Funky town: How disco fever in the late '70s changed Hong Kong’s nightlife forever
An epidemic of disco fever spread through Hong Kong in the late 1970s and early 80s, changing the city's nightlife forever. Taking a peek at how the party scene unfolded, Isobel Yeung blames it on the boogie man
Another Saturday night and Lan Kwai Fong is in full swing: girls in skin-tight dresses shoulder past a harried waiter carrying yet another tray of champagne. Revellers shout to be heard over the din of indistinguishable dance numbers while hip young things move to the beat and the older, more jaded among them sit back, necking overpriced tipples. It is a familiar scene, and for most of the people in it, just a typical night out.
"Most of Hong Kong's nightlife is boring," according to Zaran Vachha, director of events company Fresh Off The Boat Asia. "It's the same every night. Drunken escapism lacking creativity, and the number of bottles you order justifying your existence."
But it hasn't always been that way.
FOR MANY OF THOSE who danced their way through them, the boogie nights of the late 1970s/early 80s burned brightest. The scene in Hong Kong embodied the spirit of Asia's biggest financial boom and was fuelled by a devil-may-care attitude towards the impending end of colonial rule. It was an era of outrageous disco-mania and it opened the floodgates to cultural abundance and integration on the dance floor.
"It was a time when people were focused on absorbing everything from music, culture and fashion. There was a sense of hunger for everything that was new and different," says Tedman Lee Pui-ming, executive producer of Night of the Living Discoheads, a 2012 Cantonese-language documentary that attempts to recapture the essence of the "golden era".
Before this explosion of merrymaking, Hong Kong's trendy stomping grounds had been almost exclusively in high-end Kowloon hotels. Fashion designers and businessmen frequented The Peninsula, the Sheraton and the Holiday Inn, whose bars and clubs also catered to the visiting elite. The only other form of mass nighttime distraction could be found in less-salubrious Wan Chai, and its pockets of Suzie Wong-style action.
It was largely due to the vision of one man that Hong Kong's outrageous streak was awakened. Gordon Huthart, whose father was a prominent Lane Crawford director, had a strong motive. At a time when homosexuality was illegal, Huthart found it his calling in life to fight for his right to party.
"He was a militant scenester," chuckles Andrew Bull, owner and founder of Shanghai-based marketing company Shine Communications. At the time, Bull was a British boarding-school dropout turned resident DJ at The Scene, in The Peninsula. "[Huthart] used to come in and deliberately dance with guys 'cause he knew the bouncers would kick him out."
Fed up with aggressive hotel bouncers and long walks home, Huthart looked for an outlet of his own and soon stumbled upon Lan Kwai Fong, the main attraction of which was its rubbish collection point. The unofficial red-light district was also home to marriage brokers, opium-smoking old-timers and a lousy flower market.
In 1978, Huthart rented the shabby basement of 38-44 D'Aguilar Street (where Volar stands today) and got to work embellishing it with garish Egyptian design. A giant King Tut hung on the main wall, poised to watch over the scene that was about to unfold. With the stage set, in December 1978, the doors were flung open to Disco Disco. Delivering just what Huthart had promised, DD, as it was fondly referred to, quickly rose to near mythical status.
Huthart's vision was to create a club that could be a force for positive change, a place that championed freedom and individuality and mocked long-standing conventions and social norms. This wasn't another attempt at a grungy pub; it was to be the godfather - or grand dame, perhaps - of all discos.
"Hong Kong was ready to have its arse kicked and Disco Disco did just that," says Bull. "All of those nights were forming, observing humanity in the raw for the first time, getting in touch with what's possible creatively."
"Disco Disco was the first big raspberry in the face of an increasingly insecure colonial morality," writes former policeman Mike Smith, in his recently released book, In the City of Dragons.
With the newly opened MTR mobilising the town to its hottest spot, the club, with a door charge of HK$40, attracted everyone from television personalities, pop stars and models to artists, textile tycoons and photographers.
