Wednesday, November 25, 2015   

Join the club

Kelly Ip

Friday, January 11, 2013

Money is no object for established tycoons and high-aiming wheeler- dealers seeking membership of clubs created as places for the chosen ones to escape the common herd.

A joining fee that would put food on an ordinary family's table for a year is no problem if a quiet but firm boast that a certain club is a top-notch venue for superior people to rub shoulders with their own rich kind holds true. Even a wait that can be years before formal admission is of no great concern.

That has long been true for the monied and social elite signing on to become members of the Hong Kong Jockey Club with its "sense of prestige that is reserved for only a selected few." But the promise made some years ago has become less persuasive or attractive for several reasons.

Last Friday, two members were before a District Court judge after being convicted of fraud involving applications for racing memberships of the club.

Stanley Freedman, an 84-year-old honorary voting member and a retired businessman, was given a nine-month prison sentence and To Wing, a 63-year-old full member and musician, six months, though the punishments were suspended for two years.

They had been found guilty of conspiracy to defraud by accepting through a middleman membership-aimed payoffs of HK$350,000 from a minibus and taxi entrepreneur on behalf of his son and HK$300,000 from another hopeful.

This is one of several cases that has illustrated the demand for Jockey Club membership.

For the Hong Kong Joc
key Club, founded in 1884 and which had the useful selling point of "Royal" in front of its name until 1996, has always had inner sanctums for the rich, powerful and famous.

Until the relatively recent rise of a coterie of property developers the club was considered the power behind the Hong Kong government, not least because it was also a popular watering hole for big bankers.

Its financial clout has never been in question, and that's become greater in recent years with the expansion of its gambling monopoly.

Yet the fact gambling is seen by many people concerned with an orderly society as simply the best-paying sector in Hong Kong's legalized vice industry has not been a cause for members to worry.

After all, the club donated HK$1.73 billion to charities and community projects as it racked up a profit of HK$8.1 billion from total revenue of HK$28.4 billion in the last financial year.

Nor, indeed, has the illegal behavior exposed in the District Court done much more than add a few tut-tuts to complaints already doing the rounds in the club's elegant bars and restaurants and around its swimming pools, gyms, saunas and other pampering facilities.

Because what's really troubling some members are displays of bad manners or no manners and an overall lack of etiquette. That, they add in whispers, is the result of many mainlanders joining in recent years.

Some "elite" members are even said to have been embarrassed by the behavior of the "new rich" arrivals.

Like at other elite clubs, Jockey Club membership applicants often must wait for years if not decades to be accepted. What makes it especially tough to join is that the club does not, like others, allow memberships to be bought and sold in the secondary market.

(The average waiting time for membership at the Hong Kong Golf Club, founded 1889 and also now minus a "Royal," can run to 20 years. The membership fee is HK$500,000, but the price in the secondary market has reached HK$14 million.)

At the Jockey Club, another stumbling block is the fact that to become a full member - HK$400,000 to join, HK$1,800 monthly subscription - an applicant needs the endorsement of two of the only 200 voting members and the support of three other members.

This is seen as an opening by some, a loophole by others as money does talk.

A newcomer to Hong Kong would be hard pressed to get close to two voting members without key introductions and gaining trust.

So how come, ask some members, have mainlanders who do not seem to understand a need to comply to a code of conduct joined with apparent ease?

A member since 2009 says he has often come across mainlanders at the members-only Chinese restaurant in the Sha Tin clubhouse. "They talk loudly in Putonghua, though perhaps it's their culture," he says plaintively. "I still go there from time to time, but my impression of the restaurant is not as good as before."

Besides being ruffled by individual members at play, he is also put off by guests invited by corporate members to talk business. The guests, he thinks, are from mainland corporations.

Another member, who with his family often uses facilities at the Happy Valley and Sha Tin clubhouses and Beas River Country Club, says it's not uncommon to bump into ill-mannered members who speak in different tones.

"I use the facilities quite a lot for dining, swimming and sports," he says. "As a regular user and based on my observations, these new members are generally rude and impolite.

"I recall there was one occasion when a female member was complaining that some members had taken their wet swimming suits into the sauna to dry. I believe those members were Indians.

