Ashley Sutton on opening his first Hong Kong bar, breaking rules and an unfulfilled dream
Expect the unexpected and you’re still surprised when you enter a Sutton bar, as Ophelia, his first of three in Hong Kong, proves. ‘I want people have a feeling of escape,’ he says. Still on the bucket list for Bangkok’s nightlife legend: a hotel
You never quite know what to expect when it comes to Ashley Sutton.
It’s a feeling that comes from the unique bar designs that are now shaking up Hong Kong’s nightlife scene as much as it does when you meet the man in person.
The Australian is the creative force behind Ophelia in Wan Chai – the first of three bars opening over the next two months that will demonstrate his flair.
Over a drink before Ophelia’s recent launch, Sutton looks askew, for a second, when asked about the inspiration behind Ophelia, as well as whether or not he might be feeling a few opening-night nerves.
“What I actually feel is disappointed,” offers Sutton. “I always do when a new place opens. I can always see exactly what I want to do in my mind before we start on a project, so I guess the reality of things is always a little bit different from the dream. But do I get excited? Mate, it’s just a f***ing bar.”
Yes it is, but Sutton’s are bars with a difference. Consider first what surrounds us today. From the entrance, which recreates an ancient bird shop called Mr Wong’s Aviary (and comes complete with Mr Wong himself), to the thousands of peacock feathers (attached to metal springs) which line the walls in front of 600,000 hand-painted tiles, it’s fair to say our city has rarely seen anything like Ophelia.
Those who have seen Sutton’s work in Bangkok, at the likes of Iron Fairies and Maggie Choo’s, might come expecting the unexpected – and they’ll still be in for a surprise.
The contrast with what lies outside Ophelia could not be starker. Entry comes only after punters navigate their way through the URA’s dismal regeneration/destruction of Wan Chai’s historic Wedding Card Street [Lee Tung Street], a place where creativity (as much as our heritage) seems to have effectively been castrated.
It’s a point not lost on Sutton, who admits to some horror when he first came to check out the site. “Outside, it’s a bit like walking into a casino mall,” he says. “But they used to have plastic flowers. At least they got rid of those.”
Still, Sutton used the setting as a positive influence, apparently, despite having not delved into Wan Chai’s history all that much.
“I had no idea what Wan Chai is,” he says. “I just knew it had to be a ‘destination’ because of the horrible way you get in. I just really wanted to give people a feeling of escape.
“That’s my hope. I wanted a craziness and a lot of break-the-rules s***. I said to the owner, ‘It has to be full of life, it has to have a lot of naughty things in it or what’s the point?’ You have to break the rules or what the f*** is the point?”
Hence the pure sense of decadence inside Ophelia, with (live) chanteuses sprawled on lounges set behind – and above – the bar, and swings and a cage set up for other live performers to do their best. The signature cocktail menu heightens the mood with the likes of the Cheongasm (tequila reposado, house-made pomegranate cordial, La Quintinye Vermouth Royal Rouge, lemon, lime and cinnamon mist).
Surprisingly, this is the first time Sutton has attended the opening of a property he has designed, despite there now being 28 on his résumé, spread across the globe. He certainly looks at home, in tailored white shirt, taut enough to reveal the impressive collection of tattoos on his arms. But he’s been flitting around the corners as final preparations are made, making sure everything is in place, and for the most part looking like he’d rather be anywhere else.
Normally, once a bar is ready to be opened, Sutton would immediately move on to the next project, he says. And over the next two months his attention will be focused on Wyndham Street in Central and the Hong Kong versions of Iron Fairies – the steampunk jazz bar where it all began for Sutton in Bangkok – as well as the “New York mixologist-style minimalist bar” J. Boroski.
“What I always want to do is to create something that will last,” he says. “Something that is timeless and something people will remember.”
The desire to design – and to create – started early, Sutton says. Growing up in the Western Australian seaside suburb of Fremantle, he chanced upon a novel way to stay busy, and to pick up a few rewards.
“I used to get paid in cigarettes to build tree houses for my mates,” he says. “And underground cubbies [children’s play houses]. I was the underground cubby king. There was a lot of vacant land around and I’d just build. New places for people to hang out that were a little bit different from real life. I still get excited thinking about this. I just f***ing love it.”
A bad early experience with alcohol – “I only had a taste when I was about 14 and just got a headache. I thought f*** this,” he says – shifted Sutton’s focus on to more serious pursuits. Still a teenager, he became a licensed crane driver and cashed in on the mining boom his home state was experiencing, stashing his money into property investments – but never losing that desire to create.
By his early 20s, he’d written a children’s book. Inspired during the darkened hours underground, it tells the story of a group of miners who make fairies that are brought to life when touched by the sun’s rays – and an illustrated version has sold more than 200,000 copies, leading to a mini-industry in collaterals that have included children’s soap, and led to Sutton opening a metal workshop in Bangkok that produced the fairies for sale.
It became such a popular spot for tourists to drop into that Sutton turned the workshop into a bar – Iron Fairies – and so the focus of his career once again shifted. And it’s been in constant motion ever since.
As well as bars, Sutton is setting his sights on one day being given creative control over an entire hotel.
“I’ve come close but never sealed the deal,” says Sutton. “In my line of work you just need someone to share the vision. So I’m waiting. Maybe one day I’ll get the call. I have so many ideas for that. We could make so much cool s***.”
Ophelia, Shop 39A–41A, 1/F, The Avenue, Lee Tung Avenue, Wan Chai, Tue-Thur, 6pm-2am; Fri-Sat, 6pm-3am. Tel: 2520 1117. firstname.lastname@example.org