"Gays swapped business cards with straights, Chinese smoked a Good Companion with expatriate … everyone happy in the belief that Hong Kong had finally arrived," wrote Liam Fitzpatrick, in his 1993 book Rats Liked It Well Enough: The 1997 Story. Madonna graced DD's dance floor, as did Sean Penn, Andy Warhol and Rod Stewart. "To a town whose previous idea of big fun was a whist drive followed by chicken chow mein at the Kowloon Cricket Club, Disco Disco became the sole arbiter of hip."
Hong Kong's answer to Studio 54 became home to "a different type of elitist", says Bull, who left The Peninsula to become Disco Disco's resident DJ. "It was like anyone could be elite. You could come from Wah Fu Estate or Sham Shui Po and you could be part of a new elite, a kind of cool elitism, which was based on insight and creative merit rather than being born with a silver spoon [in your mouth]."
"A good disco is like a zoo," Huthart explained in a March 1979 South China Morning Post article on the disco phenomenon. "The straighter people are, the weirder are the people that they want to watch. You can only let so many people in, so if there are too many gays, we'll let in some straights. If there are too many straights we'll let in some gays."
Punters competed to be the most outrageous, the best dancer, or the most insanely dressed. A local bodybuilder wearing a one-piece Lycra wrestling suit would rock up just before midnight every Saturday, owning the tune Funkytown, by Lipps Inc, for four full minutes, as he let rip with a mesmerising dance routine before disappearing back into the night.
"It was an exotic place full of gorgeous people with gorgeous outfits," says Stanley Ma Ki-lian, host of Disco Nonstop, a Citizen Radio show that mixes 80s disco tunes, "though it was also famous as a gay club."
That reputation certainly did Huthart no favours in 1979, the year after the club opened, when he was arrested. After pleading guilty to 15 counts of buggery, Huthart spent 13 weeks in prison.
Nevertheless, the popularity of Disco Disco and the cultural shift caused by the runaway success of John Travolta film Saturday Night Fever led to an explosion of local discotheques, and a fragmentation of Hong Kong's nightlife. About 50 establishments - categorised at the time as "New York-style discos" (such as DD), "club-type discos" (such as those in the hotels) and cheap, blue-collar places - opened practically overnight and going dancing became a popular pastime, for young expats and locals alike.
In the 1979 SCMP article, Tony Law, who had turned the staid Taipan Club at Kowloon's Hotel Miramar (now The Mira) into a disco, said, "As long as everyone in the industry makes it a clean business, disco will go on for five or six years more." Although some venues opened and closed in the blink of a glittery eyelid - Disco Fever, Today's World Disco, New York New York and New Scene Club, to name a few - he wasn't far wrong.
Hawaii-born Silvio Wang took the party to Causeway Bay in 1979, with the club Manhattan - where the more introverted patrons could dance behind a curtain - and then back to Tsim Sha Tsui, with Hollywood East, both of which catered to "the rich, the super rich, the gifted and the elegant", according to an article in Young Executive magazine in 1982.
In 1983, the notorious Club 97 opened just over the road from Disco Disco and in it a well-groomed, predominantly white crowd sipped on Dom Perignon and partied like it was 1999 - or thereabouts.
On Kowloon side, Hot Gossip hosted the best-looking girls in town, according to several of the subjects interviewed by Lee, while Apollo 18 catered to an almost exclusively local crowd. Canton Disco stood where Joyce Boutique now stands, a massive 16,000 sq ft property taken over by the irrepressible Bull in 1985. The club featured large multimedia visuals, garish trusses with moving lights on chains, a huge bridge over the dance floor and two go-go dancers in cages by the entrance.
"Going out back then was all about dressing up," says self-professed college dropout and professional clubber Babe Tree. Also known as Tang Hoi-man, she now works in the local music and entertainment industry.
Canton Disco go-go dancer Lisa Shearer (known at the time by her stage name, Lisa Lee) put together her look on weekly shopping trips to Sham Shui Po.
