The Helena May women’s club has been a Hong Kong institution for a century. But is it still relevant? By MARK JONES (a man)
MARK JONES checks out Hong Kong’s club for women – the Helena May
THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT
the dining room at the Helena May that makes a chap nervous. I retied my shoelaces and rearranged the handkerchief in my top pocket. I felt like a 1920s subaltern about to be introduced to his future mother-in-law.
The Helena May was established in 1916 as an ‘institution for women’. Today, it’s less formidably known as ‘a club for women, which also welcomes male associate members’.
It may have officially dropped the word, but the Helena May is irrefutably a Hong Kong institution. Its ‘adapted Renaissance’ frontage has been graciously surveying Central from its prime position between the Peak Tram tracks and Garden Road for 101 years.
Sir Francis Henry May was governor of Hong Kong for six years until 1918. His legacy, like so many colonial officials of the time, is a deeply problematic one. He was a dedicated official who made Hong Kong a more pleasant place to live in, creating forest paths, playing fields and bathing places. He was also complicit in enforcing one of the most notorious edicts in Hong Kong’s history: the one banning Chinese people from living on The Peak. (It was scrapped in 1947, 25 years after his death.)
His wife, Helena, appears to have been rather more popular than her husband. She was an Edwardian matriarch who threw herself into good works. But by 1916 times were changing. The suffragette
movement was causing mayhem in British society. If women didn’t yet have the vote, they now had education and jobs: often as typists, teachers, nurses.
Growing, prospering Hong Kong needed their services; and the colonial officials, businessmen, soldiers and sailors wanted wives. The difficulty was that risky period post-arrival and pre-matrimony. As Helena May: The Person, the Place, and 90 Years of History in Hong Kong by Esther Morris records, ‘Hong Kong boasted numerous hotels but many were of dubious reputation and the more respectable were beyond the means of the working woman.’
All agreed that a place where women could stay cheaply, eat well and socialise safely was needed urgently. Among those agreeing were two entrepreneurs who decisively shaped the early colony: Ellis Kadoorie, who put up the original money for the building, and Sir Robert Ho Tung, who completed the necessary investment. Kadoorie’s one condition was it be named after the governor’s wife. When it opened on 12 September 1916, Sir Robert (then plain Mr Ho) paid tribute to the efforts of ‘ The gracious lady whose name this institute is to bear’: but the gracious lady herself was not invited to make a speech.
If you are seeking a potted history of women in Hong Kong, then you could do a lot worse than seek out a copy of Ms Morris’ book.
In 2017, Hong Kong’s streets are a lot safer; there are half a million more women than men in the city; the UK has a female prime minister (her name, Lady Helena would be interested to know, is Mrs May) and Hong Kong has its first female leader.
But its hotels are still expensive. The club’s general manager, Betty Simpson, showed me one of the bedrooms in the main building. Strictly speaking, men are still not allowed up here (though studio apartments in the court building can now be rented out to men and couples), and I felt as if a stout matron with an umbrella might chase me from the premises at any minute.
The room was elegantly decorated and as comfortable as any I’ve seen in various boutique hotels. Price: HK$580 a night.
Over lunch with Ruth Kan, who looks after the Helena May’s publicity and promotion, I began feeling more like a normal 2017 man than a nervous suitor from the 1920s. There was a relaxed, convivial, clubby atmosphere that no mere hotel can replicate.
Is it an anachronism? The original purpose – a safe place for visiting women – has long gone. In 2017 they can (and probably prefer to) look after themselves. But as a civilised escape from the bustle and hassle of the streets below, the Helena May is irreplaceable, inimitable and, for a man like me, pretty enviable, too.
