Horse racing in Hong Kong started innocuously: in 1841, following British takeover, a malarial swamp in Hong Kong Island was drained to create a race track, and given the richly-layered name Happy Valley. The track saw its first official race in 1846. By 1884, the track had grown to the point that the Hong Kong Jockey Club was founded as an amateur organisation for the purpose of promoting horse racing in the colony.
Today: Seventy-one billion Hong Kong dollars. That’s the most recent figure I could find for the betting turnover per annum in Hong Kong. HKD$71B. If you view gambling as an institutionalised vice, that figure should be terrifying. But in Hong Kong, where gambling is controlled by the monopoly Hong Kong Jockey Club – with is non-profit status and charter to provide public works – there’s argument for bigger is better.
That government-granted monopoly status is key: bookmaking is illegal in Hong Kong. If you’re gambling, you’re gambling exclusively through the HKJC. In 1971, the “Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club” (the name reverted back in 1997 following the handover) became a professional institution, and by 1974 had opened its first six off-course betting branches. They’re spread throughout Kowloon and Island-side now, and, with the 80,000 capacity Sha Tin track (opened in 1995), are what account for the HKJC’s monster betting turnover. It’s also why the HKJC employs almost 25,000 people: one in every 300 Hong Kongers works for the HKJC.
Even in a city that’s home to some of the world’s megabanks, the HKJC is Hong Kong’s largest individual taxpayer, contributing HKD$19.58 billion in 2013-14. It’s a figure that represents about 12% of the total taxes collected in Hong Kong per annum – one large enough that Hong Kong is able to maintain a lower overall tax rate than it otherwise might have.
The HKJC made its first charitable donations in 1915. In the hundred years since, the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust has become the largest private charitable donor in Hong Kong, averaging donations of HKD$1 billion each year, including HKD$3.6 billion in 2013-14, supporting 168 individual projects. The trust provides support to four areas of civic and social need: sports, recreation, education, and community services including medical and health, building swimming pools, public sports facilities, schools and clinics.
It’s hard to think of a sporting institution more closely woven into a society: there’s an apocryphal belief that the HKJC facilities have been used by more than three quarters of the Hong Kong population at one point or another.
Alex Vitlin is an editor at New Albion.