In Queen Victoria’s time, wherever Britons went a-colonizing they took with them the sporting institutions they were used to. In Hong Kong, thanks to a small patch of flat, marshy land on a ledge on the island, this included horse racing. Happy Valley Racecourse was laid out in 1845, and celebrated its first race at the end of 1846. Today, Happy Valley is a green oasis completely overshadowed by a skyline higher than Manhattan’s. Then, the surrounding hills overlooking the busy bay were still gardens and cultivated fields. The oval circuit of the racecourse had tight corners. It was intended to resemble a Roman amphitheater, with high stands close to the track.
Hong Kong’s rapid growth saw British interests entrenched. At Happy Valley, that meant the Jockey Club became the sole arbiter of racing and racing etiquette. The racecourse became a fashionable place where ex-pats could practice being elegant, and the Chinese could satisfy their passion for betting. More and more stands were built to accommodate increasingly subtle social strata. Made chiefly of stout bamboo scaffolding and wood, their many tiers were steeply banked to give everyone the best view. The stands sheltered a small village of food stalls, bars and bookies, thronged with the melee from a great port attracted by the sizzling woks and appetizing smells.
One day, in the crush, a charcoal grill went flying and hot coals fired the lashed bamboo stand supports. The flames licked through the seating above, setting fire to people’s clothes in an instant. Panic was as contagious as the fire and with the blazing stands now showering debris on those underneath, mere pandemonium became screaming agony. Most of the victims barely knew they were in danger before they were engulfed. No members of the Jockey Club were killed.
When was the Happy Valley Racecourse disaster: February 26 1918
Where was the Happy Valley Racecourse disaster: Happy Racecourse, Hong Kong
What was the Happy Valley Racecourse disaster death toll: Around 600 people died. Injuries were relatively low because it was easy to jump clear unless you were directly in the path of the stands.
You should know: Though it remains one of Honk Kong’s worst disasters, the Happy Valley fire did not attract the scandal it might have. Hong Kong habitually looked to its future – and disaster was bad for business. Today Happy Valley is still run by the Jockey Club elite.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club currently has around 20,000 members, for whom it provides “dining, social and recreational facilities”.