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Eruptions at the Ladies Club: Peter Sherwood discusses

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What could be more satisfying than smugly telling people something they don’t know? Nothing, in my book, rivals it. Anything historically obscure to appear well-read and superior works brilliantly for me. What I find irksome are the blank expressions that follow my pronouncements, the faces clearly denoting the weirdness of their interlocutor.

My tennis club in Hong Kong recently celebrated its 135th anniversary – 1883. I feel I’ve been a member for at least that long. What no one seemed aware of, until I gleefully told them, was a little-known historical fact about the timing (and I don’t mean the ho-hum appointment of one Sir George Bowen as governor in the same year – although without him we wouldn’t have a Bowen Road). I mean the Big K.

Now, tell me if this is not a magnificent coincidence: Krakatoa. What the …!? I hear you say. That’s right. The massive eruption of the Krakatoa volcano started August 27, 1883, within days of the club’s official opening. It killed nearly 40,000 people (the volcano, not the club being inaugurated).

Members sipping tea around the manicured lawns of their new Mid-Levels retreat would have heard an almighty bang. Imagine that! All the way from Indonesia. The sound circled the earth four times. I think that’s pretty amazing, but if the lounging ladies thought so then none of them bothered to take note of the event.

Krakatoa emitted a plume of smoke that reached 17 miles into the atmosphere. Stuff spewed out of the volcano at over 1,600 miles per hour, or nearly half a mile per second. That’s more than twice the speed of sound. Not many people know that.

As its name implies, the Ladies Recreation Club is a retreat in the hills where the wives of British government staff could meet and relax after an excruciating morning telling their maids what to do and scheduling ‘coolies’ – the unfortunate ironical name for labourers who shouldered weighty wooden chairs up Victoria Peak in the heat of summer – to pick them up.

I suppose my point is – imagining for a minute that I have one – that of these two historical events, one seems a trifle more important than the other. Being a know-it-all, I naturally advised the Ladies Recreation Club manager to segue the mighty concurrence into the anniversary party. A Krakatoa Kocktail to add a little fun and frivolity, or a Volcanic Vermouth with lava lime to spice things up. But, no.

I ́d have thought the Hong Kong Observatory – the work of said same Governor Bowen – would know a thing or two about the big bang, but not a peep. Maybe because it was also inaugurated in 1883 and was not yet set up to record spectacular events in a different (and unashamedly Dutch) colonial domain. Or maybe its staff were busy romanticising about the languid, tea-sipping ladies in the swanky club across the harbour.

Peter Sherwood has lived in DB for 20 years. The former head of an international public relations firm, Peter is the author of 15 books and has written around 400 satirical columns for the South China Morning Post.


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