by Nick Gerry-Bullard
My friend Ben invited me to go on a “hash” – an English ex-pat tradition that combines jogging with a treasure hunt – in Hang Hau country park, one of the many wilderness parks of Hong Kong. I thought, what could go wrong with a little nighttime group run in the woods?
I got to the meeting point at the MTR station around dusk and Ben, 25, bearded, wearing his yellow USC tank top, was holding the cab that was to take our belongings from point A, the start of the race, to point B, where it ended. I tossed my bag – including phone, ID, and wallet (less a single $20 which I kept) – into the cab. We were waiting for Doug, and as soon as he arrived, a brusque 40-ish executive of some indeterminate kind, we took off jogging.
There had been downpours throughout the day but now the sky was clearing with clouds whipping along above Hong Kong’s high-rises. It was misting and breezy and dark as we jogged along the road leading from the MTR.
Doug explained the rules of the hash as we ran. He told us to look for piles of flour, chalk arrows, or scraps of toilet paper to mark the trail. Every 60 paces or so, there should be a “check” – a circular mark confirming that you’re on the right path. A sign in the shape of a T meant we’d hit a dead end.
The group should split up at a check to search for the right trail, and remember to call “Are you?” occasionally. People yell back “Checking” if they’re still looking – or “Trail!” if they’ve found a mark. “Trail!” meant you better sprint towards that voice because it won’t always wait for you.
Doug and I had our headlamps on (oh yes, we were wearing headlamps) and this made picking out the piles of flour pretty straightforward, when they were still intact from the rain. The trail was marked by a hasher who went by the name Bobbledick. Doug muttered that Bobbledick could have used more flour, given the weather.
This sport was first invented in 1938 in Malaysia by British officers and expatriates. Later, a club formed called the “Hash House Harriers” who chased a hare along a trail. Their aim was to get rid of weekend hangovers and to convince older members that they were still vibrant. The real objective though was the reward at the end – beer, cigarettes and a feast.
Bobbledick’s trail paid no respect to pedestrian routes: a cement drainage channel carved into the hillside was as fair game as a broad walkway. Yellow signs with characters we couldn’t understand likely warned death and dismemberment; we clambered over them in search of the flour. Often had to climb back when we couldn’t find it. Doug typically led, with Ben between and me behind, providing a light for Ben’s footsteps, as he didn’t have a lamp. We kept up a sparse chatter about work and time spent in Hong Kong, more, I think, to distract us from a growing worry about the trail than anything. Talking, as it turned out, was the easy part.
Every few minutes we would reach a juncture and split up to look for the mark. On my own, what I could see shrunk to the quavering white circle of my headlamp. Moss, wet leaves, and wet rocks flashed along below my feet. I heard the day’s showers rushing through the park’s culverts, my own panting, and the wind through the trees far above. At one point, caught in a snarl of hanging vines, I stopped long enough to watch a foot-long centipede rolling smoothly along inches from my foot, shining darkly against the wet brown leaves and tree roots.
We ran along the ridge at the top of the park, the wind roaring, bending the trees, almost drowning out our shouts of “Are you?” and “Checking!” The sky was a dark bruised yellow-purple from the storm and the lights of Kowloon filtering up through the mist. The occasional gust of rain blew across the ridge, but for the most part the fog just clung to us and cohered, slicking our skin. Doug’s increasingly venomous commentary on Bobbledick reached profane levels.
We circled, circled back, and searched. We were soaked. The trail was lost. Our belongings were at “B.” Yet in our haste to get going, we hadn’t taken the moment to ask where B was. Doug said that he had seen it written somewhere as “university.” We looked at him dumbfounded. That was all we had to go by? “University?” Which university, and where? The run was listed at nine kilometers, which made for a worrisomely inclusive radius. Ben thought he’d heard the cabbie say something about “Dai Kok.” We had no idea where that was either.
We took stock of our belongings – Doug’s metro card and my twenty Hong Kong dollars. No phones. Doug assessed our meager supplies and summed it up as “le clusterfuck.” We nodded glumly.
The plan, the best we could think of, became to run back to the MTR stop, where at least we’d be able to ask someone which university might lie within 9 kilometers.
The return felt surprisingly brief. When I could look up from my footwork, I was amazed to see that even at this height, we were eye-level with mid-range apartments in the skyscrapers abutting the park.
Finally, we entered the air-conditioned hangar of the MTR station like a trio of filthy, soaked stowaways dragged into the sunlight from the hold of a ship, blinking in the fluorescent lights, streaked with mud and bits of clinging jungle, smelling of sweat and fear.
We wandered through the mall attached to the station, with a vague idea that we might find an internet cafe from which to retrieve Bobbledick’s phone number or some more information about “B.” No such luck. Finally we got a map from a bemused MTR station attendant, looked through the index of “Secondary Schools & Universities” and found that the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology was not far away. And if this wasn’t the University in question, we reasoned, at least there would be a computer lab with internet.
My $20 was enough to get Ben and myself onto the minibus that went to the campus; Doug had his metro card. A ten minute ride later, we were in the parking lot of the University, looking again for piles of flour – and within two minutes, we’d found one – and then another, and 60 paces on, another.
Five minutes later, we rounded the corner to find a group of middle-aged men and women sitting around on university benches in varying states of griminess drinking beer and Schweppes grapefruit soda. We had found the hashers. I looked at my watch; 9:15. Our sojourn in the woods had lasted less than 90 minutes.
And there sat Bobbledick, a lanky Brit with a sort of grizzled gentility who wouldn’t have looked out of place in a safari hat. He wore a tattered turquoise fanny-pack and spandex shorts that gave clinging testimony to his nickname, and seemed quite oblivious to criticism. Perhaps it was because Doug was too new a hasher to have even earned a nickname. But I didn’t see him take any special account of the complaints from Wanchai Wanker, Gin and Vomit, or Hopeless, either.
Doug and a few other frustrated hashers left at that point. The rest of us headed to the Chinese-subsidized university restaurant. Food arrived for 12– egg-drop soup, sweet and sour pork, prawn noodles, sliced ham with oranges, fried rice, sauteed grouper over broccoli, eggplant bathed in sesame sauce. After an intense debate, Bobbledick and Wanchai Wanker compromised and ordered seven pitchers of beer. Ben and I were seated next to Sticky Little Sex Toy, and we got to know her a bit.
With the food largely eaten, the pitchers drained, and the restaurant staff utterly exasperated at the group’s indifference to their 10pm closing time, the “Down-Downs” began – a series of sarcastic awards handed out by Indy, a garrulous Scot with a machine-gun laugh, to recognize the stand-outs and flops of the run.
You had to be “upstanding,” that is, standing up, to receive your award, which was a shot of beer from one of the restaurant’s teacups, swallowed to a boozy chant of “down-down-down-down-down.” Bobbledick got plenty of down-downs for his failure to mark the trail; everyone else got one for our failure to find it. Ben and I were down-downed as new runners and encouraged to come the next week. When the check came around, we paid the equivalent of $12 US for the feast and another dollar for having joined the run – the 1,795th taken by the Little Sai Wan Hash House Harriers.