A fresh take on an old Chinese story
London-born Jamie Higgins has been in Hong Kong for 22 years. Previously synonymous with Lan Kwai Fong, where he managed the hip Post 97 and Mecca/Club 97, he later worked with the Epicurean Group restaurant chain, set up Jaa Bar with colleagues Ann Tsang and Andrea Boston, and has recently partnered with Shizh Hoi Ping to open The Monogamous Chinese restaurant.
What was Hong Kong's bar scene like when you arrived in 1990?
In those days, there was no SoHo area, no escalator. Lan Kwai Fong was the first destination for anyone coming to Hong Kong, and 97 was the established place. Whether you were a banker, chief exec or a clerk, that was the place you'd hang out. Everyone was on business accounts, so it wasn't unusual for them to come in and drink eight bottles of Dom Perignon and charge it to a Morgan Stanley account. Money was no object in those days. It was party hard, live everything to the extreme. Fast lane all the way.
And for us, it wasn't like work; it was like partying. If they cracked open the bubbly, of course you were included. We were treated almost like friends, and often invited onto the boats and to the after parties. They'd phone up a chauffeur, and suddenly you'd be in the back of a Rolls or a Jag and continue the party at someone's house.
When did other neighbourhoods become popular?
Hong Kong was starting to want more than just the LKF scene by 1994, so 97 opened Petticoat Lane. Baroque bar, high ceiling, but down a dirty dingy back alley. Imagine all those people in designer outfits, but they loved it. Michelle Yeoh had her birthday there, Marjorie Yang would come in, Richard Li, Faye Wong, Anastasia - it was a real hideaway. They loved coming into a big cosmopolitan city, down a rat-infested alleyway and finding this oasis at the end. But then, in true Hong Kong style, the landlord was offered a lot of money to knock down Petticoat Lane, The Pavilion and El Pomposo for an office building. An institution and an era were pulled down with a bulldozer.
How has the scene evolved since then?
Nowadays expats come out on a two-year contract and are more conservative about spending. And there's more choice now - Wyndham Street and SoHo, Gough Street and Hollywood Road. But it was great for learning that if you can give people what they want, with a bit of TLC, then you're onto a good thing. Too often in Hong Kong you walk in and you're blanked. Service has got to be more than just dump and run. Whether it's drink or food, make eye contact, ask how they are, make them feel they're here, and noticed, special if only for that hour at lunch time.
What motivated you to create The Monogamous Chinese?
I wanted to do something a bit different and thought someone needs to do a really good Chinese restaurant, where the front of the house is comfortable and relaxed, and there's an ambience that makes people want to stay. And yet it had to be authentic.
Then last December, I went to Bistro Bamboo in SoHo for lunch, and the minute I walked in I got goose pimples. It has high ceilings, an alleyway, that old feel, and an outdoor area. The food, however, was awful. I thought we could do it a lot better. I approached the owner and within 14 days the keys were ours. It takes you back to those early days - no guts, no glory.
We bought everything from the toothpicks to the wok in the kitchen and the light bulbs. Then we commissioned the paintings from artists in China, and recreated an old Shanghainese venue. We changed the Ikea lighting; it's not unusual for a Chinese restaurant to be so bright that you can do open heart surgery on your table. And from the time we threw open the doors, it's been non-stop reservations.
Isn't it quite unusual for a Westerner to open a Chinese restaurant?
I was initially scared as a Western person opening a Chinese restaurant. It's my neck on the block. So there's a real focus on highest quality, and handmade and fresh ingredients. The food is 100 per cent authentic. People come from Sichuan and say it's like their mum's cooking. The owner-chef is from Shanghai, the sous chef from Sichuan and the third chef from Beijing. And the name - if you're loyal, you're monogamous to us. Everyone had a giggle when I came up with it, but it is memorable. Dinner time we have a waiting list of about four days. I'm as proud as a peacock to have that.