How to Swim Around Hong Kong Island: Ocean Swimming Reborn

It is four o’clock in the morning and sleeting rain. In the predawn darkness, journalist Freddie Balfour is struggling to haul his kayak down the steep stairs to the Sai Wan Swimming Shed off Victoria Road. Below, a pilot boat bobs in the dark waters. Edie Hu, clad in a purple fleece-lined parka and a one-piece swimsuit, and Shu Pu, in a yellow windbreaker, beam as they get ready for their adventure. 

Hu was about to become only the third person ever to swim around Hong Kong Island, and the second woman after Australian Linda McGill accomplished the feat in 1976. Pu directed the pilot boat, managing the 23-person support crew for the epic swim. Balfour in his kayak and Jeff Faiola, on a stand-up paddle board loaded with food and water, launched their vessels off the rickety Sai Wan pier, their lights helping to track Hu’s progress in the water. Simon Holliday, a Briton who swam the route in 2017, alternated with Balfour in paddling the support kayak, relieving each other at two-hour intervals. 

Among the rules for ultra-marathon swimming established by the Channel Swimming Association for the English Channel swims is that the swimmer must stay in the water the whole time and is not allowed to touch the boat or anyone except to collect food and drink. Support kayaks and the paddle board remained two to three metres to Hu’s right, giving her food and drink every hour. Six rotating support swimmers kept Hu company during the swim. Ross Vickers, an America’s Cup-class navigator who planned the course based on a meticulous reading of tides and currents, was on the pilot boat, one of six pairs of eyes that were on the swimmer at all times. 

The moment when Hu slips into the water at 5am goes by almost without fanfare. Stroking methodically, Hu would stop briefly for her “feedings,” each time with a big smile on her face.

Far from seeming stressed in the water, Hu was tireless and radiated enjoyment and positive energy. Twelve hours and 37 minutes later, on 3 November 2018, she finished the 45-kilometre swim, bouncing up the same stairs as though there was nothing to it. With a big hug, Pu was the first to greet her. 

The two women could almost be sisters – but they are from opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean. Pu is from Zhejiang province, Hu from California. Both are ethnic Chinese, bubbly, confident and almost the same age; Pu is five years younger than Hu. Together they are helping to transform Hong Kong into a destination for ultra-marathon swimming, a class of ocean swimming that demands a course of at least 10 kilometres. Like ultra-marathon running, there is no upper limit.

Next to challenge the circuit around Hong Kong Island will be a former Olympian swimmer, the singer and actor Alex Fong Lik-sun, on 5 November this year, known to his many Hong Kong fans as Little Flying Fish. When Fong accompanies Hu on their Saturday swims from Repulse Bay beach, his fans recognise him instantly. Fong will be only the eighth person ever to swim around Hong Kong Island. His predecessors included a relay team of five called the Drifters that finished the distance two weeks after Hu’s swim in 2018.

All it took was clean water

If swimming 45 kilometres seems beyond the reach of most ordinary people, it is just one piece of a larger phenomenon. As Hong Kong grapples with identity issues, protests and a litany of urban woes, at least one thing is going right with the city – although it passes almost unnoticed. The sea around Hong Kong is cleaner than it has been in a very long time, especially since a vast new sewerage system was completed in 2015. For many years, Hong Kong’s waters were so polluted that only die-hard swimmers were prepared to take the plunge. Now it has become clean enough that Pu can envision the HK360Swim as an equivalent to the world-famous English Channel swim, or its Manhattan counterpart, the 20 Bridges Swim

These are races that engage some of the most ambitious swimmers in the world, but like their running marathon counterparts, they also draw spectators and create a unique form of tourism and sense of excitement around the activity. And there are a host of lesser events that get people in the water, from the recently revived cross-harbour swim to local races like the Polson Five and the McBean Middle Island Challenge, organised with the Victoria Recreation Club. “These swims are all personal challenges to take on Mother Nature and go for it,” says Hu. “It’s not a race. You don’t have to be the fastest person to swim it.”

