I do remember. My parents were members of the KBGC in the 1970s. The gardener's house with its pitched roof and two windows and the well in front of it (a real well, with a bucket on a rope) seemed as pastoral as an illustration from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Those were halcyon days, burnished by Coppertone and spent in the amiable narcosis of beer, Bensons and too much ice cream.
The house and well are gone now, replaced by an electricity substation, and the old guard is vanishing fast. "There's something like 450 members now," reckons Gawler, "of which only about 40 of us are expats. But it was all expats back then. Now it's empty half the time, and it's quite sad really."
Afterward, in the cool, crepuscular and deserted bar we drink pints beneath photographs of the long departed and the disparu—champions of '66, good old boys of '73. "I think it's difficult for the club," says Gawler. "We're one of the cheapest clubs to join, but the joining fee is HK$30,000, and that's still too expensive really. I don't know who they're going to get. I mean, would you join this for $30,000?" As he says this he gestures at a mothballed snooker room.
For Hong Kong's old colonial clubs these are, officially, interesting times. The 1997 handover saw a huge exodus of longtime colonial members. Newly arrived expats—on short contracts—aren't bothering to join, and although some of the shortfall is made up by Hong Kong Chinese, they have rather different expectations. A timeworn armchair and a three-month-old copy of Country Life doesn't cut it, not in a world of spas, martini bars and multimedia lounges.
It wasn't always this way. Until recently, clubs like the KBGC were the beckoning centers of daily colonial life. Karen Penlington, raised in Hong Kong and the daughter of a judge, remembers them well. "Darling! Do I have memories! I practically grew up in the Ladies' Recreation Club [LRC]. We joined in 1969, and I would go to lie in the sun and get a tan with chums. We used to have great tennis parties and get tiddly on martinis. And I had my first crush on a fella there—an Argentine, God!"
Of course, if there is one asset the clubs are all chasing now, it is the local member. An Asian-white ratio of 90 to 10 is no longer seen as unspeakable decline but economic salvation. In pursuit of this, the clubs have undergone strenuous reinvention, espousing "multiculturalism" and downplaying Anglo connections like any lefty nongovernmental organization.
"The clubs have changed," says Marian Conbeer, the tanned and motherly manager of the Kowloon Cricket Club. "Local people don't need the club in the same way. They've got their own lives, so they pop into the club. But the expats used to come all day, every day. They didn't have anything else. We've lost that—it's just not here anymore."
What is here is professionalization. The stiff challenge of simultaneously upgrading facilities while lowering entrance fees to attract new members in a recessionary economy requires officials of stronger nerves than the blimpish club presidents of yore. Harbinger of the new wave is Andrew Mckenzie, the young chairman of the United Services Recreation Club (USRC). By day, he manages a large construction company and so brings a business brain to the clubhouse, salting his conversation with marketing speak like "strategic partnership" and "image enhancement."
Originally set up for the British military, the USRC is where the changes have been rung in most earnestly. The club has hired Aidan Murphy—a 10-year hospitality veteran—as its general manager and plans "to get member numbers up, implement a capital upgrading program and get usage rates going" says Mckenzie. "The luxury of the USRC is that in crowded Hong Kong the club can offer green, open space."
To Elizabeth Bosher, until last month president of the LRC, competition among clubs for scarce members "made us realize just how tatty parts of our club were. We'd stopped noticing it, and that was the result of an amateur approach. Our conclusion is that we had to professionalize everything—not that we don't want members to get involved, but professionalization is the way to go." To demonstrate this, the LRC recently opened a sports bar as slick as the ones in Hong Kong's Soho district.
The LRC's barman, in fact, is one indicator of change in erstwhile colonial clubland. At a luxury hotel 10 minutes away, the staff don't know how to make a mojito—the au courant Cuban cocktail of rum, mint and sugar. But at the LRC, they whip one up in seconds. There's not a whiskey soda in sight.
Another indicator is a sign at the KBGC. Instead of hectoring members to switch off their mobiles, it simply asks for phones to be put on silent mode. No Chinese will be parted from his cellular, so that one small sign tells a long story of cultural accommodation. "I mean no disrespect to the locals," says Gawler, "but they're not really as sociable as the expats. They don't get drunk and that. A lot of them come in here, pour themselves a glass of water, read the paper and go away again."
I can't blame him for saying the unsayable. But the thought hangs uncomfortably in the late-afternoon air. And we both know that the sober force of history is not about to be thwarted by an old bowling club.