The sharp yelps of a pack on the run reverberate through the hills behind Parkview, one of Hong Kong's posher gated communities. A plaintive "where are you?" cry from within the bush is answered by a chorus of "checking," followed by individual shouts of "chalk" and "flour." Moments later a triumphant "on on!" rings out, a bugle sounds the battle charge, and the runners, dripping with sweat, burst from the underbrush. Casually slinging quips, jokes and benign insults with the easy camaraderie of old acquaintances, the 30-large herd mills around a clearing, in search of the next sign marked by chalk or flour to show where to go.
These are the wild and wacky Hash House Harriers, part jogging group, part frat party—and self-described "drinking club with a running problem." "Hashers" trot and sprint together not just for exercise but to socialize and banter (in their own arcane jargon), and to quaff copious amounts of beer that cancel out the very health benefits they gain from running. Many people—mostly expatriates— find the mix appealing, and "hash" chapters have mushroomed in cities worldwide.
The tradition was begun in 1938 by A. S. Gisbert, a Kuala Lumpur-based British expat. Inspired by paper chase clubs he had first seen in action while stationed in Malacca, Gisbert persuaded his colleagues to "hunt" with him, on foot rather than horseback. Gisbert, as the hare, would mark long, meandering trails through the brush with chalk arrows and piles of flour. The hounds or "harriers," would set off soon after, in hopes of "capturing" the hare before he finished the trail. The reward at the end of the run, whether or not the hare was caught, was cold beer for all. The group would start out from the company mess hall, dubbed the "hash house" for its dubious cuisine, and soon became known as the Hash House Harriers. They drafted a charter that to this day is still closely followed: to promote fitness among members, to get rid of weekend hangovers, to acquire a good thirst and to satisfy it in beer, and to persuade the older members that they are not as old as they feel. "It's like the McDonald's of social clubs," says Howard Franks, a veteran Hong Kong hasher. "You know exactly what you are going to get: running and beer." Each run follows a simple formula: an hour or so of hare and hounds followed by a bout of drinking and eating, followed by yet more drinking by those still standing.
The beer, combined with the often strenuous running, builds a quick camaraderie among hashers. It also makes it easy for people to drop in and visit a hash. After one or two drinks, everyone, fast or slow, shy or loud, feels at home. Depending on the club (there are nearly a dozen in Hong Kong alone), the amount of drinking varies from an optional cold one at the finish to a supervised "down-down" of several beers in quick succession, due to some violation of an obscure—and quite possibly made-up on the spot—hashing law. While the rules vary from group to group, one is a constant: anyone caught wearing new sneakers will be punished with an extra large serving of beer—drunk from the offending shoe.
Despite hashing's international veneer, a finely wrought British toilet humor still predominates in hash circles—the post-run roundup of jokes, insults and infractions. The naming of newcomers, a long-standing hash tradition usually accompanied by a liberal anointment of beer and flour, can border on the obscene. "You aren't supposed to like your hash name," says Martin ("Camel") Luzon, so dubbed for his long legs and loping gait. "Usually it's some sort of caricature, or comes from something that happened on a run." He cites the example of "Skidmark," an unfortunate hasher caught with his pants down on the side of the trail. Franks, for the record, is "Baby Puke."
In Hong Kong, there are hashes for men, women, mixed groups and serious runners. There is even a hash for adrenaline junkies: the T8 hash boasts that "we run for fun when everyone else runs for cover"—it ventures out when the strength of a typhoon slamming into Hong Kong is graded eight, just one level below the full intensity of a direct hit. Regardless of each group's idiosyncrasies, one characteristic that never changes is that every hash is open to newcomers. "A hash, no matter where, is always welcoming," says Justin ("Secret Passage") Searle. "You can go to any city in the world, show up at a hash and immediately find a social group. It's a great way to meet people, and discover parts of the city you would never find on your own." All they ask is that you pay a small fee to offset the cost of drinks, have a positive attitude, and are prepared to have fun. Just be sure to follow the advice of Hong Kong native Shreedhar "Marmalade Head" Natarajan. "Bring water, a torch and a good sense of humor." And, never, ever wear new shoes.