All such events depend on clean, non-toxic water. In the first half of the 20th century, despite occasional bouts of cholera that raised alerts, the ocean was one of Hong Kong’s great attractions, even in the heart of the urban areas along Victoria Harbour. Beyond the dockyards and Tamar naval depot, neighbourhoods like Quarry Bay, North Point, and Kennedy Town were crowded with so-called “swimming sheds” that had elaborate pavilions and piers framing protected swimming areas. The rich could take their motor launches on weekends to the myriad pristine beaches in more remote parts of the territory, but everyone else was still able to relish the transparent waters close to shore and the city itself. 

Alex Fong Lik-sun has turned into an ocean swimmer – Photo courtesy Alex Fong @A Drop of Life

The Sai Wan Swimming Shed is a remnant of this era. The first of the bathing sheds was established by the Chinese Recreation Club in 1910. In the 1920s and 1930s, swimmers heading for the swimming shed in Kennedy Town packed the tram line, with more than 10,000 people using the bathing facilities daily. Galas at the major swimming sheds on the eastern end of the harbour were attended by Hong Kong’s elite. Major competitions were conducted by the South China Athletic Association and Chinese Bathing Pavilion in Quarry Bay, the Chung Sing Benevolent Society in Kennedy Town, and the Victoria Recreation Club next to the Tamar naval yard in present-day Admiralty.  The Victoria Recreation Club ran an annual cross-harbour race from Kowloon Station to its clubhouse starting in 1906, and there were army and Chinese cross-harbour races as well. The first recorded cross-harbour race was in 1881, when six Britons raced on an invitation from the Victoria Recreation Club against a “tide running like a mill-race.”

Accessibility gave the dominant Chinese population an edge in the sport, and it became especially popular with the Westernised middle class, including Eurasians, who had the city’s only modern swimming pool at the Victoria Recreation Club until 1953, when its clubhouse was demolished as part of harbour reclamation. 

“Between the wars, swimming and sea-bathing took off in popularity among the annually expanding ranks of the Westernised Chinese, which had reached a critical mass by the late 1930s,” says historian Jason Wordie. He says that many Christian-influenced schools adopted a philosophy of “Mens sana in corpore sano” (A healthy mind in a healthy body). “Hong Kong was a great place for this, given the climate and numerous beautiful, accessible beaches.” There were wealthy Chinese role models, like Hysan Lee, who set up the South China Athletic Association, and his son Dick Lee. Both were known as swimming fanatics, getting up before dawn to do their laps in a private swimming shed at North Point and later, the Hong Kong Country Club.

When the South China Bathing Club opened in 1930, influential businessman Sir Shousun Chow praised Hong Kong’s swimming culture. “It was not so very long ago that the average Chinese young man was considered a sickly weakling, and an object for ridicule, but that was not applicable now,” he said. “During the past few years spots have begun to exert a hold on the Chinese youth, but it was not until comparatively recently that a general interest was found in swimming by the Chinese of the Colony. The delay was due mainly to the lack of facilities which had now been rectified to a large extent by the provision of bathing sheds such as those now in existence at North Point. The increasing popularity of these sheds was evidenced by the many thousands of people who had been going there.” A year earlier, at the opening of the South China Athletic Association bathing pavilion, the Governor, Sir Cecil Clementi, heartily endorsed sea bathing as a “civic duty” given the city’s regular shortages of fresh water.

In those prewar glory days, swimming clubs had thousands of members. One example is the Chinese Bathing Club, which at its peak in the 1930s had 1,500 members, with a main structure measuring 30 by 20 metres, with two long bamboo bridges stretching out over the water forming a rectangle with the pavilion frontage. Steps led into the water at varying depths, with diving boards and a water polo enclosure. “At night the whole area within the enclosure is brilliantly lit up by powerful arc lights,” according to a 1930 account in the South China Morning Post

Today, the rickety pier and two concrete changing sheds at Sai Wan are the only remnants of such prewar structures on Hong Kong Island. Most were eventually removed as the government built public swimming pools in the 1960s and 70s. Though record numbers of people flock to Hong Kong’s beaches, the number of dedicated ocean swimmers is just a fraction of what it once was. Most of the swimmers that still head out from the Sai Wan pier for early morning swims are elderly.

