The China Fleet Club

The Post War Years


The China Fleet Club in the 1950's

COMMANDER C.S.B. HICKMAN, the former Secretary and Treasurer of the Club, who had been a prisoner-of-war, had volunteered to stay on in Hong Kong to assist with the reorganisation of the base and advise on the future of the Club. He felt that the N.A.A.F.I. with their greater resources should run the Club for a year while it was getting back on its feet.

This feeling was not generally supported and a meeting of representatives of all the ships present was held in the Club on Saturday 6th October 1945. The Flag Officer, Western Area, opened the Meeting personally, and explained the position of the Club before the war. He particularly stressed the importance of any decision made by Officers and Men present at the meeting. Their decisions would affect not only the welfare of their ships then in harbour, but the whole future of the China Fleet Club. Admiral Fisher then turned the meeting over to Commodore D.H. Everett, C.B.E., D.S.O. The Chairman explained the duties of the Committee which had assembled at Flag Officer Western Area's direction.

(a) That the Committee should be the Port Canteen Committee and deal with the China Fleet Club in addition to its other duties.

(b) That the Committee should merely be the emergency Committee of the China Fleet Club.

These proposals were voted on and the second was carried on the casting vote of the Chairman.

After further meetings and discussion it was unanimously felt that the Club should be run as pre-war: "by the Fleet for the Fleet". It was hoped that voluntary work would be done by ships' companies and that Canteen Committees would vote funds to help rehabilitate the Club. Admiralty was then approached for a loan of £10,000 for this purpose, but regretted that they could not provide financial assistance since it was the policy in wartime for N.A.A.F.I. to run Service clubs.

Following that news the sub-committee issued a report on Saturday 13th October saying:

"If the Admiralty will do the same for the Fleet Club as they will do for N.A.A.F.I., and the Commander-in-Chief will give shipping space for the Club, similar to that given to N.A.A.F.l., it seems practicable for the Fleet to run the Club". With this report adopted, a General Committee was formed, and the Club was back in action.

The N.A.A.F.l. had started selling beer in mid-September, although that was rationed to 11000 bottles a day. Tickets were allocated to each ship and beer sold to the lucky ticket holders.

The kitchen and restaurants were the first to receive attention by the "volunteer force" and started serving meals at the beginning of November. Towards the end of November local beer came on the market and sales increased by leaps and bounds, though spirits were not available until Christmas the following year.

The China Fleet Club was back in business!


Junior Sailors Restaurant

The following years saw a marked improvement in the financial state of the Club and redecoration, refurbishing and modernisation were the order of the day. It had been feared in 1948, that a reduction of income would come with the reduction of the Fleet, and Singapore becoming the Far East Naval Headquarters. But then the "Korean situation" blew up at the beginning of the ‘fifties, and the Club found itself looking after large numbers of naval (including allied) personnel.

In 1952 the land between the Club and the Missions to Seamen was purchased for HK$230,250, and the building erected there became known as the Coronation Annex. It was opened on the 5th April 1954 by Rear Admiral G.V. Gladstone, C.B. The total cost of the annex was $861 ,068, which involved a considerable overdraft at the bank. But with typical farsightedness, good business soon cleared the overdraft.

The ground floor of the Annex was a large godown, which was initially rented to San Miguel Brewery. It served as their Hong Kong depot for seven years until 1961, when San Miguel had to move to the New Territories when the Club was forced to terminate the lease due to reclamation of the land in front of the Club. It was too difficult to transport beer across the harbour once the junks no longer had direct access to the godown.


The Fleet Club 1960's

On the first floor a four-lane bowling alley was installed and was immensely popular. The 2nd floor contained the Club’s shopping arcade and the 3rd, 4th and 5th floors, Chinese Staff Living Quarters. The 6th floor contained the laundry.

It was in 1954, too, that the United States Navy Purchasing Branch approached the Club with the idea of opening a Purchasing Branch for American personnel visiting Hong Kong for recreation. Eventually the third floorof the main building was leased exciusivelytothem. The floor had previously contained dormitories, but with the reduction inthesizeof the British Fleetinthe FarEast, it was rarely used to capacity. The extra income was lust what was needed at that point in time.

1955 saw that well known San Miguel Brewery neon advertising sign go up on the roof, at that time, the largest in Hong Kong. "Long John" Whisky added their neon sign in 1960 -more income for the Club!

