Memory lane: 25 years of Propaganda, Hong Kong gay nightlife bastion
Owners of what became a Hollywood Road institution remember the stars, the parties, and the costumes and reflect on what made the club special
It’s a midweek afternoon in Central and Lawrence Ho and Steven Hui are picking their way through the rubble that surrounds them and it's bringing back half a lifetime worth of memories.
“It does feel strange,” Ho says as he stops for a moment to take in the scene. “Over there was where we danced, and then you’d come over here when you felt like being a little bit more quiet. It’s a bit sad in here now with all this rubbish everywhere. We always made sure the place was so glamorous.”
We’re inside the space that was formerly Propaganda, the gay club that became a local institution. Through two incarnations over 25 years, the club was never less than flamboyant until it closed on February 13.
Workmen moved in the next day, so the memories of that former life are all that remain in the basement of 1 Hollywood Road. But in their minds’ eye, the two club owners still see the venue in its heyday – packed to the rafters and thrilling to cameo appearances from the likes of Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, Boy George and Faye Wong.
“We were both young when we started – 25 and fresh out of college. If you want to know what I’m most proud of, it’s the fact that we gave people a place to gather with their friends,” says Hui. “Everyone wants to feel like they belong somewhere and we always worked hard to make people feel that.”
In Hong Kong’s transient nightclub scene, there were few clubs as long-lived, and fewer still that catered to a specific community.
When Propaganda first opened on Wyndham Street in November 1991, the local gay community had few hang-outs to even clandestinely call their own – Yin Yang (aka YY) in Central and a few bars scattered around Tsim Sha Tsui.
Lifetime friends Ho and Hui had returned to the city from college in North America, dabbled in banking and advertising, respectively, for about a year and then decided they wanted a little more out of life. “A proper place for dancing. To be honest, there wasn’t much of a mission apart from that. There was no agenda. We just followed our hearts,” says Hui.
Looking back, they put Propaganda’s success down to sheer youthful enthusiasm and being in the right place at the right time.
“In those days – and this is before 1991 – you rarely saw gay people holding hands in public, and never kissing,” says Hui. “When we opened, things were just starting to change, the law had just changed, and the situation has really evolved over the past 25 years. There is, of course, still some way to go, but in many ways 1991 seems such a long time ago. Even the name has changed from gay to LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender].”
It was in 1991 that the Legislative Council decriminalised homosexual acts, after more than a decade of debate and a series of high-profile arrests and assorted scandals involving senior civil servants. And the disparity between the ages consent for heterosexual (16) and homosexual (21) relationships remained until 2006, when the Court of Appeal set it at 16 years for both following a legal challenge arguing that the disparity was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
But as the protests alongside last November’s gay pride march showed, there are myriad issues still simmering for the LGBT community, among them the push for laws to protect sexual minorities against discrimination. And Propaganda played its part, as both a meeting place and fundraising venue for these and other causes.
“There have been many changes over the years and Propaganda was always there to support people,” says Ho once we leave the dust behind and settle down over coffee.
“I’m not saying we were ever instigators – that was never a role we wanted to play. We were a platform for people to socialise. But we have provided support with fundraisers and events to help out the community, given people a place to get together and plan marches and other efforts. It goes back to what Steven was saying about the concept of providing the community with a venue, a place to meet. That was always part of the fun.”
Was there any message in the name?
“We wanted a name that meant nothing,” says Ho. “Or we wanted people to find their own meaning in it and read anything that they liked into it. Let’s say it’s a meaningful meaningless word.”
The pair recall how the club moved from its first location on Wyndham Street to its “more spiritual home” off Hollywood Road on Ezra Lane – a locale that was considered something of a backwater when Propaganda opened there in 1997.
“SoHo didn’t even exist back then,” says Ho. “The Central escalator had only opened in 1993 and we were among the first to try and get people to come up to Hollywood Road, but the fact that we were where we were worked in our favour. It always did.”
Propaganda’s first incarnation had a more industrial feel and Hui laughs at the memory of how its labyrinthine layout had some straight male friends worrying that they might not find their way out.
When they relocated, the pair immediately set about taking things more upmarket.
“We were able to find the perfect space, in the perfect position, and we were able to design it all ourselves,” says Hui. “And we wanted a more glamorous feel. The old place had become too packed and it was time to move on. We tried to keep both places going for a while, but our hearts had come to the new venue.”
So had the people.
The new Propaganda opened to a city still gripped by the sense of uncertainty that followed the 1997 handover. No one knew what was in store – and many people’s response was to party.
“The mood really changed,” says Hui. “The crowd found us instantly and people really wanted to have a good time.”
Hui believes the back alley location and the general vibe of the club allowed celebrities to feel comfortable there.
“The paparazzi never bothered us,” he says. “It’s not that they couldn’t find us, just that we were always left alone. Celebrities could always come in and know they would be left alone. We never took a single photo of a celebrity over all those years. For celebrities it was like being in a different space and time. They could just come in and escape the Hong Kong that was outside.”
And the roll-call of stars was impressive by the end. “I guess I was most excited when Boy George came, but we really shouldn’t be talking about this to a newspaper,” Hui says.
Ho recalls seeing diva Faye Wong rekindling (or was it kindling) her on-again, off-again affair with Nicolas Tse Ting-fung, while the late, great Leslie Cheung was another regular.
The Propaganda founders lay a rightful claim to being among the instigators of Hong Kong’s obsession with Halloween: since opening, they have hosted raucous dress-ups to mark the occasion each year, and paraded their “creations” in Lan Kwai Fong. Some costumes became the stuff of legend.
“We had one guy who would dress up as Medusa,” says Hui. “We never worked out how he did it, but he had the snakes on his head and they would move and spit out poison. Incredible.”
Having put half their lives into running the venue, the pair thought it was the right time to step away and reflect on what they had achieved.
On opening night back in 1991, one guest presented them with a maneki-neko lucky cat – one of a pair – and on closing night in February, Hui and Ho gave the statue back to the same guest so the pair could be reunited.
“It has been a little like launching a school,” says Hui. “We have seen all these people come through over the years, from 18 to their mid 30s and even older at the end. You don’t really think about it at the time, but they become part of your life and you become part of theirs.
“We’ll take a break now and think about what to do next. But whatever we do we’ll always have these memories to take with us.”