Night shift in Lan Kwai Fong as locals give the street a new look

Expats no longer dominate the clubs and bars of Lan Kwai Fong as local Hongkongers, many returning from overseas, give the street a new look

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 August, 2012, 5:18am

With the heart of Lan Kwai Fong under reconstruction, there's an undeniable shift happening in the city's most well-known clubbing hotspot and a new, raunchy film has transferred this trend on to the silver screen.

Lan Kwai Fong 2 (Chinese name "Love to party late") is the sequel to last year's movie of the same name, which depicts young Hong Kong-born partygoers going wild and shows how this area is being reclaimed by locals after years as an expatriate hub. The first movie made about HK$900,000.

Director Wilson Chin Kwok-wai - a former TVB producer who was arrested by the ICAC in 2010 on suspicion of corruption and fraud but released without charge - says the script was based on true stories and he has since been approached by filmmakers in Beijing to direct a movie about the clubbing scene on the mainland.

"I like to let young local people know more about Lan Kwai Fong and the many tricks that people use to get laid," he said.

"I discovered that during the summer holidays, many young students who have been studying in the US or Canada come back just to party at Lan Kwai Fong.

"One-night stands can develop into a long-term relationship and you can even find true love."

This is the premise of both Lan Kwai Fong (also known by locals as LKF) movies with promotional posters featuring young couples in their underwear.

"Chinese people are still embarrassed about one-night stands; even if they enjoy it, they won't talk about it," said the director, who believes his movies have made the topic a talking point.

Being more open about sex and relationships has been a recent shift, says cultural commentator Chin Wan-kan, 50, who teaches Chinese writing at Lingnan University in Tuen Mun.

"Local people are beginning to love the way and style of Lan Kwai Fong and not being so shy," he said.

"Before that, locals only went at Halloween or Christmas so it was not frequent."

Before becoming an academic, Chin worked as a research director at the Home Affairs Department between 2002 and 2008 and, with his offices close to LKF, he was a regular customer.

"It's a mix of people," he said.

"Expats as well as local men and women meeting strangers in an open space over a glass of wine, where East and West meet and people from different cultures can share ideas, friendships, a kind of global exchange.

"It's also for anyone who just wants to seek fun near their work place, with most in their late 20s to 40s."

Rewind back to the early '80s when Lan Kwai Fong did not exist and 26-year-old Austrian trade diplomat Christian Rhomberg arrived in Hong Kong and saw a gap in the market.

"It started when I was still with the foreign service," he said.

"And we would look for somewhere European in Central but there were only a few takeaway shops so we would eat pizza sitting on the steps at lunch.

"We had always thought there should be something like Lan Kwai Fong next to the financial district, so we said let's do it," said Rhomberg.

So in 1982, along with three partners, he opened a cafe and bar called 1997.

"It was not a clean street, there were rats because there was a big rubbish dump and it was full of warehouses," he said.

The club was a huge success and together with Disco Disco, which opened in 1978, the seed for Lan Kwai Fong was planted.

"We knew a lot of people and it was a big success, but at first we were alone and everyday it was like a movie," Rhomberg recalled, referring to the dramas of running a club, including run-ins with the triads.

"When we first started, it was very much a gweilo area and I was always surprised that we lasted 20 years and that no local people could beat us at the game but now it's different."

Young locals are returning to the city with their experiences in the United Kingdom, United States or Europe, he said, and opening up bars and clubs.

Over the past two years, pundits have frequently proclaimed the death or at least slow demise of the hub's pulling power, partly because of the demolition in 2010 of two landmark buildings - California Tower and California Entertainment Building - for a major facelift.

Both properties are owned by Allan Zeman, dubbed by many as the "father" of Lan Kwai Fong (see timeline).

"I was worried when we tore the buildings down that the area would go quiet, but it continues to do well," Zeman said.

"Since 1997 Hong Kong has changed dramatically, so Lan Kwai Fong has, too. The crowds have changed and they will change again."

The refurbished buildings are slated to reopen by the end of 2013 and will feature upmarket and trendy brands, Zeman said.

"In the past, Lan Kwai Fong was heavily skewed towards expats but it's become more localised as has happened to almost every area, but there's still a good number of expats here.

"The beauty is the mix. I see famous people, not so famous people, tourists, locals; everyone blends together and most of the Chinese have become more Westernised.

"We've also got mainlanders who come to have dinner, a drink, meet their friends, and that's what's made it big in China," he said referring to his ventures on the mainland, which have seen him export the Lan Kwai Fong brand to several major cities.

The team behind the Lan Kwai Fong movies also understands the overseas potential of the brand, and last night three stars of the movie walked the red carpet at a premiere in Sydney, Australia, where there is a substantial Chinese community, many hailing for Hong Kong.

Zeman said while the movie was "not really my cup of tea", it was still publicity and part of building a brand outside Hong Kong.

"It doesn't hurt the brand and it doesn't help because people know it's a movie and movies are all fantasy about some subject that people dream about or shocks them," he said.

"In the old days, the locals used to say Lan Kwai Fong was an expat place. Today it's different; there's a sense of pride where people say 'I'm a local and LKF is ours'."

Lan Kwai Fong timeline

December 1978
Disco Disco, where Volar is now, opened by the Gordon Huthart, youngest son of Lane Crawford executive Robert Huthart.

December 2, 1982
Austrian Christian Rhomberg opens a cafe and bar called 1997

Canadian fashion industry executive Allan Zeman opens California bar and restaurant

Zeman buys his first property in the area, which later becomes the California Entertainment Building

Zeman buys his second building, now the California Tower

January 1, 1993
New Year's celebrations turn to tragedy when 21 revellers are crushed to death minutes after the countdown. A judicial inquiry results in new crowd control measures such as a cap of 4,000 people in the area at any one time.

October 1993
Release of book about area's history called Rats Liked It Well Enough, written by Liam Fitzpatrick

December, 9, 1995
A 35-year-old Bangladeshi man, Mohammed Zakaria, murdered in the storeroom of Midnight Express, a kebab shop in LKF. A former employee at the Middle Eastern restaurant, Bahadur Mahat Prem, 30, was sentenced to life in prison in December 1996. He was convicted of killing his former boss by bludgeoning him to death with a cash box and barbecue skewer.

First Lan Kwai Fong Carnival

September 2010
California Tower and California Entertainment Building demolished for refurbishment

July 2011
Hard Rock Cafe in Lan Kwai Fong opens

End of 2013
New California Tower building due to reopen