"I am not being racist but this sort of behavior is socially unacceptable."

It seems club managers have spotted similar trends in the past couple of years.

Notices about disagreeable behavior have appeared, like one asking people not to shave in the showers. Another sign highlights the wasting of water in the Happy Valley clubhouse showers and the number of club towels used. Yet another complains of members using foul language.

The member who gets around several of the clubhouses on a regular basis also says he's hearing more Putonghua sounding through facilities that are supposed to be tuned for an international set. But "that's the case anywhere in Hong Kong nowadays," he admits.

That mainlanders are seen and heard increasingly around club facilities, he adds, also appears to be the result of more mainland businesses becoming corporate members. "So some of their senior staff sent to work in Hong Kong for a few years can enjoy clubhouses facilities."

Yet corporate members join the Jockey Club by invitation only, with 178 by the latest count.

And a company that expresses an interest in corporate membership after receiving an invitation faces a vetting by stewards - the big wheels in the club. They evaluate the nature and size of a business nature and its financial performances.

If all goes well, a company pays HK$2 million or HK$4 million - it depends on the corporate scheme they select - with a monthly subscription of HK$1,800.

Also feeling put out by today's crowd, a member who joined in the mid-1980s claims there has been a fall- off in quality of clubhouse services with the arrival of more mainlanders who don't respect rules of club behavior.

"Mobile phones cannot be used in the clubhouse, but we often come across people speaking in Putonghua on their phones," he says. Staff who try to remonstrate with rulebreakers are usually ignored.

'Loophole for mainlanders'

Other bad behavior continues unabated, he grumbles. That can include "some women who allow their kids to run around in the restaurant" and littering.

Unlike the man disturbed by business talk in Putonghua that he blames on corporate members, this complainer thinks many of the troublesome new members are individuals who have gamed the system by signing on at the Jockey Club's Beijing clubhouse or joined as racing members rather than full members.

Many of this crowd gather at the Sha Tin clubhouse and the Beas River Country Club, he says, after finding "a loophole for mainlanders to use Jockey Club facilities so easily."

The loophole is seen to have been created by having racing members and full members. Although racing and full members need to be endorsed by voting members, becoming a full member is more difficult, since voting members are limited to endorsing no more than two in that category in any one year.

But the Jockey Club is not so strict in limiting voting members in the number of endorsements for racing members.

After outlaying a joining fee of HK$125,000 with a monthly subscription of HK$650, racing members can use facilities at the Sha Tin clubhouse and Beas River by paying an additional fee of HK$18,000.

Mount up or shut up

Compared to the full membership fee of HK$400,000, a monthly subscription of HK$1,800 and long waiting time, becoming a racing member to enjoy the club's private facilities would appear to be a reasonable option.

There are currently 7,200 racing members and 13,300 full members.

Mainlanders can also go through various doors by joining the Beijing clubhouse, opened in 2008. That allows them to enjoy clubhouses facilities in Hong Kong for three days in every month.

To become a Beijing member a person does not need the endorsement of voting members. Background and financial checks are enough before stewards set the seal on membership, which costs 275,000 yuan (HK$342,000) and a monthly subscription of 1,500 yuan. They only need to register in advance to enjoy private clubhouses' facilities.

But club records show that Beijing clubhouse members - 587 at June 30 last year - constitute less than 1 percent of the total utilization of facilities in Hong Kong each year. So no big advantage- taking there.

But the club's membership committee does review complaints and comments from time to time, a spokesman says.

So while he didn't say it, those who find their new fellow members' Putonghua too loud and discordant can mount up or shut up.

© 2015 The Standard, The Standard Newspapers Publishing Ltd.
Contact Us | About Us | Newsfeeds | Subscriptions | Print Ad. | Online Ad. | Street Pts


Home | Top News | Local | Business | China | ViewPoint | CityTalk | World | Sports | People | Central Station | Spree | Features

The Standard

Trademark and Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015, The Standard Newspaper Publishing Ltd., and its related entities. All rights reserved.  Use in whole or part of this site's content is prohibited.   Use of this Web site assumes acceptance of the
Terms of Use, Privacy Policy Statement and Copyright Policy.  Please also read our Ethics Statement.