The Helena May holds its Open Day on 5 November. helenamay.com
梅夫人婦女會的廳餐 有種氣派，能令堂堂大人到男感 緊張。我將鞋帶重新縛好，然後將西裝袋內的手巾再整理一下，感覺像就1920年某代 個小軍官將要跟未來岳母見面一般忐忑。
成立於1916年的梅夫人婦女會原本是一家「為婦女而設的機構」，但今天已不再如昔日一般起板 面孔，而是改為親民的「婦女會所，但亦歡男迎 性作非正式會員」。
雖然梅夫人婦女會的英文名稱已將「institute」（機構）一字除去現，僅在 稱為The Helena May，但是毫無疑問，這是一個貨真價實的香港機構。這座建築位於山頂纜車的軌道與花園道之間的黃金地段，「經過改良的文藝復興風格」大門優雅地凝望著中環101年來的變。遷
梅含理爵士是港香 總督，任期六年至1918年。跟當時許多殖民地官員一樣，他的公職可謂毀譽參半。他是盡盡個 心 力的官員，改努力 善香港的環境在， 山林中開拓小徑、興建運動場和泳棚等，令這個地方更適宜居住是。，可 另一方面，他在署任港督時立法，禁止華在人 太平山上居住。項這 法例聲名狼藉，堪稱香港開埠以來數一數二。項（這禁令最終在他逝世後年25 的1947年廢除）。
他的夫人Helena的人緣則似乎遠比他好。她是個愛德華時代的女強人，全全心 意投慈身 善事業。但到了1916年，時代開始改變。當時英國因為婦女爭取投權票 而國舉鬧得沸沸揚揚，當時婦女或許未能投票選舉，但是卻可以接受教育和工作，例如做打字員師士、教 、護 。
當時欣欣向榮、不斷發展的香港需要她前們 來服務，而殖民地官員、、商人 士兵、水手等則需要娶妻成家。這不是問題，問題出在這些女士們來到香港，等待成婚 的一段日子，需要有個妥善的居所。Esther Morris在《Helena May: The Person, The Place, and 90 Years of History in Hong Kong》（梅：，，夫人 其人 其地 與香史港歷 90年）一書中寫道：「香港有不少酒店，不過聲譽大都欠佳，至為於較 體面一點的，職業婦女又負擔不起」。
當時大家一致，認為 香港急需一個可以為婦女提供廉宜住宿、良好伙食並且安心地進行社交活動的地方。這個建議一提出，少即得地獲 本 不少紳商名流的支持；當時本地著名商人嘉道理首先出資興建了會所的大樓，再何由 東爵士贊助其餘所需的資金嘉。 道理當時只提出一個條，件是就大樓要以總督夫人的名字來命名婦。 女會於1916年9月12日落成啟，用 何東爵士當（時仍是未獲勳銜的生何先 ）在致辭時這向位「機構以她的名字命名的優雅女士致，敬感謝她付出的努」力，可是位雅這 優 的女士本人並未獲邀在會上發表演說。
到了2017年，香的港 街頭治安與昔日相，比 已大為善改，女性人口亦比男性多出50萬於；英至 國則出現了第二位女首相，而香港亦有首位女性特首。
不過香港酒的 店租金依然昂貴婦。 女會的總經理Betty Simpson領我到主樓內的房間參觀，嚴格來說，男性是進不准 入這個範圍的（但庭院副樓內的套房公寓現在可以租給男性及夫婦） ，因此我感到隨時會有個身材壯碩的女社監方舞著雨傘出來，將我趕出大樓。
房間寬敞通爽，裡面佈得置 簡單優雅，感令人 到舒與適， 外面其他精品酒店 相比不，毫 遜色至。 於房租，需只 580港元一晚。
然後我與負責梅夫人婦女會公關宣傳的Ruth Kan一午起 餐我，逐漸感到自己不再是1920年代緊張的未來女婿，而是活於2017年普的 通男。人 這裡有種閒適和隨 、輕鬆自在的會所氣氛，並非普通酒店模仿得來的。
這個地方是否已經不合時宜呢？它為來訪婦女提供安全住宿的原意經已失去，而2017年的時代女性不但有能力照顧自己，更情願選擇這樣做。梅但是 夫人婦女會提供一個典雅的場所，讓人可以暫時逃鬧避 市的繁囂，這個地位無可取代，亦無人及能 。而像我這樣的一個男，子 唯有表日十分羡慕。