A run through the jungle with Kuala Lumpur’s ‘hashers’
There are days, even in the drier months outside of the monsoons, when a sudden downpour will attack the city, flooding the streets and reminding locals how accurately named is Kuala Lumpur. Taken literally, it means “muddy delta”.
A perfect day, according to the Hash House Harriers, for a run in the jungle.
On the morning I head over to the Royal Selangor Club that runs along one side of KL’s Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square), conditions couldn’t be better for a jungle jaunt. It should be a gentle winter’s day – instead, I battle through a curtain of steamy precipitation so thick that it’s difficult to even find the clubhouse.
My host arrives and signs me in as a guest. Balasingham Chellathurai, or Gym Bala as he’s known in hashing circles, is one of those heroic figures that this pastime tends to attract and produce. At his advanced age, he should be delicately packed away in storage like one of the club’s colonial antiquities. But despite close to half a century in age between us, I’m fairly certain the man could outrun me. His nickname is testament to his athleticism – decades of working out have left him hard as teak.
A retired military contractor, Bala’s got a yen for mess-hall history, which makes him the perfect guide for my tour of the RSC and its Hash Heritage room. The club was founded in 1884 as a social and sporting venue for public administrators, tin magnates, rubber planters, and other colonial smoking-room types straight out of an Anthony Burgess novel.
Bala vaguely recalls a young John Major’s membership during his tenure as a banker in KL, which is likely an indication of the well-heeled establishment types who continue to fill the club’s lists.
Of course, today’s Royal Selangor is no longer racially restricted as it once was. Built in a mock Tudor style, but incorporating flourishes and design elements from Malay longhouses, Indian bungalows and Chinese shophouses, its architecture mirrors the history and the ethnic diversity of Malaysia. Much of it dates from the 1970s, after a wonderfully biblical devastation of fire and water visited itself upon the club; a kitchen blaze ripping the building apart before a flood arrived, in Bala’s words, “17 days too late to put it out”.
Trundling down corridors dense with portraits of worthies, we come out onto a verandah overlooking the padang – the green square at the heart of Dataran Merdeka. A sunlit terrace nestled lazily outside the venerable Long Bar, it’s perfectly situated to enjoy a beer.
That’s because the padang, Bala tells me, was once the club’s cricket pitch. It was here that the flag of Malaya and the shout of Merdeka! (“freedom”) were raised in 1957. You could argue, albeit with more poetry than veracity, that Malaysian independence was won on the playing fields of the Royal Selangor Club.
It was also here, in the adjoining dining room, where a group of bored expats led by one Alberto Gispert (or simply “G”) decided in 1938 to mend a diet of beer and tropical ennui with the healthy pursuit of paper chasing. Also known as “hare and hounds”, paper chasing consists of a cross-country run in which the pack of chasing “hounds” follows a trail of paper scraps left by a fleeing “hare”, the latter given a head start to reach a finish line.
The Hash House Harriers group was rudely interrupted in its infancy by the Japanese invasion. Gispert died in the Battle of Singapore, but by the 1960s the pursuit had spread widely enough that the first Joint Hash, or interclub meeting, could be held between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur chapters (named, of course, the Gispert Memorial Run).
Thousands of chapters exist today. Bala is eager to show off the Heritage room, full of pewter drinking trophies, photocopies of arcane genealogies and patches from visiting clubs. It smells like secret history and looks like the war room of a genteel outlaw bikie outfit.
Here in the spiritual home of hashing, I get the impression of digging for the Crown Jewels in a Cash Converters. There’s a sense of the mundane made meaningful, of everyday objects and activities imbued with fetishising ritual and tradition. Hashing seems to revel in devising elaborate rules and processes before ignoring them entirely.
A healthy libation is also one of the cornerstones of hashing culture – the originals called themselves “a drinking club with a running problem”, and the motto has stuck. Still, I think it best to decline Bala’s offer of a tipple, as I’m off to meet the Hash House Harriers’ rival group, the Mother Hash, with whom I’m to join in a physically demanding hash later.
In recent past, I’ve been told, there’s been some tension between the Harriers and the Mother Hash over their competing claims to be considered the original club. It’s mainly sports-carnival stuff – a friendly rivalry fought out at occasional interclub meets and over bar-room gossip – although there are a few who take it seriously. Like squabbling twins with an inheritance dispute, decades of grudges stem from the division of land and title – one side got the clubhouse, the other kept the name.
Stepping out from the rarified hunting-lodge calm of the RSC into the muggy heat and bustle of KL, it occurs to me that these boarding-school rivalries, this atmosphere of secret men’s business, is perhaps a quintessentially British hangover from colonial days. The hashers have given themselves funny names, funny rules, an esoteric lore impenetrable to outsiders. Secret handshakes wouldn’t surprise.
But hashing is also an enormously fractured movement, with a bottom-up organisational structure and a local flavour to every chapter. In Panama City, hashers sprint down urban alleyways, jumping fences as they go. In Stuttgart, they play hide-and-seek in the vineyards overlooking the city. In Yogyakarta, hashing is a cross between a mobile picnic and a family-day parade.
David, the “On-Sec” or head honcho of the Mother Hash, is a believer in the entertainment value of controlled chaos. This week’s run is held at a nature reserve on the outskirts of KL, which has been unexpectedly ravaged by the sudden appearance of an apartment tower under development. But there’s still plenty of jungle and, thanks to this morning’s shower, plenty of mud.
“Last time I went in here,” David says, “I came out at 11pm with a scorpion bite or something.” His calm Sussex tones are unsettling. “I can understand now why people do silly things when they’re dehydrated. I’d begun to make some bad decisions.”
David’s quick to assure me that someone will always come to find me, although it’s better just to not get lost in the first place. I assess my compatriots for this evening’s run. The gamut runs from hardened athletes stretching vigorously to a few old-timers with walking sticks – about a hundred all told. One bald fellow is upside-down, warming up and showing off by walking around on his hands.
“That’s Super Old Man,” I’m told by a man slapping his calves. “He’s like Superman, but old.”
“Should I follow him?” I ask nervously.
My neighbour appraises me. “I think you won’t keep up with him – your stomach is fat.”
By the second time I go down in the mud, I’m beginning to appreciate his honesty. Towards the tail end of the pack we’re spread out more or less in single file, jogging through the thick brush. The rest have long ago disappeared, sprinting away into the undergrowth to track down the hare. There’s a queue forming behind me, politely waiting for a clearing to overtake. I can’t remember the last time I pushed myself this hard physically, but desperation not to get lost keeps me abreast with the stragglers.
Up hill and down dale we go, as cries of “On, on!” from the frontrunners lead us forward. Shreds of paper stamped with the Mother Hash’s logo tell us we’re on the right track. After a while an easy rhythm forms, the beat of footfalls and panting marking time. In a fugue of oxygen deprivation and endorphins, my mind turns to the march on Eleusis, the ritual madman’s processional march up the Acropolis, followed by a mighty bacchanalia. As I stumble out of the jungle in the darkness, the Hash circle has already formed, and I’m called up to neck the traditional beer for the cheering crowd.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2015 as "Run through the jungle". Subscribe here.