How Hong Kong's Canton Disco became one of world's coolest clubs
Turn the clock back to 1985 as city's answer to New York's Studio 54 - Canton Disco in Harbour City, Kowloon - comes back to life for one night only
Andrew Bull might be best known as Hong Kong's ever-ebullient music promoter and undisputed king of the disco, but the Englishman who these days resides in Shanghai is no slouch when it comes to a savvy marketing stunt.
After cutting his disco teeth as DJ at The Scene, Michael Kadoorie's swinging 1970s club in The Peninsula and then at Gordon Huthart's epochal Disco Disco, Bull found himself tasked with launching a club that set out to be the greatest thing since slit skirts, gold medallions on beds of chest hair and cream three-piece polyester suits.
Canton Disco was a cavernous, sprawling lair stretching away into the bowels of Harbour City where all bets were to be off and all rules were to be broken as Bull and his less-high-profile partner and backer, Tony Law, picked up the mantle from New York's Studio 54 and set about creating one of the coolest clubs on the planet.
This would be highly evolved disco with an experimental, avant garde bent and a steady flow of cutting-edge live acts, flowing with the asymmetrical swagger of a New Romantic suit and buffeted by the fickle winds of fashion. Here, Kylie Minogue would play her first-ever live gig, and the main stage also hosted the edgier shores of Canto-pop land, acts such as Beyond and Tat Ming Pair, along with international artists including Erasure, Swing Out Sister, New Order, Run DMC and Eartha Kitt.
Bull's masterstroke was to build up to the grand opening in a virtual Hong Kong media blackout. He didn't take out a single advertisement or give any interviews as the days ticked down to the club's launch on March 30, 1985.
Instead, he took out a full-page advertisement in London's hipster bible, . The graphic design was off the cool charts — the work of local genius Alan Chan, who had found an old pack of cards featuring faded images of a swimming man, a gift from the design gods. It struck the right chord; retro yet of the future, slightly androgynous, homoerotic even, and ahead of the curve.
"It worked perfectly," Bull remembers. " I knew all the cool Hong Kong crowd would be reading , and the word of mouth was incredible. You had phone lines buzzing from Hong Kong to London, with everyone wanting to know more about this club that didn't look like any other disco. More than 11,000 people turned up, far exceeding the club's capacity.
"To this day I'm not sure how there wasn't a riot, but somehow people stayed good-natured, no one got crushed and we had an amazing party until 7am the next day."
On May 8, for one night only, in the distinctly non-Canton Road, non-Kowloon setting of Lupa by Mario Batali in Central's LHT Tower, the Canton Disco will live again at the Canton Disco 30th Anniversary Reunion Extravaganza. Its invitation urges the elect to "celebrate, connect and reunite for the birth of a Kowloon-Hong Kong nightlife love-story with one enchanted tribute evening". The line-up includes a who's who of DJs and live acts, an upstairs-downstairs dichotomy which came to define the twin vibes and two tribes of Canton.
Downstairs, DJs will include Canton's founding DJ, Sam Leung, plus Jimmy Lee, Edwin Au, Janva Tam and Roy Malig, who will be spinning the tunes of the times, along with Bull himself. Upstairs, live acts will include Philip Chan and Sally Kwok holding the fort for Maria Cordero, who is booked for a concert in Canada on the chosen night, and local luminaries Babe Tree (who celebrated her 16th birthday in the club) and Michelle Carillo on vocals while the Canton kings — musical directors Lito Castillo and Hardy Li — play songs of love.
Canton Disco's Noon D, the booze-free teenage disco, was a monster success in its own right. Its "graduates" were a very tight-knit bunch. "Many of the Noon D crowd are now captains of industry, fashion mavens, movers and shakers," Bull says. "The guy who founded I.T, Hong Kong's coolest fashion chain, attributes his creative awakening to afternoons spent at Canton."
Liam Fitzpatrick, magazine's Asian chief of all things online, author and columnist, was first in line to buy a ticket. He was, of course, a Canton regular and hosted his own night once a month in the Canton backroom.
"At its height, Canton was the only game in town," Fitzpatrick says. "It celebrated a local, Hong Kong identity, unlike the scene in Lan Kwai Fong, which in those days was very, very white. And it had a defiant location on Kowloon, which meant that a lot of foreigners simply didn't bother to go there, and that was just fine [with us]. It was our place to go and dance.
"I ran a monthly rare groove and acid house night there in 1988 and 1989 called the Love Train. We'd play all this amazing, squealing white-label vinyl but also drop in Hong Kong TV commercials from the 1970s and PLA marching songs. In those days, Canton was the only place you could go to hear a set like that, and it was Andrew who set the tone and gave a lot of young DJs and promoters that free hand."
Bull says nostalgia is all very well, but he doesn't want the upcoming Canton Disco party to be an unashamed wallow in the stuff. "We wanted to stay relevant, not be a bunch of geezers playing their favourite rare Italian disco classics and high fiving." Bull pauses for effect then proclaims his maximum bullishness with his trademark bravado: "I want this to be the most amazing party in Hong Kong for 2015 … on a 2015 basis."
Canton Disco bit the dust and in 1991, as spiralling rents and changing times saw its fortunes begin to fade. For one night the legend of Canton lives again and the smoke machine's sibilant hiss will whisper of magical nights when Hong Kong's prettiest things burned brightest.