Hash House Harriers: the original expat ‘wellness’ programme

Hash House Harriers: the original expat ‘wellness’ programme

With a global footprint – no pun intended – that many modern insurance companies would envy, an organisation set up in 1938 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, has been getting expatriates around the world running regularly in a non-competitive, social way, and encouraging physical fitness generally, for almost 80 years.

To be sure, there is a social element to the full Hash House Harriers  package which typically involves the regular (if optional)  consumption of alcoholic beverages, notably beer, that a modern day insurance company wellness programme might not regard as fully in line with its ideas about “wellness”. (Indeed, some hashers jokingly refer to their organisation as “a drinking club with a running problem”.)

But as the “hashers” themselves say, hashing works, not only in ensuring that they stay fit, but by helping them to handle the inevitable stresses and strains of finding one’s self in a foreign country, with no family and few if any friends, at least initially.

“When I arrived in Singapore three years ago, I was wondering how I would find friends,” says hasher Kelly Payfer (hash name “Voting B**ch”), who runs KP Brand Consultancy in the city-state.

(Many of the estimated 1,700 hash “kennels”, or chapters, around the world keep up the tradition of assigning nicknames to their members, which they use among themselves rather than their “nerd” names, according to a history of the hashers at Motherhash.com.)

“Then my husband introduced me to hashing, and through that, I’ve found friends and so much more.

“As exercise, hashing is a great way to work up a sweat, while seeing places one might never go on one’s own; in Asia, we regularly hash through jungle that I would never be brave enough to attempt myself.

“Hashers range from casual walkers to marathon runners, but the non-competitive nature of hashing, along with the ‘checks’ that are made on the way, which are designed to slow down the fast runners, and the long/short runs, keep everyone coming in at about the same time.”

When Payfer, who is American, spoke recently to International Investment, she had just returned from a “Pan-Asia Hash” in South Korea, which she described as “an incredible week” that involved “a few days in Seoul that included ‘pre-lube’ hashes on weeknights” before the “hash weekend” in Sokcho (pictured, bottom of this page).

The ‘Red Dress Run’

The first time many non-hashers become aware of the Hash House Harriers is often when a group of hashers engaged in a “Red Dress Run” runs past (pictured above, along Boat Quay in Singapore in 2013, and this year, also in Singapore, left).  The Red Dress Run is one of a number of special running events that are held in place of a hash chapter’s usual weekly or monthly run, though it happens to be one of the most popular, Motherhash.com reports, with “most local chapters” holding one annually.

The Red Dress Run’s origins date back to 1987 in San Diego, when, according to Motherhash.com, “a virgin (new) hasher showed up for a run wearing only a red dress – having been ill-informed of what to expect”, and the other hashers “decided to wear a red dress [the next time she returned] as a joke”.

It was such a hit that the Red Dress Run not only became a global phenomenon, but variations on the theme have been introduced, with Green Dress Runs popular around St Patrick’s Day, and other costume-themed runs – including formal dress runs, lingerie hashes and clown hashes – reportedly making appearances as well.

There is even  a Red Dress Run website, which gives a more detailed history of the tradition, and updates hashers on where and when such runs are being held.

Founded in Malaysia

According to Motherhash.com, the Hash House Harriers was founded in Malaysia in 1938 by a group of British colonial officials and expatriates, with names like Frederick “Horse” Thompson and Ronald “Torch” Bennett, who “would meet after work on Monday evenings to run”. Like modern-day hashers, they would follow a paper trail, which led them through through the environs of Kuala Lumpur, “to get rid of the excesses of the previous weekend”.

As for the name, it was, Motherhash.com explains, a “jocular allusion to the ‘mess’ – bachelors’ hostel – they lived in…[which was] known locally as the hash house because of its monotonous food, ‘hash’ being army slang for food”.

Hashing died out during World War II after the Japanese invasion of Malaysia, but started again shortly after the war when the original group of hashers re-assembled in Kuala Lumpur. It didn’t begin to take off internationally until 1962, when a second ‘kennel’ was founded in Singapore, and from that point,  “the phenomenon started to grow, spreading through the Far East, Australia and New Zealand, as well as Europe and North America”.

Key objectives

While the spectacle of men and women running past in red frocks, wigs, duct tape, sarongs and latex body paint may be what outsiders associate with hashing, those who belong to a hash kennel and participate regularly stress that it is more than just an annual excuse to go running in a red dress – even if the Red Dress Run is, in some cases, a chapter’s biggest event of the year in terms of participants.

As Motherhash.com explains, the organisation’s key objectives, as set down in its original constitution long ago in Malaysia, are still “religiously followed”: “To promote physical fitness among our members; to get rid of weekend hangovers; to acquire a good thirst and to satisfy it in beer; and to persuade the older members that they are not as old as they feel”.

In short, not quite the objectives of an insurance company’s wellness programme, perhaps, but an apparently fun way expatriates around the world have found to make friends and stay fit.

And so, as the hashers would say – to use one of the many hash expressions they use at every opportunity  – “on-on” they go.


Insurance companies in the international marketplace are increasingly using old methods and new technology to promote fitness among their plan members, insurance companies say. To read about this trend, and what some of the individual companies in this market are doing in this area, click here. 

The Big Interview - Advisers