Renovation and redecoration continued yearly. In 1961 the exterior of the Club got a new coat of paint and colours - Desert Sand with Terracotta Bands and the 25th Anniversary of the opening, on 21St March 1959 was celebrated at a cocktail party in the presence of Sir Robert Black, the Governor of Hong Kong, Admiral Sir G Gladstone, Commander-in-Chief, Far East Station, Lt. Gen. Sir E Bastyan, Commander, British Forces, Hong Kong and Air Commodore T Holder, Air Officer Commanding, Hong Kong. Sir Michael Turner, Chief Manager of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, and a Trustee of the Club was present together with the Honorable Hugh Barton, Managing Director of Jardine Matheson, and also a Trustee of the Club. The Commissioner of Police Mr A.C. Maxwell attended and Commodore G.D.A. Gregory, Commodore-in-Charge, Hong Kong and its Senior Trustee. Commanding Officers of all H.M. Ships in Port, Ratings from those Ships, the General Committee and others connected with the Club were there to help celebrate.

During the installation of air conditioning in 1964 a live shell was found two feet below the Reception Room on the Ground Floor. The shell, Japanese, weighing 831bs and 3’2 long, was removed by the Police Ballistics division. Doubtless it had landed in the Club during the battle for Hong Kong back in 1941.


Fleet Club Theatre

By the mid-sixties the balconies on the first and second floors had been glassed in, and together with air-conditioning of all the lounges and bars this added a considerable amount of space in the Club. Around that time the theatre, which was also used as a cinema, was closed down and completely gutted. A new floor was built, and an eight-lane bowling alley was installed on the ground floor and an air-conditioned dance-cum-tombola hall on the upper floor. Two new automatic lifts replaced the old manually operated ones. That project cost the magnificent sum of HK$1,300.000. It was opened by H.E. The Governor, Sir David Trench on 21st September 1965.


Junior Sailors Main Bar

 

VIETNAM - THE BOOM YEARS


Dormitory

THE VIETNAM WAR, however tragic, meant virtually a decade of "boom" years for the Club. American and Allied personnel used Hong Kong exclusively for "Rest and Recreation", and the Club, on the edge of ever-popular Wanchai, prospered. And with prosperity came plans for a new Club.

During 1970 the General Committee decided that the present Club accommodation was becoming outdated and expensive to run and maintain.

Meetings were held with, sometimes, monotonous regularity. But as recession reared its ugly head, and Defence Cuts came into force twas finally decided in early 1976 to remain in the old building.

It was another three years before the possibility of rebuilding was raised again, in 1979. When the future of the Services in Hong Kong had been confirmed, the Trustees met to discuss the Club's future. It was felt that the Club was well patron ised by the Navy and their families and also by visiting RN and Commonwealth ships and that its facilities were undoubtedly very popular with everyone.

 

The New Club 1980 - 1992


The new China Fleet Club - note the San Miguel sign replaced by Foster's beer sign

EARLY 1980 BROUGHT the next step towards redeveloping the Club and it was decided to go to Tender for a new Club on its present site, the winning Tender to provide temporary accommodation for a period of 3.5 years. Four companies tendered, with Sun Hung Kai coming out the winner. Although Sun Hung Kai later withdrew their tender, they allowed the offer of temporary accommodation to stand. Hong Kong Land then offered to take on the redevelopment, and this was accepted.

The temporary Club, situated in Sun Hung Kai Centre was very successful, if with somewhat reduced facilities, for members. Nevertheless, long-standing favou rites like Tombola, Folk Shows, and of course Mollie’s Music Hall, continued to make their appearance.

The new Club was opened by H.E. Sir Edward Youde G.C.M.G., M.B.E., the then Governor of Hong Kong, on 31st May 1985 and occupied the first nine floors of Fleet House, a 25 storey building in Wanchai, on exactly the same site as its predecessor.

The Club contained a magnificent array of facilities and was fitted out at a final cost of some $43,000,000. The facilities included (from the ground floor up), a Reception area for hotel bedrooms, a multi-purpose Auditorium, Jewelry, Naval Tailor and Gift shops, three bars, a splendid restaurant with seating for approximately 200 people two squash courts, a Bowling Alley and Snooker room and two floors of accommodation totalling 38 en-suite bedrooms. Also provided were a Ladies and Gents Hairdresser, a Video library/souvenir shop and two floors of 50 shops leased to the United States Navy Contracting Department.

