WAN CHAI, long synonymous with Suzie Wong, is a somewhat reformed character these days. Mainstream bars such as Joe Bananas, BB's and Carnegies have broken the tradition of girlie bars in the red-light district. But a hardy contingent is hanging in, particularly along the stretch of Lockhart Road known as The Strip. Can it all survive post-handover Hong Kong? 'Wan Chai will probably clean up its act and a lot of the girlie bars may go, although I hope that doesn't happen. The girlie bars give the place character,' said Billy Dock, who luxuriates in the title of director of operations at Joe Bananas. He added wistfully: 'If it wasn't for the girlie bars, there might not have been an opening for Joe Bananas.' Set up in 1986, JBs was the first bar to intrude on the girlie-bar monopoly. 'Sometimes things work as a carousel and come back to the beginning,' Mr Dock mused. Would a girlie-bar revival be possible? Interior designer Andrew Scattergood has already considered the possibility: 'There is an opportunity to do a straight bar based on Suzie Wong: I have spoken to someone about the idea of a Suzie Wong bar. 'We were thinking of calling it Mamasans, the girls would be in 50s style, wearing cheongsams.' And why not? There are girlie bars all over East and Southeast Asia and, as entrepreneur Allan Zeman points out, 'as long as you have men and tourists there will always be girlie bars: there are girlie bars all over Asia'. Their mainstay - the sailors - will still be coming in: agreement has been reached at the very highest diplomatic level between the United States and China that the men of the US fleets will still dock in the 'Fragrant Harbour'. But will the infrequent boat-loads of sailors, combined with tourists and expatriates be enough to keep the bars in business? Business has been slack for years and the raunchy frivolity of the 60s has been replaced by a 90s hangover. The sobering influence: money. Cash has always been the name of the game but now there is little pretence. The smiles in the girlie bars are as plastic as the Visa cards slapped down by bored middle-aged punters - and it has wiped the smile off everyone's face, be she a mamasan, a bargirl or a customer. 'Many of the girlie bars milk you for every red cent in your pocket,' said Mr Dock. 'I have heard stories of people leaving a tab behind the bar and when they return to pay it's huge and they are forced to sign it,' he said. Nowhere in Hong Kong has inflation hit the hip pocket harder: a cold can of Carlsberg has jumped in fits and starts to a sobering $50, after the tip and the change has been swiped in the process. The late-night nod to 'You-buy-me-dink?' is a costly mistake, running into at least $250, after the tip and the change has been pocketed. Although prices keep regulars away and curb the late-late forays of tourists and the fleet, there are a few girlie bars doing good business. But these are a new breed, such as the Firehouse. 'There's no hanky-panky in the bar and they play good music, it's got the right mix. Nothing is forced down your throat and there's no pressure on the guys to buy the girls drinks or take them out of the bar,' a patron said. But how do those girlie bars, with only a handful of customers a night, survive? The word on the street is that it is because the bars are owned by the triads. A local bar owner, who preferred not to be named, said: 'The triads run the girlie bars. They use the bars to launder money gained from other dubious activities. 'It's fairly obvious that the bars don't make much money these days, but they keep them open as bases from which to launder their money.' So it looks as though Wan Chai will always have a few girlie bars as a reminder of the days when, as Richard Mason, author of The World of Suzie Wong, recalls, the district 'was a delightful place, busy, packed and crowded, it was very Chinese, apart from in the evening when American and British servicemen would pour in off the street'. As for new venues, Mr Dock said we can probably expect more restaurants opening up. Mr Scattergood suggests the Wan Chai bars of the future could well be ones that give Hong Kong something of a new identity. 'Hong Kong has been British-run for 150 years but I wouldn't say it's been British for the last 10 years. It's got bits and pieces of everything, which is good, but it would be nice to have something a little more contemporary.' Mr Scattergood attributes the popularity of theme bars to the fact 'there is no permanence about Hong Kong. That makes it easier for people to relate to something which is not Hong Kong'. He continued: 'Take the LA Cafe: you would never see a restaurant or bar in LA that looked like the LA Cafe. It's not an American-style bar from LA: it's saying: 'I'm no longer in LA but these are the things I recognise, signs saying Hollywood Boulevard and the like.' ' European bars and restaurants are moving to a more minimalist look but Mr Scattergood doesn't think Hong Kong is ready for that trend yet: 'I think the new ones will be saying: 'We're a bar because we're in Hong Kong and we don't have to pretend to be [from] another nationality or era, we're just a local bar.' As for the man who created the Suzie Wong legend, Mr Mason, he says that too, despite the fact he has not returned to Hong Kong since the film was made in 1960. But of course he has heard about the dramatic changes to the city's skyline. 'I see photographs today and I can't believe how much it has changed,' he said. 'In 1955 the tallest building was the old Hongkong and Shanghai Bank.' Forty years after the publication of his bestseller and now living in Italy with his third wife, the 78-year-old doubts he will return. He said: 'I want to remember Wan Chai the way it was, in the days of Suzie Wong.'