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Making a hash of it

For those who don't drink on Sunday, there are people who will do it for you, and in buckets. But not only will they drink, they will run, lurch or stagger, or be carried to the end, usually a pub.

Over city streets, the occasional highway and sometimes hill and dale, the Shanghai Hash House Harriers are for those with strong legs, and equally strong livers. A strong ego and irreverent sense of humor are musts.

Almost every Sunday for the last 26 years, a group of expats and locals have descended upon the streets of Shanghai, or poured into the provinces nearby.

They are carrying on the once uniquely British colonial phenomenon in Asia, now a worldwide phenomenon known as "hashing."

They describe themselves as "the drinking club with a running problem" and events are rather like fraternity hijinks, rowdy to say the least. Participants are mostly Western males from many countries. Not many Chinese locals, who tend to be reserved, join in no-holds-barred fun and games and off-color humor.

A recent run ending at poolside featured Olympics-themed events such as the Synchronized Belly-Flop and the 4 Meter Beer Relay. They ruthlessly critiqued the American and Chinese performances, while extolling the Irish.

No one interviewed for this article gave their real name and in hashing only "hash names" are used, the more offensive and incorrect the better, for men. A gentleman of Moroccan descent is called Obama, and Fill-My-Gap is an executive in an apparel empire. Hashers include professionals from internationally known companies.

"I've been hashing around the world now for about 30 years," says a UK-born hasher with an Asian wife, now living and working in Philadelphia. "I've been involved in hashing in every location I've been to. The idea is just to have a bit of fun, albeit inappropriate." He says everyone is "friendly and welcoming," but adds "We are keen to hide our identities due to the prejudices against drinking clubs in professional circles."

Hazardous stuff

The website of Shanghai Hash House Harriers warns: "The following pages should be hazardous to your eyes, your marriage, your security status, your morals, even your immortal soul!"

"It's not very Chinese," says one local female visitor, too polite to say much more. "It seems to help them let off steam."

Angel, a Chinese psychologist, who hashed in the States, says hashing is "a wonderful way to communicate from different perspectives before and after the party." It's a way for foreigners to meet locals and though it looks like just running drinking and crazy games, what it really provides is a relaxing and happy atmosphere.

There are not too many women hashers, and even fewer Chinese women. Those who do show up go in for tamer stuff. Some are married and take their children to poolside events. Some are single and appear to be looking for boyfriends.

"I work in finance in Hong Kong and work is so stressed that I come here for a break," says a young Australian, who said she flew in primarily for the hashing event.

"Do you find it funny? This isn't my first time and I'm very into it," says a friendly young Chinese woman from Xiamen, southeast China's Fujian Province, who has worked in Shanghai for three years. She helps expats find accommodation and get settled. She offers a visiting woman a shot of orange liquor, urges her to visit again, send an e-mail, and says "By the way, it really helps if you have a drinking problem and want to make good friends."

Colonial roots

Established in December 1938 by a group of British Colonial officers stationed in Malaysia, hashing was a regular Monday evening run with the original intent of "ridding oneself of the excesses of the previous weekend." The irony of such a statement today is obvious.

The word "hashing" refers to those officers' lodging, which they called the Hash House, because the food was tedious hash.

The "running" events then and now involve chasing a "hare" or target, that has marked out a trail, including false turns, with flour, chalk or sawdust. Runners follow the trail to completion, whereupon beer and food are available. Participants usually adjourn to a pub.

During World War II, hashing generally died out, but it bounced back afterward. The Hashing World Directory reports 2,006 hash groups in 1,313 cities in 186 countries. The United Nations, by comparison, has 192 member states.

Hashing is alive and well in Shanghai, which has several hashing clubs with dedicated followings, the most known and well established being the Shanghai Hash House Harriers. It's known for its determination to run in all weather and to engage in conduct that makes onlookers wince.

A typical run draws 25 to 100 hashers, covers 8 to 12 kilometers, lasting around an hour.

For visiting Shanghai Daily reporters, baptism-by-beer was only the start of an afternoon of dissipation involving alcohol and the opposite sex.

For the nominal fee of 100 yuan (US$15.70) for expats and 60 yuan for locals, everyone is welcome, especially women. A few young women at a recent event appeared to have their eye on a hashing Adonis.

"Virgins" or newcomers are not exempt from full inclusion. No one is spared.

The Global Trash Hash Bible states that hashers "will not judge you or measure you by anything other than your sense of humor."

For more information on local hashing, check www.shanghaih3.com; for information on global hash house harriers, go to www.gthhh.com.

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