"It was amazing - I'd find futuristic vinyl, fluorescents, chains, tulle, Lycra, metallics and elastics of all shapes and sizes to haul something together for the evening. Nothing was too much," says Shearer.
Even the kids were at it. With several of the Tsim Sha Tsui clubs capitalising on the pursuit of a good party, "noon disco" sessions began to feature heavily in the weekends of Hong Kong teenagers. Youngsters would turn up in broad daylight, dressed to the nines in the hope of getting snapped for the social pages of local magazines.
Ma recalls his infatuation with New Wave and New Romantic British pop at the time: "We'd all have short, thick bob hairstyles. Some of the boys would even recreate David Bowie's make-up. Then, with the introduction of Japanese pop in the mid-80s, we moved on to oversized everything and baggy pants."
As the scene developed, so did its progenitor, which began operating as The Underground.
"Disco Disco was the best club in the 80s to me," says Frankie Chiang Wai-wah, who was a student at the time and now manages bars in Beijing. "[You'd encounter] all kinds of interesting people from different fields. Rich and famous, pretty and handsome, it was a truly friendly place to meet people.
"Everyone just wanted to have fun and didn't care if you were rich or not. All they cared about was if you were fashionable and stylish. Danny Chan, Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung were regulars. Lots of celebrities, designers, movie stars and even lawyers were regular customers."
Disco Disco also opened its door to a string of themed parties, and Hongkongers went wild for them, the more outlandish the costume demands the better. Those who attended the one-off "Country: The Party" witnessed not only cowboy boots and suede chaps in abundance, but also a live flock of chickens, a pig and a rather bewildered-looking horse dispersed among the chaos of the club. Another classically decadent affair was when Huthart himself emerged from dry ice dressed as the pope and US$100 bills were blasted from air-conditioning units, sending the partygoers scurrying around on their knees.
"When they threw special [themed] parties everyone would want to be invited, to show how 'in' he or she was," says Winnie Yuen Wai-san, who worked at Holiday Inn's Another World Disco, in Tsim Sha Tsui, at the time, and now teaches English.
Not to be outdone, Club 97 threw Brazilian parties, pseudo Notting Hill Carnivals and, in 1986, a party that perfectly captured the scene's hedonistic glory days - a Halley's Comet-spotting excursion on a Boeing 737.
"It was crazy, 200 people going through Kai Tak airport half naked, dripping in silver boots and metallic helmets," says Christian Rhomberg, founder of Club 97 and now chairman of KEE Club.
For women especially, the disco years were a time of liberation. Shrugging off Hong Kong's stuffy past, women were suddenly able to party till dawn.
"Nothing dangerous or untoward ever really happened to me or anyone I knew back then. I felt safe and free, even late at night in skimpy costumes," Shearer recalls.
Designer drugs didn't arrive in bulk until the 90s and besides the odd bit of cocaine lined up on the stainless-steel office desks of certain club owners, the party fuel was generally of the legal kind.
"There was just the one time that someone tried to kill me," says Bull, impassively, pointing to a deep scar on his head caused by an underage triad attempting to imbed a metal pole in his skull.
When pushed for other telling incidents, Bull remembers finding 50 sharpened bamboo sticks hidden in Canton Disco's ceiling, which he put down to gangsters planning ahead in case of a rumble.
HUTHART DIED OF THROAT CANCER in 1996, long after Allan Zeman had developed Lan Kwai Fong into an entertainment district like no other. But for those who grooved the night away on its sweaty dance floor, there can be no substitute for the Disco Disco spirit.
"We used to make real fun," says Ma. "Nowadays kids sit on the couch, talking or sending messages - what's the difference between that and a conference?"
"It was the total united nations of revelry and one amazing experiment - unique, glitzy, brash, modern, pioneering," says Shearer, who now works as a make-up artist in Auckland, New Zealand.
"I feel extremely privileged to have lived out that chunk of my youth there."