For Hong Kong’s cocktail hipsters - funky venues are in
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Spanish entrepreneur Juan Martínez Gregorio and his architect business partner, Hugh Zimmern, had to pick this one.
The old table tennis hall in the basement of a once nondescript, now trendy neighbourhood in Sai Ying Pun, which opened as gin and tonic bar Ping Pong 129 Gintonería in March 2014, had – they believed – the right bones to draw in Hong Kong’s growing crowds of cocktail-sipping hipsters: patrons are in turn spawning a new wave of themed nightlife venues across the city.
Meanwhile, a trio of Canadians in Jonathan Bui, American Eric Lam and Hong Kong local Shakib Pasha, owners of F&B company Ming Fat House, have recently opened a second speakeasy-themed whisky bar, Foxglove, in Central. Their first venue, Mrs Pound, opened in Sheung Wan a year earlier.
The design of Foxglove, by Hong Kong architect Nelson Chow Chi-wai, is based around the globe-trotting adventures of a wealthy character called Frank Minza , who “may or may not be” fictional, the owners say. Before patrons even get to see the glamorous, first-class plane, train and cruise ship-styled vintage interior of Duddell Street’s newest establishment, they need first to walk through an umbrella shop, and locate the button on the right brolly to gain access to the bar’s concealed entrance.
The idea of “hidden” – a design the partners first trialled at Mrs Pound, a speakeasy secreted behind the façade of an old Chinese stamp shop – works well in Hong Kong, says Jonathan Bui, because it’s so different from the typical in-your-face shopfronts.
“It’s kind of sequential,” adds Chow, principal and founder of NC Design & Architecture. “We don’t present everything at once; you have to discover it one at a time.”
Ping Pong’s architect Hugh Zimmern agrees.
“The speakeasy idea creates a bit of thrill,” he said. “People are bored with going to the same bars and restaurants all the time – they want the feeling of discovering something new, somewhere interesting that’s not on the street, and not easily accessible. They want to be able to find somewhere, not have it thrown at them on a plate.”
Ping Pong’s shopfront is a just a plain red door. Inside, stairs lead to the basement bar, which retains as many original features as possible that existed in the venue when it was found. The aim, says Zimmern, was to give Ping Pong a strong sense of identity whilst preserving some of the flavour of a heritage Western District neighbourhood.
Similarly, the Ming Fat House partners search for a quirky-enough premises, then invent a story around it, which informs the décor. (Mrs Pound was the burlesque dancer who fell in love with a Chinese stamp shop owner. Foxglove’s Frank was the illegitimate son of a versatile but largely luckless entrepreneur from Hong Kong’s colonial days. Or so the stories go.)
The extravagant fitout as seen in Foxglove involved a huge financial investment (Bui won’t disclose how much), but he believes that it was necessary in order to attract the bar’s targeted clientele.
“The clientele we are trying to capture appreciates design,” Bui said. “They would know what kind of furniture they are sitting on, the quality of the finishes, and what it took to create – for example - the curvature of the ceiling. They want to sit comfortably and enjoy the food and drinks.”
Tastings Group founder Charlene Dawes, whose growing portfolio of specialty lounge bars includes Quinary, Angel’s Share, Origin, The Envoy and newly opened VEA, on the top two floors of The Wellington in Central, agrees that investment in design has become a business imperative for F&B operators.
“Hong Kong consumers are paying a lot more attention to interiors, and this is a strong element for us,” said Dawes, who uses the same designer – Eva Leung So Wan of Artichaut Ltd – for all her venues.
“People want a good ambience - the place can’t look worn out and ugly during the day, and you dim down the lights and it’s ok.” The interior design “sets the mood and the price range of your products as well,” she added.
The Envoy has an intimate feel (a long wooden bar as focal point); VEA looks polished with marble and bronze, and both have alfresco terraces as “people want outdoors these days”, Dawes said.
Chow adds that in Hong Kong’s cutthroat F&B environment, where restaurants might open and close within months, design can make or break. “We try and do the best we can to make a venue stand out - that’s the only hope for it to work.”