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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of Hong Kong nightlife

By Annette Chan 29 October 2021

Header image courtesy of Andrew Bull / Disco Disco

While it’s hard to imagine a time before Lan Kwai Fong was the city’s de facto nightlife district, or an era when cultural icons like Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, and Madonna would party until dawn in local clubs, Hong Kong’s nightlife—like so many other things in the city—has a longer and more interesting history than people realise.

From vinyl-spinning discotheques in the city’s poshest hotels to colourful nightclubs that rivalled New York’s legendary Studio 54 in their glamour and guestlists, and modern-day underground party collectives, join us as we chart the history of Hong Kong nightlife.

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Disco-very

Given that the majority of the city’s most popular nightclubs and bars can now be found on Hong Kong side, it may be surprising to discover that the first discos in Hong Kong were actually on the Kowloon side—Tsim Sha Tsui, to be exact. First, let’s set the scene: Hong Kong in the 1960s was in the middle of its manufacturing heyday, a golden age ushered in by industrialisation and a wave of mainland Chinese émigrés—both wealthy and poor—who brought their business and cheap labour to the colony, respectively, while fleeing the Chinese Civil War.

At Hong Kong’s industrial peak, factory workers accounted for roughly 40 percent of the workforce, with major industries being textiles, electronics, and toys. The predominance of textiles, in particular, meant that an international jet-set crowd of fashion designers, models, and garment businessmen would frequent the city on fleeting trips, while American soldiers fighting in the ongoing Vietnam War would also come to town on “R&R” breaks. Hyper-flashy “hostess clubs” catering to wealthy businessmen sprung up around Tsim Sha Tsui—Club Volvo, Club Paris, Club de Hong Kong—offering karaoke and raunchy floor shows against gaudy backdrops. For the more fashionable set who preferred to dance to funk, groove, and disco music, however, there was The Scene.

In the mid-1960s, Sir Michael Kadoorie—scion of the family which founded The Peninsula—proposed opening a modern discotheque in the grand hotel, perhaps inspired by the chic clubs found in London during the “swinging sixties.” Despite scepticism from his fellow board members—he would later state that “half the directors didn’t know what a discotheque meant and the other half didn’t wish to know”—Sir Michael stuck to his guns and opened The Scene in the basement of the “finest hotel east of the Suez” in 1966.

Described in The Peninsula Group Magazine in December 1966 as “quite a swinging place,” guests could spot the likes of Kenzo Takada, Imelda Marcos, and Sir Run Run Shaw at The Scene’s VIP tables or on the round dancefloor during its 10-year run. The stylish club was managed by model-slash-DJ Beth Narain (née Smith), while a teenaged Andrew Bull—who would go on to be a legend in his own right—started spinning there and at other Tsim Sha Tsui hotspots in 1972. 

During the 1970s, one of the local socialites who frequented The Scene was Gordon Huthart, the wealthy Eurasian son of the then-managing director of Lane Crawford. Huthart, who was an out gay man in a time when homosexuality was still outlawed, would often be thrown out of The Scene for dancing with men. When disco became a mainstream craze during the late 1970s, thanks to Saturday Night Fever, Huthart set his sights on opening Hong Kong’s answer to Studio 54—and picked a dingy basement in an unremarkable part of Central: Lan Kwai Fong.

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California dreamin’

Pre-World War II, Lan Kwai Fong was populated with brothels, matchmakers, hawkers, and florists—the latter of which is commonly attributed for the area’s name, which means “orchid square.” By the time Huthart picked the locale for his disco, however, it was a sedate area that was home to a few garment stores and not much else. 

When Disco Disco—also known as DD—opened in 1978, it was a revelation (emphasis on the “revel”), one that Huthart hoped would spark a transformation of Central into a nightlife and business district akin to Ginza in Tokyo. While The Scene had paved the way for disco and groove in Hong Kong, it was still a hotel bar—the type of place “respectable” people would go for a drink and dance after dinner—and Huthart’s vision was considerably more outré.

Inspired by the unrestrained discos he had patronised during his student days in San Francisco, Huthart created a haven for everybody—regardless of race, sexual orientation, or social standing. Celebrities and artists both local and international—Madonna, Rod Stewart, Anita Mui, Vivienne Tam—rubbed shoulders with Hong Kong partygoers. Disco and funk blaring over the speakers, sweaty scenesters, elaborate theme parties, and a packed dancefloor lit only by strobe lights—it was the first modern nightclub as we know it in Hong Kong.

A success from the day it opened—compounded by the opening of the MTR, which provided cheaper and more convenient cross-harbour transport—Disco Disco changed the landscape of nightlife and Central itself, with queues snaking through the formerly quiet Lan Kwai Fong on any given night, sometimes reaching Queen’s Road Central. DD staff like Bull (who joined as resident DJ in 1979) and creative director Dick Kaufman have publicly recounted details from Huthart’s extravagant parties—chickens, ducks, and horses at the country-themed opening party; confetti cannons stuffed with US$10,000 in bills raining money on the dancefloor at DD’s second anniversary; real strawberry bushes flown into Hong Kong to pay homage to “Strawberry Fields Forever” at a Beatles-themed party.

