingredients with steam. For many of us, it seems far wiser to spend the HK$200 (that’s how much the guide costs) on a couple of hairy crabs currently in season than on a restaurant directory published by a tire manufacturer. The launch Food is a tricky business. It confounds even the most sophisticated of cultures and peoples. The English and the Germans, for instance, excel in everything else except for the one thing that matters most. Young nations like America, Australia and Canada..

The Art of Profanity 粗口藝術

We react to life’s little vicissitudes – nicking the car door, dropping the phone on a concrete pavement or losing hours of work to a computer crash – with a curse word or two. If some brute walks by and knocks the coffee right out of our hand, the appropriate response is: What the fuck?  Swearing is one of those things that we do everyday and nearly everywhere. But like breaking wind and picking our nose, profanity is only bad when someone else does it. Most of us are too squeamish or sanctimonious to own up to it. Rarely in the human experience has something so universally shared been so vehemently condemned and denied. Turning society into a nanny state Profanity exists in every culture. Curse words are the first vocabulary we learn in a foreign language and the only one we remember years later. The linguistic phenomenon can be traced as far back as Ancient Egypt and Babylon. Literary giants like William Shakespeare, James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw were known to u