In one of Hong Kong’s most affluent neighborhoods, high above the city, astronauts, clowns, men wearing pink wigs race past me and carry women in whimsically-decorated sedan chairs.
It’s a Sunday morning in late October and a small crowd has gathered to watch 53 teams compete in a staggered-start, 2.1 kilometer race near the city’s iconic Victoria Peak. Marty Kaylor, a consultant who hails from San Jose, Calif., tells me the sight of colorfully-outfitted characters reminds him of the annual Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco. You know, the race where…
“Everybody runs either naked or runs in strange costumes and runs with kegs of beer,” Kaylor says.
This is Hong Kong’s 39th annual Sedan Chair Race and it’s decidedly more PG-13 than Bay to Breakers, but nearly as irreverent.
I catch up with members of the Swiss Association of Hong Kong just shy of the halfway mark. They’re wearing sporty red tracksuits and carrying a Swiss maid in a sedan chair shaped like a ski gondola. They look well, Swiss, organized and efficient.
They don’t have a strategy and they couldn’t care less what place they come in. They’re out to have fun, raise money for charity and hand out chocolate to spectators…and reporters.
After I bid the Swiss team adieu-or auf wiedersehen-or arrivederci-or whatever “good-bye” in Romansh is, I run into another team from a local toy manufacturer named Jetta. They’re dressed in safari-style khakis and are only 200 feet from the finish line. They’ve pulled over for an emergency pit stop.
I ask what happened. “The main structure is ripped out,” they explain.
Their sedan chair, built to look like a hot air balloon, has hit a tree and needs repair. The momentary pause gives me a chance to ask them the question on every spectators’ mind.
Charlie: Is it very heavy?
Team member: No, no, no. It’s quite light. Because of she.
‘She’ is the passenger, Wing.
“Of course I’m the small one,” Wing says.
Wing is a diminutive Hong Konger-just the right size to be carried around the hilly Mt. Kellett Road. According to race rules, the passenger has to be “over 16 years old, alive and human.” Wing is all three. If your team consists entirely of ladies or youngsters you can substitute a human with a 10 kg bag of rice.
Fortunately Wing is, well, light as a feather, because I help carry the chair…toward another tree.
Coordinator Eris Lau tells me the idea for the Sedan Chair race started in 1975 when a local hospital, now known as Matilda International, was struggling financially. So a group of nurses and doctors came up with a fun way of raising funds. And, Lau explains, “they think of something very creative which is carrying someone from downtown area up to the peak.”
Reason being in old Hong Kong the most comfortable way to get from the central business district to the 500-meter high peak was via sedan chair, or rickshaw. Well, comfortable if you were a British colonist.
“During that time only foreigners, English…could have the right to be carried on by Chinese people OK, by means of sedan chair,” Lau says.
Colonial days are, of course, long gone, and that first idea of carrying people up a hill was abandoned for this free-spirited race instead. The first year four teams competed. This year 53 signed up, each paying upwards of $4,500. All money is distributed to local charities. And while all this sounds promising, the race has struggled to find entrants the past few years which Lau chalks up to tight-fisted Hong Kong bosses who, with the recent introduction of the territory’s first minimum wage, are pinching pennies.
“So in that way charity must be put aside,” she says.
While the list of awards at the Sedan Chair race may read like high school yearbook accolades (best dressed, best team spirit, most entertaining) there are some reserved for runners who are out to win. This year the Hong Kong Ladies Road Runners club finished in a brisk 9:50, garnering them two awards. They don’t wear costumes, and they don’t decorate their sedan chair. They actually train and have a strategy, which according to captain Kelly Irwin involves getting the changeovers right, “because you get really tired in the same position, especially if you’re in the middle holding the chair.”
Still, most participants are more like Jean-David from the Swiss Association of Hong Kong who says: ”You don’t do that for the sport event. You do that for the charities and just the fun.”
Not to mention some delicious Swiss chocolate.