Huthart’s antics drew the attention of the police, and the young impresario was imprisoned for 13 weeks in 1979 for buggery. Despite the ensuing attention—and the revocation of DD’s alcohol licence—the club somehow continued on, remaining the area’s uncontested hotspot until 1982, when Christian Rhomberg opened 1997, a chic café and restaurant, followed by its downstairs nightclub and bar, Club 1997. A patron of 1997—a garment entrepreneur by the name of Allan Zeman—was inspired to open his own restaurant and bar, an establishment called California on the corner of Lan Kwai Fong and D’Aguilar Street, where businesspeople could socialise in a more casual setting. Together, Disco Disco, 1997, and California heralded the beginning of LKF as a nightlife district.

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Acceptable in the 1980s

While Huthart’s grip on nightlife would eventually wane—he sold his shares in DD in 1985—the party was far from over. Small restaurants and bars opened by expats cropped up around Lan Kwai Fong, while Bull hopped back across the harbour to launch Canton Disco in the newly opened Harbour City in spring 1985. Canton Disco’s cooler-than-cool demographic—neither British nor Chinese, but a crowd of creatives unique to Hong Kong—was broadcasted in its name, as well as the retro posters and matchboxes that artist Alan Chan created for the club, which bear influences from 1930s Shanghai, 1950s Americana, and abstract art all at once.

Bull, who envisioned the space as a performance venue as well as a club, booked acts like Divine (who performed at the grand opening), New Order, Run DMC, Eartha Kitt, and even a young Kylie Minogue, who performed her first live concert at Canton Disco. Visiting celebrity clientele included Sylvester Stallone, Rob Lowe, and Sean Penn, while local icons like Jackie Chan, Eric Tsang, and Anita Mui can be spotted fresh-faced and feathery-haired in Bull’s throwback photos.

Beyond the world of Suzie Wong

At the same time, something was brewing over in Wan Chai. Though the northern Hong Kong Island district had been a bustling red-light district for a while thanks to “girlie bars” entertaining visiting sailors and soldiers, there wasn’t much around the Lockhart Road strip to entice regular Hongkongers. In October 1987, Howard McKay and Rowland Hastings opened The Wan Chai Folk Club—which would later become The Wanch—on Jaffe Road. Surrounded by establishments that could be described as “seedy” at best, The Wanch was a welcome addition to the bar scene, with an easy-going atmosphere and regular live folk music. 

The success of The Wanch led McKay and Hastings to team up with Hastings’ brother, John, to open Carnegie’s on Lockhart Road in 1994. Carnegie’s, which would go on to eclipse The Wanch in stature, helped cement Wan Chai as an unpretentious party destination for young expats and tourists looking for rowdy fun with its pop and rock soundtrack, affordable no-frills drinks, and popularity within the local rugby community. At one point, dancing on top of the bar was a rite of passage for young partiers (as was falling off), a tradition that the bar’s owners and regulars like to remind people existed “long before Coyote Ugly.”

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The dawn of an empire

Meanwhile, back in Central, Zeman began consolidating his empire in the late 1980s by snapping up properties around Lan Kwai Fong—starting with the building where California was located and its next-door neighbour, which he would transform into California Entertainment Building and California Tower. The 12-storey buildings would become one-stop-shops for anyone looking for a good time, providing restaurants, clubs, and bars all in one convenient location.

Lan Kwai Fong continued to flourish into the 90s, though it wasn’t without its tragedies. On New Year’s Eve 1992, a crowd of 15,000 people flocked to LKF to count down towards 1993, but a deadly combination of alcohol, overcrowding, and the natural incline of Lan Kwai Fong’s streets led someone to fall, causing a catastrophe in which 20 people were crushed to death and another 62 people were injured. The subsequent inquest into the tragedy is why Lan Kwai Fong has such stringent crowd control measures during festive periods nowadays.

By the millennium, however, the old clubs and bars that had put Lan Kwai Fong on the map were no longer attracting the cool young crowds they once did. In 2002, like Gordon Huthart before him, a young scion—Gilbert Yeung, son of Emperor Group founder Albert Yeung—set about opening a daring new club in an untapped area, perched above the then-quiet Wyndham Street and removed from the Lan Kwai Fong sprawl by a host of little galleries and boutiques. Yeung’s club, Dragon-i, added some much-needed Chinese representation to Central’s clubbing scene; a dim sum restaurant by day and a lounge-slash-club by night, with an aesthetic and identity that borrowed heavily from Chinese culture, by way of world cities like London and New York.

Now, nightlife in Hong Kong is considerably more scattered than it once was, with clusters of bars in Lan Kwai Fong, Soho, Wan Chai, Tsim Sha Tsui, Mong Kok, and further afield, each of which offers its own unique atmosphere. The spirit of Canton Disco and Disco Disco lives on in retro club nights, alternative music lounges, and underground parties held in nondescript industrial buildings and far-flung locations, pioneered by collectives like Yeti Out, Spin Sum, and Bunker. 

Throughout its 60-year-history, nightlife in Hong Kong has transmogrified time and time again, from smart discotheques to no-holds-barred dens of hedonism, and pop-up parties in hidden locations. We don’t know what the future holds for Hong Kong’s party scene, but one thing’s for sure—we can’t wait to see it.

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Annette Chan

Senior editor

Annette is an editor and copywriter with a lifetime of experience in hunting out the most interesting, odd, and delightful things about her beloved home city. Having written extensively about everything from food and culture to fashion, music, and hospitality, she considers her speciality to be Hong Kong itself. In her free time, you can find Annette trying out new dumpling recipes or playing Big Two at her favourite local bars with a cocktail in hand.

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