No expense had been spared during the fitting out period. From the elegant marble floors of the foyer to the real leather arm-chairs in the Kelly Bar, everywhere was evidence of sheer luxury.

The Club continued its previous role of playing host to visiting warships of NATO friendly Nations, and over the following years thousands of sailors from all over the world made it their first port of call in Hong Kong.

Thanks to the foresight of the architects and the project management team, the Club was able to be a little more ambitious with regard to the production of shows in the Auditorium. Consequently, besides the perennial Mollie’s Music Hall and plays by local drama groups the Club now attracted performers from around the world. Among those to appear were THE DRIFTERS, MAX BOYCE, BILLY CONNOLLY, GERRY & THE PACEMAKERS, THE SEARCHERS, CANNON & BALL, JIM DAVIDSON, THE SUPREMES, DANNY LA RUE, SHEP WOOLLEY, THE STYLISTICS and THE BARRON KNIGHTS. The list went on and on and the shows invariably played to packed houses.

The China Fleet Club was functioning as it was always intended to provide a service and entertainment to the Men of the Fleet.

The ever-popular Tombola sessions continued twice a week, attracting members of all denominations, many of whom had come along regularly since the end of the war. Some almost certainly still seeking their first house snowball!

Membership was extended to include a wider selection of the local community and at one point stood at some 2,500 Associate Members. This meant that the restaurant and bars were invariably filled to capacity and business was brisk indeed.

In early 1987 came the dramatic news from London that it was intended to withdraw the RN from Hong Kong by 1992. It was at this point that the Trustees began considering the future of the Club, taking into account the certainty that, in any event, it could no longer operate after 1997. After much discussion at many meetings it was decided that there was little choice but to investigate possible sale of the building. This was done, first with the Hong Kong Land Company, the building developers, and later by Tender to all interested property groups in Hong Kong. When the tenders were opened later in the year an offer of HK$160,000,000 with 5 years rent free occupation of the Club floors of the building was on the table, and after much deliberation by the Trustees, was accepted. The effective date of the sale and lease back was 28th December 1987.

The China Fleet Club now had some £11,000,000 in the coffers. The next big question was what to spend it on.

Throughout the whole of 1988 the subject was discussed around the committee table and gradually a plan to build another China Fleet Club in the U.K. began to take shape. Location was the biggest problem but eventually a suitable site was found in Saltash in Cornwall, just across the Tamar Bridge from Plymouth. Architects and project planners were engaged to present their ideas and work began with the ground breaking ceremony on 14th April 1989.

It became clear to those of us who had known the Club in Hong Kong for so long that the name CHINA FLEET CLUB would live on.

Meanwhile back in Hong Kong there was still much to be done. The Club continued its business of providing a friendly haven for the sailors and their families from H.M.S. Tamar and the patrol craft and also to the many visitors from around the world.

Gradually time slipped away however, and in late 1991 and the early months of 1992 the Trustee’s investigated ways of saving the Club in Hong Kong. Many options were explored and one by one were rejected, until it became apparent that without the support of a wealthy benefactor there was no hopeof keeping the Club open. If the Club was to remain after 27th December 1992 it would have to pay floor rental charges equivalent to something in the region of HK$4,000,000 per month. This sum was simply beyond the financial resources available and could not be recouped from the day-to-day business of the Club. It was therefore decided on 24th June 1992 that the Club would close, in accordance with a previously arranged contingency plan, on 30th November 1992.

The death knell had been sounded. A magnificent chapter in the history of the navy in Hong Kong was coming to an end.

As many thousands of Sailors will testify, Tombola at the China Fleet Club was synonymous with a run ashore in Hong Kong. It was perghaps fitting then that the last programmed event to be held in the auditorium was a Grand Tombola evening on Sunday 29th Novmeberi It was 'empty the coffers' time of the snowball fund which had been built up over the years by the regular players.

And so to the last day. That well worn cliche "end of an era" was never more appropriate than in these circumstances. The China Fleet Club, which had been a national landmark in Hong Kong for nearly 60 years, had closed its doors for the last time.............

Webmaster's Note - The British Colony of Hong Kong was handed back to the Peoples Republic of China in 1997 which would have ended the China Fleet Club's existance in any circumstance.

A special thankyou to ex LSSIG 'Rip' Kirby for providing the source material for this article.

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