Life and Death in Hong Kong (III) Ah Tin and the End of a Colonial Institution

It’s not exactly a death in the family, but it felt like one today when Ah Tin retired from the Victoria Recreation Club after 36 years, at the age of 56. The Victoria Recreation Club is Hong Kong’s oldest club, actually founded in Guangzhou in 1832 before it moved to Hong Kong in 1849, seven years after the founding of the crown colony on Hong Kong Island. It had frequent changes of venue, and was the ancestor of at least one other elite Hong Kong membership club, the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. But after moving to its present venue in 1954, tucked beneath Island Road and the ocean, it seemed to drift into a timeless warp of its own. Ah Tin was the soul of the club, as its manager and jack-of-all trades. Nobody ever referred to him as Lai Tin, his actual name, or his wife, the cook as Lai Ling, her actual name. They were always Ah Tin and Mrs. Ah Tin to the gwailos who used the club, and it came as a surprise to me this afternoon to learn that their family name was Lai.

The worst part about Ah Tin’s departure is that the club itself decided to put an end to its timelessness and advance a few steps in the direction of Hong Kong’s so-called “recreational” clubs, which are run with the precision of five-star hotels and whose joining fees often cost as much as a luxury car – sometimes a very luxurious car, a Ferrari or a Rolls. Decisions were made, Ah Tin was scrutinized for mistakes, a new general manager appointed over him who was pacing the club with a clipboard this afternoon, and making notes in his laptop computer. So Ah Tin was sacked, together with the gentle Ling. The kitchen has been the source of little more complex than fried rice and sandwiches, but the Lais would take anything that members brought to them and cook it up – so there have been banquets of crab, lobster, steamed fish, and all the requisites of Cantonese banquet fare laid out regularly on tables. Together with the two ex-Gurkha cards who watch the boathouse, the Lais would organize barbecues on the VRC terrace for members – one of the few places in Hong Kong where one can eat outside, on the water, and watch the sunset directly across Deep Water Bay.

The community that uses the VRC is itself an anomaly in Hong Kong – an incomplete but distinct merger of Chinese and foreign “recreational” cultures. The core Chinese membership consists of about 30 swimmers of all ages, but mostly elderly, who arrive at the club in all weather at 6:00 am for their daily swim. The Gurkhas open up the club as early as 5:45, and the swimmers and paddlers help themselves to bottled water and leave change in an old cigar box. The paddlers have a daily run around 7 am, pulling out of the water by 8 to drink coffee and catch their bus into work. During weekdays the daytime is so relaxed that the Lais often pull out chairs and sit with regulars for hours. For many years, since the Hong Kong Island Paddle Club moved formally to the VRC in the mid-1990s, Tuesday and Thursday nights Ah Tin stays late to man the desk until the dragon boats or outrigger canoes have put to sea. Ah Tin is not a paddler, although he claims to have canoed and kayaked in his youth, but he introduced the paddle club operating from the VRC to its general committee, leading to its move across Deep Water Bay from the Yacht Club on Middle Island. He has always been an enthusiastic supporter and sometimes critic of the club, from a sporting perspective. One of his legacies is that the paddling club finally merged with the VRC in 2011, so that now it operates as the VRC’s paddling section.

This was the past. The new regime, inspired by the example of other clubs, plans to ban the use of money and substitute Octopus cards and a debit card machine. During Ah Tin’s time, the food and beverage service was completely outsourced to him. Now it will come back to the club, in order to control profits more directly. New rules will be put in place to control the use of the club by non-members, and to make sure that all available sources of revenue are exploited to the full. New staff will be hired, including a cook, and life will go on. The loss is irreparable. Ah Tin himself was the collective memory of this little piece of Hong Kong, and without him, the memory itself is lost and in its place we have only our impressions of him and Ling, and they will fade quickly.  

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