On the hash
By Ian Johnston
What do you do with your Monday evenings? As the clouds drift away from a torrential downpour, one dedicated (and not a little weird) group of runners gather in Kemensah to continue a 70-year-old weekly routine. The Hash House Harriers. This chapter of the worldwide craze is responsible for its inception and members have enjoyed start-of-the-week exercise across the Klang Valley since 1938. The premise is simple – participants follow a paper-marked route set by a ‘hare’ or ‘hares’ through jungle, palm estate, plantations or any other terrain deemed suitable. But just as important is the après-run circle in which copious quantities of beer quickly disappear in the hands of dehydrated hashers. Unsurprisingly, hash groups are keen to assert the moniker: a drinking club with a running problem.
It all dates back to colonial Malaya and a time when expatriates stationed in the country sought ways to expend the excesses of the previous weekend. Following the centuries-old paper chase format, they discovered a way to get into the local countryside and fulfil these exercise needs. And so the Hash House Harriers were formed, continuing, essentially, to this day (barring a brief break for the Second World War) where they are now fondly known as the Mother Hash. As for the original name; it derives from the dining hall of the old Selangor club annexe. ‘Hash being the slang word for food, when they had to name the club, Hash House came naturally,’ explains Jegatheesan Velupillay (Jega), auditor of the Mother Hash. ‘Harriers are a breed of dog and since the principle was for the pack of hounds (the hashers) to catch the hare, the name came to be the Hash House Harriers.’ It is also, the Mother Hash quote founding member Cecil Lee as explaining,‘ a jocular allusion to the Mess (bachelor’s hostel) they used to live and it was alliterative.’
But in the world of hashing lies more than weekly exercise and unabashed drinking. The format has thrived globally – now with ‘chapters’ found on all seven continents – and continues to operate under much the same traditions as it always has. For hash newcomers, or virgins, that means some baffling terminology and often unusual customs. Besides the basic format of following the paper trail, typical runs can include checks, back checks, back hares, breaks, FRBs, SCBs, false trails and down downs to merely skim the surface. Checks (at which the paper trail stops and the pack of runners are required to search the nearby area for the continuing trail) are perhaps the most prominent of features and add more than interest to the route. ‘[They] are designed to keep the pack together regardless of fitness levels or running speed,’ explain seasoned hashers Choo Yon Kit and Dennis Khoo.
Indeed, hashes hold appeal to participants of all abilities; faster runners, or the Front Running Bastards (FRBs), are slowed by the hunt for the continuing trail at checks while slower members are given the chance to catch up. Discovering the connection of the trail is known as ‘breaking’ the check and requires the correct route to be marked by paper. Runners that are yet to catch up can then follow the already linked trail without the need to complete the search. Once though the check, all runners will continue along the marked trail, eventually arriving at the end, or On In.
Here, the circle, and the social antics that it invariably involves, can commence. ‘The hares are assessed and rewarded with a drink, recalcitrant members are brought up and punished with a drink and announcements made, all in good fun,’ Bill Panton, an almost 50-year-long member of the Mother Hash, describes. In fact, Bill’s pedigree is known across the hashing world and he currently holds the oldest membership to the original Hash House Harriers, dating back to June, 1958. But while the stretch of his membership is impressive, it marks a not-so-unusual side to the genre. Members are completely grabbed by hashing and often join other groups alongside their home chapter. It holds a definite social draw, and one that reaches outside of the post-run circles.
‘The social side is inevitable when there is a group of members with common interests. Some members will meet up outside of the hash for dinner, drinks or golf. In the mixed chapters, the families become friends out of the hash,’ explains Edwin Ho, On Sec (secretary) of the Mother Hash. Beyond this though, hashing gives participants ‘a chance to see the country better through the runs and meeting up with a variety of people, both foreigners and the locals (who now make up the larger membership). It also allows them to have a good sweat out and exercise in a conducive and natural environment,’ says Edwin, adding, as all discerning hashers would, that it also allows them ‘to sample the local beers and food.’
But the first step up the hash ladder must be taken as a guest runner with an established group. ‘An interested person will determine the convenient day for him to run. He can find a friend and join that chapter or look up the web to find the appropriate chapter running on that day. He can also […] call a committee member for directions and just turn up as a guest first and then become a member,’ explains Jega. And though the ‘Mother Hash continues to maintain a tradition, for tradition’s sake, of a male only chapter,’ women can easily get involved ‘as there are many mixed chapters that have started, as well as ladies only chapters, commonly known as bunny chapters. In fact, some of the better runners and most ardent hashers are now females,’ says Kanagaratnam. Frankly the majority of chapters today are ready and waiting to take your hash virginity. ‘Anyone is always welcome to be a member,’ finishes Edwin. Unless, of course, ‘word is around the hash that they are an absolute bastard.’