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

First of all 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.”

Photo: intoinnovation.wordpress.com.

Once in the pool (“no ducking”, “no bombing”) a mild form of anarchy takes over and swimmers of both persuasions, insulated by goggles from the normal manners and etiquette of everyday life, behave like road-rage afflicted motorists navigating their way through the Gordian knot of traffic chaos known as the Cross-Harbour Tunnel. Have you ever noticed that pedestrians are never prone to such extremes? “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 lock you up.

Ironically such disorder is actually quite good for abdominal toning. Negotiating an aquatic slalom course 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 trying 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-butt 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 well documented (surprisingly more than their low pay) I can’t seem to swim more than ten metres without one of them blowing a whistle because of some perceived contravention of the regulations. I can only surmise that swimming while keeping within the law must be a more difficult legal exercise than running a Soho restaurant with outside tables.

Kowloon Swimming Pool. Photo: LCSD.

The Scottish indoor swimming pools of my youth also exhibited a long list of rules, with comic pictures to illustrate unacceptable behavior. However, these were seen more as a loose set of guidelines and never enforced. 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 swim in the diving area?

Iain Lafferty

Iain Lafferty has lived in Hong Kong for the last ten years and is a teacher of mathematics at KGV School. He is a father of two children, both made in China, and a resident and advocate of Sai Kung. In addition, he is a recreational writer and regularly contributes his opinions on everything to anyone who will listen, or not. He occasionally visits Hong Kong Island but often gets lost.