IAIN LAFFERTY: No heavy petting


With the cool sniff of autumn in the air the municipal lanes of Hong Kong’s swimming pools, again become a temperate environment in which to get one’s exercise. Yet, even on a tranquil Monday morning just after sunrise, one can detect the ubiquitous heavy hand of regulation.

Even before entering the water (“no running”, “no pushing”) a choice has to be made between “slow lane” and “fast lane.” Be warned this has nothing to do with swimming ability but is an attempt to psychologically profile swimmers and separate them into two categories for ease of policing. The signs might as well say “arrogant” and “humble” or “Pro-Beijing” and “Pan-democrat” or my preferred signage “Lennon” and “McCartney.”

Once in the pool (“no ducking”, “no bombing”) a mild form of anarchy takes over and swimmers of both persuasions, insulated by goggles to the normal manners and etiquette of everyday life, behave like road rage afflicted motorists attempting to navigate their way through the asphalt Georgian knot of traffic chaos known as the Choi Hung Interchange. Have you ever noticed that pedestrians are never prone to such crazed episodes? “Well I was walking through Harvey Nics having a casual look at the Louis Vuitton slippers when this mad city slicker type cuts me right up and forces me to swerve into the face cream counter!” They’d think you’re mad.

Ironically such disorder is actually quite good for abdominal toning. Negotiating a chlorinated slalom course comprised of middle-aged men in budgie smugglers, unpredictably kicking their limbs in all directions is, in terms of exercise, equivalent to performing multiple sit-ups with a fridge taped to your head. But it isn’t swimming and attempting to plough a solo furrow outside of the lanes is no better.

Regardless of how quiet the pool, outside the safety of the floating ropes (“no acrobatics or gymnastics”) you will always encounter some elderly gentleman, flying in the face of all conventions, by swimming across the pool. Performing a weird slow motion Cantonese version of the breast stoke he will cross in perfect synchronicity to give you a perpendicular head-but in the middle of every 50m length.

All activities in the pool, regardless of how reckless or compliant, are conducted under the gaze of the ever-watchful red and yellow uniformed lifeguards. Though their passivity is much documented (surprisingly more than their lack of remuneration) I can’t seem to swim more than ten metres without one of them blowing their whistle because of some perceived contravention of the regulations. To the extent that I can only surmise that swimming while keeping within the confines of the law must be a more difficult legal exercise than running a Sai Kung restaurant with outside tables.


The Scottish indoor swimming pools of my youth also exhibited a long list of rules annotated with comic pictures to illustrate unacceptable behavior. However, these were seen more as a loose set of guidelines and enforcement was never pursued. My favorite was always the slightly chauvinistic “No heavy petting”, with the implication that mild to moderate public groping in the pool was perfectly acceptable.

So do the rules of The Leisure and Cultural Services Department help or hinder the wellbeing of Hong Kong swimmers? Who knows, but perhaps this is a perfect metaphor for totalitarian China? I’ve certainly never seen anyone spitting or smoking in a public pool and this has to be viewed as a good thing. However doesn’t everyone secretly yearn to euphemistically swim in the diving area?

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