We're still dancing as fast as we can

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 June, 2012, 12:00am


Ever since that rain-soaked night 15 years ago when Hong Kong quick-stepped its way both back and forward in history, residents of this 'barren rock'' have faced the same question with monotonous regularity when they travel abroad: 'Has the place changed much since the handover?'

In most cases the questioner is simply making polite conversation; others who are more engaged but largely ignorant expect tales of tanks, secret police or, at the very least, the death of the English language. Then there are the tricky ones, the ones you dread most, who genuinely want to know the truth in its full and byzantine complexity.

At this point you reach for the not-inconsiderable lexicon of the man most people agree was the architect of the Hong Kong we have today, late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

Thanks to Deng, in a conversational sleight of hand you can turn a stiff discussion about political change into a much more relaxed chat about the real stuff of life in this remarkable city: what ordinary folks like us do, as those who think they run our lives bluster on about filibustering and ramble endlessly over reinterpretation.

Diminutive, chain-smoking, giant of modern Chinese history he definitely was. But Deng was obviously also no slouch when it came to life away from politics.

While the merchants of doom, including the infamously downbeat issue of Fortune magazine, which declared 'The Death of Hong Kong' - only to revive the corpse five years later, went about their business, Deng reassured us in his own inimitable style that 'horse racing and dancing would continue to be prominent fixtures in Hong Kong'.

Clearly, his words had a deep political and cultural significance, as Michael Degolyer of the Hong Kong Transition Project points out: 'The horse racing reference was a pointed political point that the institutions which were widely seen as running Hong Kong - the government, HSBC and the Jockey Club - and not necessarily in that order, would continue to thrive.

'The dancing reference, I believe, was a nod to the cultural revolution. Hong Kong had a reputation for Western dancing and following Western fashion. Deng, who was a very, very smart man, knew exactly what buttons to press.'

So far, the great man has been proved right, and it seems Hongkongers and what continues to be a significant international population who call the city home have taken his words - even if they were too busy enjoying themselves to hear them - as a green light to party on. After several abortive attempts at horse racing without wagers on the mainland, Hong Kong remains the focus of the nation's equine aspirations (see story on facing page). Talk to those who have played a key role in keeping the pulse of the nightlife at a high-octane level over the past decade and a half and they'll tell you how the traditional hot spots of Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui have gone from strength to strength, while the newer haunts of Central, Mid-Levels, SoHo and the trendier end of Wan Chai have witnessed what can only be described as an entertainment renaissance. Even sky-rocketing rents in places such as Causeway Bay have simply seen nightlife migrate upwards to off-street bars and nightclubs on the upper floors of buildings.

'Oh yes, this is definitely more of a party town today than it was 15 years ago,' says Gilbert Yeung Kei-lung, founder and owner of dragon-i nightclub in Central, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. 'I genuinely didn't realise that there were so many naughty people out there. And the number of naughty people has only grown over the past few years.'

By naughty people, the London and Toronto-educated son of Emperor Group tycoon Albert Yeung Sau-shing is referring to what he says are a growing number of work hard, play hard people who see Hong Kong as not only a place where doing business is king but where enjoying the proceeds has become almost as important.

'It's time for the government and the tourism authorities to realise that the city's reputation as a place to have a good party is something that can be traded on as a key point of attraction for people to come here to work or open a business,' Yeung says. 'Ten to 15 years ago, most of the international set here were from the finance industry, or top company executives.

'We have all different strata of people living and working here now - hairdressers, fashion and graphic designers, even people simply working as bartenders. There is no doubt that, largely by word of mouth, Hong Kong's reputation as a place to have fun has grown.'

Looking back to the inception of dragon-i in 2002, it would seem that Yeung caught the zeitgeist. His plan was to offer, both in style and content, a mixture of Eastern and Western styles, betting on Hong Kong's continued growth as an international meeting point.

'Many people thought we were mad to pursue such an aggressive project in Central, and particularly on the first floor of a building in Central. Wyndham Street was basically a street of carpet shops and all the action was in Lan Kwai Fong. But look at this area now. There are bars and clubs catering for every taste.'

A list of just some of the international stars of every hue who have graced dragon-i's dancefloor -David Beckham, Michael Jackson, Sting, Ronaldo (the Brazilian footballer) and Boy George - takes us nicely to two more of Deng's nuggets of wisdom, or at least those attributed to him: 'It doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice' and 'to get rich is glorious'.

For Hong Kong's enduring and ever inventive 'dancing' industry, what could be more apt?