• Thu
  • Jul 10, 2014
  • Updated: 2:26pm

As clubs close, the lights are fading on a racy tradition

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 11:03pm

Deng Xiaoping famously promised Hongkongers that 'the dancing and horse racing will continue', as he sought to assure the city that its lifestyle would stay unchanged after the 1997 handover.

But while the going remains good for the racing industry, the local nightclub scene is fast disappearing.

Last month the final curtain fell at Club BBoss, the city's biggest nightclub. That was followed by the sudden closure of its rival Club Paris.

Now Hongkongers may have to head to the mainland or Macau for similar entertainment.

The closures left Club de Hong Kong as the sole sizeable nightclub, a clear sign of the industry's malaise.

And despite what some may think, Hong Kong's glamorous nightlife is, in fact, an economic barometer.

Nightclubs thrived in the 80s and 90s as the economy boomed. Businessmen and factory owners visited clubs to discuss deals over drinks.

An incessant stream of cars waited outside nightclubs every night during the peak hours. Guests were willing to queue up outside the clubs when they were full. They were generous with their tips, too.

That was the golden age for hostesses and their mamasans (women who supervised the hostesses). They earned hefty sums of money. Many drove Mercedes-Benz cars and owned properties. Some earned a living by just singing and drinking with men. The lucky few found rich patrons to support them for the rest of their lives.

But those were the good old days.

As Hong Kong's economy began to shift to service industries in the 90s, factories relocated to the mainland to exploit the cheaper rents and labour, and the tycoons went with them. The pre-1997 emigration tide also spirited away many professionals and middle-income workers who could afford the luxury of a night at the clubs.

The influx of mainland prostitutes, the rapid development of Macau's gambling industry and the rise of entertainment venues in cities in Guangdong provided more entertainment options, posing a threat to local nightclubs.

The industry was further hit by Asia's economic turmoil in 1997, the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic in 2003 and the global financial crisis in 2008.

Business was slack before Club BBoss closed. Its staff said no more than a third of the rooms were full each night, and mamasans called loyal customers from time to time to appeal for business.

Now the 70,000 sq ft club will become a duty-free shop, targeting mainlanders.

It's a cause for regret for those who appreciate local culture.

While mainland tourists are providing a huge boost to the city's economy - especially after visa rules were eased in 2003, allowing them to visit individually rather than in tour groups - the traditional tourism districts are gradually losing their historic character.

Shops that are proliferating in Mong Kok, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui include those that sell fancy watches and jewellery, Chinese medicine, cosmetics and other items most locals would struggle to afford. Rents are surging in these areas, forcing out many shops with local character.

While some 88.8 million mainlanders have visited Hong Kong via the individual-visit scheme so far, those who live and earn a living in the city are becoming more willing to open their wallets on the mainland and abroad.

This has contributed to an economic structure that is largely reliant on foreigners and mainlanders. Nightclubs are certainly victims of this phenomenon. They and the underground economy constitute part of the local culture and support people on society's bottom rungs.

The hostesses and their fellow workers - the unsung heroes behind today's prosperity - had earned their living by providing entertainment and an outlet for patrons to vent their anger and sorrows.

Only a dozen films have been made on the racy topic of Hong Kong's nightclubs. Without proper documentation, this piece of local culture will soon be forgotten.

The dazzling spotlights and ornate golden ceiling might need to be torn down, but something at least should be preserved to continue the legend of Club BBoss.

Perhaps the signature Rolls Royce parked at the entrance that had whisked countless millionaires to the entertainment palace?

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