I’m leaning back, Ryan Lochte style against the shiny white tiles, arms outstretched across the dark slats that hide the filtration system. It slurps loudly and continuously, it is 8:15am, an ungodly hour for me, yet little can dampen my mood. It is 26 degrees and the sun is peeping down from behind the ram-shackled high rise which neighbours this amazing pool. Whilst in the same repose yesterday afternoon, I saw a magnificent eagle swoop down from 30 floors up, at least, to land on a balcony, next to someone’s drying underwear, fluttering in the breeze. It’s gigantic wingspan dwarfed the window which silhouetted it. No, for the amphibiously minded, this is a pretty nice spot.
The pool is outdoors, housed on top of the changing rooms and entrance hall on the ground floor. It costs approximately £1.40 per visit. Last week we were asked to leave the pool due to continuous thunder and lightning, which had been rattling around Hong Kong harbour for at least half an hour before. You can see out to Hong Kong harbour, just catch the mountains of the new territories through the haze, as helicopters fly overhead with alarming regularity. These are not the normal sights of your weekday constitutional, but it’s all the more invigorating for it.
There is one sting(ray) to this tale. It relates to the clientele. They are predominantly old, scratch that, they are desiccated. But, they are incredible. They look like finely-sanded teak. These guys are in it for the long haul. One man is sunbathing, on a lounger, at 8:30am, (I join him for a quick 5 minutes @ 9:30) which is why everyone looks like they belong at the David Dickinson end of the colour palette. I watch as a man leans against the metal rail and stretches his arms, windmilling them forward and back, then the neck and legs. I can’t help but think of those military-style state exercise displays you see in crackling black and white archive footage. He must have done the same routine when he was a boy, a teenager (well maybe not a teenager, no one does what they are supposed to when they are a teenager) a father, and now, every day, for his invigorating trip to the pool.
It was not something I considered really, when I decided to come to Hong Kong, the affection for swimming and water here. As most, you are visually arrested by the wallpaper of towers which rise far above your field of vision in every direction, that’s all you consider initially. It is a very welcome discovery (I have been on at least 4 boats, two beaches and a hidden cove since i arrived, but more on them another day).
It is popular and it is serious, only the prudish westerners sport baggy shorts, (me included, although a more aggressive purchase is currently pending), EVERYONE else is in lycra, and not much of it either. But more so, everyone is in possession of a pair of goggles, or at the very least sunglasses (for the sun loungers amongst). Tinted lenses are a necessity, unless you want to blind yourself from sunshine as well as chlorine. Caps are also very common.
And so to the heart of the matter. Although everyone is professionally kitted, there is absolutely no need. Most people are 70+, most are fairly frail, in short, we are not looking at elite athletes here. This is aptly demonstrated by the actual experience of swimming in Hong Kong. People swim slowly, so slowly, I am not actually sure it is possible to generate such little forward momentum. There are no rules. There is no pattern. There is one lane for lap swimming. People still swim their sedentary breast stroke in it at between 0.5-1 knots. This forms the very merest semblance of organisation, after this, it is anarchy. People just swim, wherever and however they want. So far I have witnessed:
People standing in the middle of a section only used by lap swimmers. People stopping after half a length and walking the rest (it’s a 50m pool, it takes a while). People leaning against the edge and pumping their feet like an outboard motor. People jumping up and down at the edge ducking their head in and out of the water.
I move to one lane, swim several lengths, only to find someone else has appropriated the same lane and is currently bearing down on me at a rate of knots which i can only describe as pedalo speed. I am loath to overtake people, I am too British and polite to do that, but on occasion I have, only to find myself thwarted when I reach the turn, as I see my adversary has stopped early, turned, and now occupies the same floating obstruction which I have just worked so hard (both morally and physically) to overcome. As you stand at the water’s edge, you look across and see the slow bob of a multicoloured swarm of swim hats. Like an invading army of fashionably attired aquatic snails. Some bob quickly, some very slowly, one constant is that their forward propulsion is dictated as much by the wind than by the swimmer. One old guy seemed to disappear for ten seconds for every stroke. I watched him underwater and discovered he seemed to try to dive down to the bottom with every stroke, clearly waiting for his karmic reincarnation as a Dolphin, but he was as happy as Larry.
As you can tell, I am outraged by this. It is exasperating. It is ridiculous. It just makes no sense. I have to stop myself. I am swimming at 2pm on a weekday, in 27 degree heat, life is not really meant to be so enraged in this situation. It dawns on me that there is a significance to this. People swim here to enjoy swimming. Sure, some are trying to displace most of the water from the pool like myself, but most are there to feel the water on their skin and the sun on their back.
This same attitude prevails elsewhere in Hong Kong. It is extremely noticeable when you are out on the streets. People walk at their own pace, they walk as slow as possible, three abreast, and they don’t care about other walkers, and they don’t ever vary their pace or direction to assist others. The carry on in their own merry way. This I find both intriguing and bizarre. It is always a hilarious footnote that Londoners can spot tourists because they stand in the wrong place, walk in the wrong direction, move the wrong way. Basically they do everything wrong. Yet here I am, a tourist of two weeks, ostensibly, and I am the one dodging and weaving and muttering and sweating, as I slap down the escalators or jaywalk on a green light (frowned upon and which is very hard to do stylishly whilst wearing flips-flops). Trying to get there now, trying to catch the next MTR (tube). But maybe I am the foolish one. People have lived here all their lives, they wear trousers and jumpers in the height of summer. In 32 degrees and 85% humidity. They know why they don’t run for that bus or squeeze past that large group of OAP chinese tourists, because it’s really not worth it. The moments between blissful air-conditioned tranquility are few, but when they are enforced, the Hong Kongers will not suffer it. I have no job, nowhere to be and no one to meet, yet I run and I’m late and I sweat and I sweat. Maybe I should appreciate why I’m constantly swimming against the tide.