Highlife
Inflight Magazine of British Airways

March 1, 1998

The Spotted Dog


The Spotted Dog

Andrew Eames Visits the Kuala Lumpur Birthplace of the Hash House Harriers, Where Gin Is the Tonic to a Hard Day's Run

From British Airways in flight magazine "Highlife"

This autumn will be a breathless time for Kuala Lumpur. In September the Commonwealth Games bring 2,500 world-class athletes to the new National Sports Complex South of the City. Two weeks later, another not-so-well-known sporting fixture - Interhash '98 - will attract double that number.

They will descend on a long, low, mock-Tudor medley of buildings that runs along one side of Merdeka Square, opposite the onion-domed law courts. Its official name is the Royal Selangor Club, but to most it's known affectionately as the Spotted Dog - the birthplace of the Hash House Harriers (HHH); that infamous expat "drinking club with a running problem".

The athletic component began as a sort of cross-country paperchase originally concocted by scattered plantation pioneers in the Malaya of the 1930s. One of the early participants was a jolly, rotund accountant named Stephen Albert Gispert (known as 'G') who ran for the Springgit Harriers in Malacca.

In 1936, Gispert arrived in Kuala Lumpur and, with his friends 'Torch' Bennett, Cecil Lee, 'Horse' Thompson and a few others, started a running club from the Royal Selangor Club and its associated Selangor Club Chambers (nicknamed the Hash House for its mediocre cuisine), where they lodged and dined. Perhaps for the alliterative opportunities alone the new running club was christened the Hash House Harriers. It was doubly appropriate because the sport is a bit of a hash itself: everything and everyone is thrown into the pot, and while the final result may not be particularly good, it's taking part that counts.

For some years hashing remained a bizarre activity practised only by mad dogs and Englishmen in Kuala Lumpur before it spread to Singapore and Brunei. In 1967 the first 'overseas' chapter was established at the Dhekelia army base in Cyprus. When the original Hash House Harriers celebrated their 1,500th run in 1973, there were 35 chapters worldwide. Now as hashing celebrates its 60th anniversary, there are about 1,600 clubs in 180 countries.

Its birthplace, too, has continued to thrive, although the reality these days is that the Spotted Dog has less of a running problem than it did. Despite the considerable number of sports on the roster, the taking part tends to be social. Of the 218 members of the golf chapter, 180 don't actually play.

I was welcomed to the club by its effervescent president: charming, cravated Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Manjit Singh. It was still early afternoon, but several chums in the main bar were already sizzling with bonhomie. A few stengahs (whiskies) had been yam seng-ed (knocked back). Would I care to join in? I protested that I couldn't possibly, so the Lt Colonel (retired, it turned out, into the business of defence sales) ordered me a gunner, which despite the alarming name turned out to be nothing more than a judicious mix of ginger beer and ginger ale.

The Spotted Dog may be largely the domain of gentlemen, but it owes its nickname to the drinking habits of the wife of Captain Syres, the chief of police at the end of the 1800s when KL was just a shanty town. Mrs Syres used to turn up in her carriage for her constitutional, leaving her two Dalmatians (the spotted dogs) tied up outside.

The club today has en exclusive membership of movers and shakers, and although the old colonials are long gone, they've left a lingo behind. Gin Slings are still popular and conversation at the Long Bar still runs along the lines of "My wife's an angel." "Lucky chap - mine is still alive."

In the club's records are glorious descriptions of cricket matches gone by, particularly those encounters between the club's team, usually representing Malaysia and touring foreign sides. The account of a visit from the Australian team in 1927, for example, describes an Australian cricketer "as powerful as King Kong, and a Sir Galahad who had the strength of ten, who went in to stop the rot by knocking Hennessy off his length". Tip top stuff.

But things have changed since the days of Maugham and Kipling, who both sojourned here. The 'one-armed bandits' in the gaming room are very popular, as is the rising tide of mobile telephones.

And then there are the club's physical changes. It has not had an easy history: once upon a time, sparks from passing steam engines used to regularly set the cushions on fire. It was flooded in 1926, the servants' quarters collapsed in 1936, and a generous portion of club buildings were burnt down in 1970. That it remains on its prime site at all is the result of much determination on the part of its well-connected members.

Today most of its sporting activities take place well out of town, and the inter-hashers too will be disappearing into rubber and oil plantations. They will, however, return to the Long Bar in the evenings, where the talk will be of what Horse did with Torch all those years ago.

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