Where Hong Kong got its hangovers at the handover: 12 favourite bars of the mid-1990s remembered

In the heady days leading up to the handover, bars and clubs were packing them in from Lan Kwai Fong to Wan Chai to Tsim Sha Tsui, even in a Causeway Bay shopping mall. Here are a few nightlife staples that are no longer with us

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 June, 2017, 12:47pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 June, 2017, 5:47pm

Foundations are being pounded into the ground on Tun Wo Lane, in Hong Kong’s SoHo nightlife area, on the site where, in the 1990s, stood what was considered to be among the spiritual homes of the city’s bohemian set.

Soon, another high-rise tower block will emerge, but the countdown to the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover has rekindled memories of when Petticoat Lane was there, half hidden behind strategically positioned plastic bushes. In the city’s last days as a British colony, the bar was visited by the likes of supermodel Kate Moss, singer Boy George and Jeremy Irons, the actor having virtually taken up residence while in town to shoot Chinese Box, director Wayne Wang’s take on the historic event.

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I met a very disappointing Kate Moss, whose voice failed her looks as she dined with David Tang
Richard Smith

Richard Smith remembers those times with surprising clarity, given the late nights staff worked. “The clientele were a mix of creatives, socialites and the elite, and the staff were employed for their character – and some for their looks, but not me,” Smith says.

“You followed the candlelit alleyway and through the faux bushes to this hidden oasis of a charming baroque bar with cheeky elements, like the witty toilet signage – the Thunder Box and the Powder Box. It was always a fun atmosphere where lines were blurred between staff and customers.

“I met a very disappointing Kate Moss, whose voice failed her looks, as she dined with David Tang. I had the pleasure of meeting Boy George after hours during a lock-in – completely charming and interested in everyone else’s stories.”

Petticoat Lane was among a number of handover-era bars that have faded from the scene over the past 20 years, victim of ever-rising rents and changing tastes. Here’s a look back at some of the best of that bygone era.

China Jump

Where: Causeway Bay Plaza 2, Lockhart Road, Causeway Bay

“Who would have thought opening a Western-style flair cocktail bar, restaurant and disco on the seventh floor of a shopping centre in Causeway Bay would have had any chance of succeeding when all the buzz was in LKF, Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui at the time,” says Gary Stokes, China Jump barman. “The layout was unique, with lots of places to hide, from the up and down booths, orient train carriage and private room to the main area.

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“I have many great memories of the Jump, as it was later known. Obvious highlights were the England football team partying there with the infamous Gazza dentist chair incident that gained world media coverage [Paul Gascoigne was tied into the infamous chair, where a barman poured tequila and and lime down customers’ throats], as well as other crazy party nights,” Stokes says.

Big Apple

Where: Luard Road, Wan Chai

A trip down the stairs into this basement venue meant it was often a case of out of sight out of (your) mind, as the hours used to simply vanish. It was heavy on the music, thanks to the likes of sometime resident DJs Lee Burridge and Christian. They would play long and hard into the night and often the mid-morning, for a crowd of off-duty bar and night shift workers, visiting airline staff and the odd bewildered celebrity.

Bar City

Where: New World Centre, Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui

It was a venue that helped champion the dance party scene, hosting a who’s who line-up of acclaimed international DJs of the era (many of whom are still soldiering on admirably). It brought the Tsim Sha Tsui and Island posses together – there seemed to be a different crowd and mood in each room – and never got better than when Seb Fontaine blew a small room of faithful away to cap off a handover party that has become part of local folklore.

Oscar’s

Where: Lan Kwai Fong, Central

“Oscar’s was the heart of Lan Kwai Fong. Back in the day D’Aguilar Street wasn’t pedestrianised, so the only place to stand that wasn’t on a 45-degree angle was outside Oscar’s at 2 LKF. Oscar’s was the meeting place; every newcomer to Hong Kong found Oscar’s fairly early on. It was a great place to meet people and network. It was a mostly an expat crowd, loud, gregarious and thirsty.

“Oscar’s was an impossibly small bar to work in. The space behind the bar counter was way too small; not nearly enough fridge space. As a consequence we had huge bins of ice to chill bottles of beer in. My lasting memory is losing all feeling in my arms after fishing out bottles of beer from the bottom of the bins,” says Oscar’s barman Toby Cooper.

The Chater Lounge

Where: The Ritz-Carlton, Connaught Road Central

It was a place to escape the crowds, and tuck yourself away in an overstuffed chair. Management used to say it was the favoured venue for a secret rendezvous, with romance stoked by the hotel’s extensive wine list, and little late night jazz. You could duck in off the street unnoticed – and let nature take it course.

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Yelts Inn

Where: Lan Kwai Fong, Central

“Yelts Inn was a class bar. We had different clientele throughout the night: expats early on, but after 12 at night all the travellers, restaurant workers and bar workers came into the bar. The music was class. We used to buy all the new CDs every week from HMV. I have to say I was rather jealous of the collection. For me Yelts Inn was just a fun bar and if you wanted to have a good night out this was the place to go,” says Yelts Inn barman Barry Griffin.

Bottoms Up

Where: Hankow Road, Tsim Sha Tsui

A taste of old style Hong Kong, where you could close your eyes (if you dared) and imagine it was still the 1970s. OK, it was a bit rough (and ready, too) but there was just something deliciously decadent about the place – and the fact that it had featured in James Bond film The Man With the Golden Gun. A great place to give visiting relatives a cheap thrill. A move to Wan Chai in 2004 was ill advised.

Godown

Where: Admiralty

“We were full of bankers and high-up civil servants with huge entertainment allowances to burn, so the tabs were just running, tips were flying. The atmosphere was just party, party, party ’til you drop. Bars like us, Oscar’s, California, Club 97, they were just packed every night, even weekdays. We actually had great fun with the punters while working. Clubbing was at its peak,” says Dennis Villanueva, Godown barman.

The Beer Castle

Where: Luard Road, Wan Chai

The lasting memory is just how bright the place often was when you stumbled in to watch a game of soccer, or to get your bearings for a while before heading back into the night. The food was decent enough stodge and the music played to the faithful – mostly the globetrotting wastrels of late 1990s England.

The Flying Pig

Where: Lockhart Road, Wan Chai

It was often a tricky affair negotiating the stairs on this particular corner of Wan Chai. The Pig was popular for its pool table, vintage airline seating and a mixed crowd of rugby tragics, suits and overseas-born Chinese who packed it to the gunwales on midweek ladies’ nights and weekends. It was all about finding someone. Often anyone.

Club 64

Where: Lan Kwai Fong, Central

Tucked away up “Rat Alley”, politicians (well, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung), mingled with filmmakers (Herman Yau, Christopher Doyle) and anyone else flitting by who wanted to have a drink and a chat. It was an often-raucous affair as attempts were made to right the world’s wrongs. Cheap booze and plenty of opinions.

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Time After Time

Where: Jaffe Road, Wan Chai

“The handmade wooden bar pretty much took up the whole of the venue. The location and its size ensured us a great clientele – it was a destination and always attracted an eclectic bunch,” says Time After Time barmaid Alison Whittle.

“I remember most the epic lock-ins and after parties. We had Sasha and Digweed, Carl Cox, Roni Size, Jeremy Healy and Lee Burridge often paying visits – we even had the pleasure of Primal Scream after their Hong Kong concert. I guess the really lasting one is that people still come up to me and ask if I’m Ally from Time After Time – amazing.”

What have we forgotten? Share memories of your favourite handover-era bars – in a comment to this story, a message on our Facebook page or an email to [email protected]