Legendary Wan Chai bar Joe Bananas calls time after 28 years due to high rent

Joe Bananas splits after almost three decades of late-night shenanigans

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 5:11am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 11:16am

As the last party-goers emerged from Joe Bananas this morning, the Wan Chai landmark closed its doors for good.

Rohan Muralee is distraught. "It's terribly sad. I don't know what to do with myself," the 29-year-old businessman said. "I would say I was there at least four nights a week."

Joe Bananas was one of Hong Kong's best-known watering holes and one of Wan Chai's oldest bars. But after one final all-night blowout, "JBs" is no more.

The Luard Road bar has a reputation for its serious drinkers and pick-up scene.

When it was opened in 1986 by expat Scots Laura McAllister and Andy Neilson, the bar was seen as a milder alternative to the rough and tumble Wan Chai overrun by sailors and working girls.

McAllister envisioned a place where couples could go and have a bit of a dance.

Neilson and McAllister sold up in 2000 and today, after 28 years, the owners have lost the lease and had no choice but to close. The owners of two nearby bars in Jaffe Road, Rio and Escape, are believed to be opening a new bar on the premises.

The bar staff are heartbroken.

"Life must go on, I suppose. I have to find another job," barman Nelson Urquico said. "I started in 1995. It was my first job in Hong Kong. I don't consider it working when I'm here."

Still, many of the staff admitted that Joe Bananas had become a shadow of its former self.

It was the decision to host wet T-shirt contests in the mid-90s that brought notoriety and mass appeal - until an official warning for indecent behaviour in 1997 put an end to the shenanigans.

Mukunda Limbu started as a doorman 18 years ago. He was its final general manager.

Recalling the wet T-shirt contests, he said: "The guys used to go crazy for it."

But he said they were just a small part of the debauchery of its glory days.

Limbu recalled the infamous all-male "Full Monty" shows. "We didn't hire from the outside. We, the management, were doing it. I did it!" he enthused. "We had about 300 girls watching us and they were paying for it."

Limbu said Hong Kong and the nightclub scene changed after the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003, when developers built high-end clubs in Lan Kwai Fong, and Joe Bananas just could not compete.

On Friday, it felt like the golden age of Joe Bananas again - with people crowding the bar and spilling onto the streets. There were old DJs who used to spin at JBs in the 90s and ex-bouncers.

Regulars from the early days drank pints and caught up with old friends, while younger fans drank Jagerbombs - a shot of Jagermeister in Red Bull - leaning on each other for support.

As in the good old days, a waitress walked along the top of the bar pouring vodka into the mouths of patrons below.

Limbu can't believe this is it. "I think we'll be back again," he said. "It's not like we're disappearing."

He has been frantically searching Wan Chai for a space to reopen, "Honestly, I don't want to give up," he said.

But regulars are not so sure and Muralee is worried: "It's an institution and even if it does reopen it will never really be the same."

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