As Hong Kong’s population grew from about 600,000 in the 1930s to four million in 1970 and 7.4 million today, a combination of land reclamation and raw sewage dumped into the sea made Victoria Harbour too toxic for swimming. The last of the annual Cross-Harbour swim competitions was in 1978, with the 1979 event cancelled due to reclamation of the Kowloon railway terminus. “Cross-harbour” races were organised in Tolo Harbour and Sai Kung, but they couldn’t touch the symbolism of swimming through the heart of the city. The race across Victoria Harbour was finally revived in 2011, when the harbour was at long last clean enough thanks to a 20-year, HK$25.8-billion effort to redirect sewage.

Now subterranean tunnels take sewage and wastewater from Hong Kong Island and Kowloon to the Stonecutters Island Sewage Treatment Works, where the effluent is chemically treated and discharged in the western part of Victoria Harbour. While the harbour water is still far from pristine, sewage pipes no longer run directly into it, as they did until 2015. Combined with a ban on commercial trawling for fish and shellfish in 2013, Hong Kong’s inshore waters have become distinctly richer in both fish and the sea birds feeding on them. And as ecosystems have struggled back to life, Hong Kong’s water sports have taken off. 

Taking the plunge

Hu and Pu are relative newcomers to Hong Kong. Hu moved to Hong Kong in 2007 with as a specialist in Chinese art for Sotheby’s auction house, while Pu arrived a year later, managing sales and marketing for a New York and Xiamen-based brand of high-end children’s ware called Kico Kids. Hu was a competitive swimmer at Wellesley College and founded its water-polo team, but had given up swimming until she arrived in Hong Kong. She had never done ocean swimming before.

Pu studied at Yantai University in Shandong province, overlooking the Bohai or Yellow Sea. She says she always had a special affinity for water. Growing up in Huining in landlocked Gansu province, she begged her father to teach her how to swim in a nearby canal with boat traffic and dead pigs and chickens. “It was awful,” she recalls. In college, Pu finally was able to swim in the ocean. “I was a water baby,” she says. “I liked anything to do with water. When there is water, I just feel alive.”

By chance, the two were drawn to ocean swimming at nearly the same time, finding themselves amongst a small but determined group of people united by their interest in long-distance swimming and outrigger canoe paddling. In 2013, Hu became friendly with Balfour, who was covering the arts for Bloomberg News in Hong Kong. On a whim she asked him to put together a relay team for a 15-kilometre ocean race from Stanley to Deep Water Bay, called the Clean Half. “That’s when I started to train,” she says. 

When race day came, says Hu, “I freaked out about anything floating in the water that touched me – mostly garbage. I thought that everything wanted to eat me.” She began training on Sundays with Ian Polson, a barrister who has been leading a small group of swimmers every weekend since 2007, with bright orange safety inflatables bobbing, from Repulse Bay Beach. Now Hu takes her own group of fellow swimmers out for five-to-18-kilometre swims on Saturday mornings from the same beach, often varying the programme with more ambitious swims from Shek O to Repulse Bay. At this year’s Clean Half race on 5 October, Hu swam a double course, together with the actor Alex Fong, who joined the group to train for the swim around Hong Kong Island, and a lawyer named Daniel VanderHave.

The Clean Half annual races began in 2007, growing out of the success of a shorter, 2.5-kilometre race, the Shek O Challenge, which ran from Shek O’s Big Wave Bay to Shek O Back Beach. Both were started by Doug Woodring, an American environmentalist and ardent swimmer and paddler, together with Douglas Woo Chun-kuen, the Princeton-educated chairman of property developer Wheelock, who is an equally ardent swimmer and water-polo fan. Woodring and Woo have continued to develop new swimming competitions through their Open Water Asia non-profit organisation. 

