Brrrrr! The chilly restaurant is so air-conditioned that you could keep hunks of beef fresh for days in there. You look around you, and realise that this is exactly what they are doing. We are in Lan Kwai Fong, and a walking advertisement for Tom Turk's gym has just broken your toe and spilt creme de menthe down your shirt. Suddenly, an old woman pushes through the hunks and babes and tries to sell you a single rose. Most of the revellers back off as they try to compute in their alcohol-befuddled brains whether buying a rose from a hawker is a plus or a minus on that all-important register of cool. But let me tell you something. If you see that woman tonight, do buy a rose, for two reasons. First, this is Lunar New Year week, a time inextricably linked by Hong Kong tradition with the purchase of flowers. And second, buy a rose because she is a ghost of Lan Kwai Fong's past, and a very important one. While we explain this, we can also answer another oft-asked question. Why has the government been so silly as to build a rubbish collection station in the middle of Lan Kwai Fong, a high-class entertainment district? In fact, the garbage point has been there far longer than the restaurants. But the real clue to the history of the area, curiously enough, lies in the one element that looks short-lived and temporary - the makeshift flower stalls opposite California restaurant. Let us turn the clock back to 1846, when Hong Kong was a bustling harbour full of steamships and bat-wing junks. That was the year the new arrivals built the Hong Kong Club, not on the flat ground where it is now, but on the slope between D'Aguilar Street and Wyndham Street, now occupied by the Entertainment Tower and a branch of Watson's. The club remained on that site for 50 years, and there was a constant stream of wealthy white males passing in and out of the doors. Around 1850, a poor but enterprising citizen noticed that white men liked wearing flowers in their lapels. She or he hung around outside the door, greeting members. 'Nice flower. You buy?' Several Hong Kong Club members bought boutonnieres. The idea caught on, and soon there was a group of hawkers selling flowers on the street in front of the club. Several businessmen entered into contracts with the hawkers, who would deliver a fresh flower to their office every day and be paid monthly. The stalls in Wyndham Street grew and spread through the area, until it became a sweet-scented paradise. Wyndham Street became known as Fa Gai - Flower Street. 'The sweetest smelling corner of Hong Kong is surely Flower Street,' said the Hong Kong Telegraph. A small, L-shaped road off D'Aguilar Street was known as The Place of White Flowers - in Cantonese, Lan Kwai Fong. In 1928, the Hong Kong Club building was knocked down, and the flower-sellers were banished from Wyndham Street. Lan Kwai Fong remained a floral centre. Behind the stalls were mixed tenements of small flats and businesses, rather like nearby Aberdeen Street or Shelley Street are today. The first nightclub to open in the area was not on Lan Kwai Fong, but on D'Aguilar Street - which was ironic, since the road is named after Charles D'Aguilar, a British official famed for his hatred of late-night music. It was called Disco Disco, and was opened on December 22, 1978, by Gordon Huthart, the Hong Kong-born son of a Lane Crawford executive. He held rather odd theme parties there. One had a countryside theme, and pigs, chickens and a horse were the star guests (and behaved better than the humans). Huthart was advised by a garment company executive named Dick Kaufman, who was originally sceptical. 'We said that no one would slime past flower stalls to get to a basement disco,' he said. It was a success. But Huthart was gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Hong Kong. He made enemies, and was targeted by the police. The club was stripped of its liquor licence and its founder thrown into jail for 13 weeks. (Representing the outraged upright citizens of Hong Kong was a fine, upstanding lawyer named Warwick Reid.) But by 1983, Disco Disco was joined by two other fashionable restaurants. One was started by the Austrian community, and featured Tyrolean food. Founder Christian Rhomberg cheekily called it 1997, after Hong Kong's biggest fear - the date of the end of the British lease on Kowloon. It was located in Lan Kwai Fong, to the horror of the owners of the small offices that shared the road with the flower stalls. The other was California, the first in a chain of super-successful businesses launched by Allan Zeman, a Canadian businessman who turned a garment fortune into a string of winners. California restaurant opened directly opposite the flower stalls of Lan Kwai Fong, and was presided over by the above-mentioned Dick Kaufman. The three restaurants were in place for the great Hong Kong financial boom period of 1983 to 1997 (notwithstanding the interruption of the 1987 crash), and triggered the transformation of the area into an entertainment district, with more than 20 places to eat or hang out. But, still occupying pride of place at the junction of D'Aguilar and Lan Kwai Fong, the flower stalls remain. And every so often, a hawker will appear wandering through the district, thrusting roses under the noses of the glitterati. 'Nice flower. You buy?' Buy one. If for no other reason than homage to the unnamed hawker, who, 150 years ago, had the entrepreneurial idea that led to Lan Kwai Fong getting its name.