I tried to go swimming today.
The university has two lovely, limpid, tropical blue pools which are usually empty this time of year. The locals complain that it is too hot for swimming. This apparently quixotic attitude should have prepared me for what was to come.
I collected the appropriate paper work, saying that I am a visiting Honorary Research Fellow, and headed up the hill in the sweltering heat. I arrived in the empty foyer of the multi level Flora Ho Sports centre and approached the inquiries desk. " I want to go for a swim," I said. "You need to join Sports Union," she replied. I was ready for this. I brandished my paperwork and she scrutinised it carefully. "You must take out a full year's membership," she said, " You will pay $600!". "But I am only going to be here for six months," I said hopefully,"Do you have a half year rate?". "No short term rate!" was the reply. The day was hot and the swimmerless pool beckoned. I hadn't had a swim for months. I was desperate. I pulled six hundred dollars out of my wallet and brandished it at her. "Of course the new sports year begins in September," she said. "If you pay $600 now you will only have a year's membership until the end of August." It was July. I am not sure whether it was the heat or the logic that was making me dizzy. As my head swam, I very nearly coughed up the lolly, although in retrospect $600 did seem rather a lot to go for one or two swims. But then this was Hong Kong. One expects to get fleeced here. I wavered but she was too quick for me. She eyed my fist full of dollars. "Of course we only take cheques," she said triumphantly. "Those are the rules."
Now being a stupid foreign devil, I thought that you had rules to ensure orderly ends. I had forgotten that there were those who thought that rules existed for their own sake, divorced completely from the everyday needs of men such as swimming.
Almost beaten and by this time feverish, I trudged back down the hill to the Centre of Asian Studies. Now I knew my fellow visiting scholars there had managed to get into the pool. Did they pay $600 for the full year? Not at all, Suave Andre, the Austrian economist, told me, "I paid $100 for three months". I rang the Sports Centre and asked to speak to the Director. Being a European employee, he was out to lunch and his secretary could or would not tell me when he might be back. His deputies were similarly lost in space. They finally put me through to the Head Clerk. She read the rules. She admitted that there was such a thing as a visitor's rate and the fee was $100 for three months.
Armed with this arcane knowledge, I trudged back up the hill. The little clerk was still behind the counter. She gave me a look like thunder. Can I have a form for university visitors, I asked. "You are not a visitor," she said. "Of course I am visiting," I said, thinking "Do I look like a son of mother China to you?" "You paperwork says you are an Honorary Scholar, and if you look at the form provided for University employees, you will see it names Honorary scholars as university employees. The rules say all university employees must pay $600 until September." Now I have a university staff number but they don't employ me. I could see that such philosophical argements would win me no points here. But equally, I was't going to walk back down the hill again. I asked if I could use the phone, sitting silently on the counter in front of me during our negotiations. "The phone is for Sports staff only. We get many calls on it" she said as the phone continued to sit there mutely. "It's a rule?" I said. "Quite right," said the clerk brightening, presumably realising that this ignorant foreign professor was at last seeing how things were done. He was but not in the way she thought. I went over to the pay phone, rang my Centre's Executive Director. I asked her to fax me a new letter of introduction which said I was a visitor and which asked for their co-operation. I was seeking new paperwork produced by a high level official. The fax took five minutes to arrive. Consternation followed. I had played my Ace and trumped them. "It seems you may be visiting," she said. "Yes," I said, "Here's my cheque for one hundred dollars" I filled in the visitors form. It was scrutinised and declared correct. "Now may I go for a swim?" "No," she replied," We need three working days to process the application. Anyway, it is now too late to take your photograph for your pass. Come back after Monday." I still had one duplictious foreign trick up my sleeve. While back my office the last time, I collected a guest ticket which staff members could give to their friends who wanted to use the pool. I pulled it out my pocket. She grimaced when she saw it and turned it over carefully. I thought I had her beaten but I was just a foolish foreigner after all. "You will see by reading the back that this ticket is only valid when the guest is accompanied by a Sports Union member. I don't see anyone else here. I am sorry but those are the rules. Good afternoon".
It was at this point I realised why the British started the Opium wars. Some time in the middle of the last century, some gormless chinless English wonder had sought to have a nice cooling swim in jolly old Canton. He had been confronted by a junior member of the Chinese mandirinate who then read him the rules. Murder, mayhem, bloodshed and civil debacle of an unprecedented scale followed as a matter of course.