In 2013, Pu had begun ocean swimming, taught by Karen Robertson, who swam for Hong Kong in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. She had started her own outdoor clothing brand, Avva, and was dragon boating and paddling when she met Woodring and Simon Holliday. Woodring was planning and organising a 35-kilometre solo swim for Holliday from Hong Kong to Macau. Dubbed the Clean Cross Swim, they hoped it would raise money for cleaning up plastics in the ocean. Pu became Simon’s support paddler, making her the first woman to paddle an outrigger across the Pearl River estuary. 

Holliday was successful, finishing his swim on May 23, 2014; only one other person is known to have done it, a Chinese marathon swimmer and former dean of Beijing Sports University named Zhang Jian, who swam the distance in 2005. After that, Pu became part of the Woodring-Woo ocean swimming brain trust. In 2014, she came up with the idea of a winter counterpart to the Clean Half race, running along the same course, now called the Cold Half, thanks to water temperatures hovering between 15 to 18 degrees Celcius. The next year, she, Woodring and Holliday began thinking about a new, even longer challenge – the swim around Hong Kong Island.

While the swimming itself may seem challenging enough, another kind of marathon is involved in organising the races, particularly one as logistically complex as HK360. The idea for the first HK360 swim came in 2015, but it took another two years before Holliday could accomplish his swim. By early 2017, Pu had put together a business and a strategy to apply for permits from the Hong Kong Marine Department, first as a relay swim with fast swimmers who could set records, then as a water version of the Oxfam Trailwalker race. Like most of the Woodring-Woo races, as well as Holliday’s swim to Macau, it would be used to raise money for charity.

The Hong Kong Marine Department would have none of it. When she spoke to them on the phone, says Pu, “you could hear them laughing in the background.” The department insisted that she revise the application so that the swimmer would leave the water at the entrance to Victoria Harbour and get back in again at the other end at the Lei Yue Mun channel – in other words, it’s hardly a round-the-island swim if you leave the water for a quarter of the journey. Pu was finally hit by a stroke of luck when she met Ross Vickers, an experienced navigator who could chart a course through the harbour to avoid the busiest time of day and make sure the swimmer was not fighting the currents. By May 2017, the Marine Department finally gave in, asking for just a few last changes. “I think I am prouder of this than anything I have ever done,” says Pu. “I was able to draw all the lines together, like ding, ding, ding.”

The model that has evolved is less a race than a personal challenge. “For a fast swimmer, the goal is to break the record,” says Pu. “For a slower swimmer, it’s like Trailwalker – you do it as a personal challenge, to raise funds for a charity and benefit society and the community.” Adds Hu, “On the world stage for open water swimming, we really do well. The people I’m hanging out with now, everyone has something they are chasing for whether it’s triathlons or local open water races. Everyone has a goal.” 

Hu’s swim around the island last year raised HK$540,000 for Splash, a charity founded by Holliday that teaches domestic helpers and underprivileged youth how to swim, which was enough to pay for all of its autumn 2019 classes. Fong’s swim in early November is raising money for A Drop of Life, a charity that funds sustainable water projects in developing countries.

“If we do it right,” says Pu, “it could become a very significant swim on the world scene. I would like to make it a sustainable project or sports business where I will be able to involve strategic partners and lower the charges by spreading them out across the swims. The more swimmers we have and the more famous swimmers we have, the more it is a win-win for everyone.”

Hong Kong isn’t waiting for famous swimmers. After years marooned ashore, ocean swimming is making a comeback. Last year, thousands of Hongkongers jumped off the Tsim Sha Tsui ferry pier to swim across the harbour, gasping as they hit the water with their regulation orange safety inflatables. And every day before dawn, rain or shine, swimmers make their way down the steps of the Sai Wan Swimming Shed, or plunge into the water at Deep Water Bay. Hong Kong may not be known for pellucid waters, but the love of the ocean is there, drawing people together across its racial and ethnic divides. This year’s cross-harbour race was cancelled due to the protests, but Hong Kong is too mad about swimming for it to be gone for long.  

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