The Days of Disco Walk around Lan Kwai Fong on a Friday night and it’s almost impossible to imagine that not long ago, this hotspot at the heart of Central was a quiet alley where flower stalls and warehouses took center stage. Prior to the Second World War, Lan Kwai Fong, which means “orchid square,” was where mui yun—professional matchmakers—ran their businesses. Even as late as the 1980s, Hong Kong was still far from the party central it is today. For many, a typical night out on the town consisted of going to five-star hotels, such as The Peninsula or the Hilton, which both housed nightclubs. There was entertainment in Kowloon and Wan Chai—but nothing in the Central district after dark. Many know that the “Father of Lan Kwai Fong” Allan Zeman (see our First Person interview in the same issue), came along in the 1980s and began to transform the area when he opened California restaurant on the ground floor of the old California Tower—gradually expanding it into the LKF we know today. But before Zeman’s empire, there was Disco Disco. The legendary discotheque, located where Volar now stands, was opened in 1978 by the late Gordon Huthart. A scion of a prominent Hong Kong family, he was one of the city’s few openly gay personalities during a time when homosexuality was still illegal in the city. “Gordon was a pretty wild kid—the black sheep of the family,” says Christian Rhomberg, the founder of Kee Club and fabled nightclub 1997. “Disco Disco was the Studio 54 of Hong Kong. It was the only place where you could find a great mix of western and Chinese people. Normally, they didn’t mix.” Andrew Bull, who was DJing in hotel nightclubs at the time, moved on to a residency at Disco Disco and later opened the iconic Canton Disco in Tsim Sha Tsui. He remembers the earliest days of LKF nightlife. “The experience of coming to Lan Kwai Fong at night in 1978 meant going through deserted streets of Central to a dingy D’Aguilar Street, and seeing one neon sign that said ‘Disco Disco’—and nothing else.” DJ Andrew Bull at Disco Disco in 1980 The tranquility of the streets was a contrast to the revelry inside Disco Disco, where Huthart staged extravagant parties. He threw a party to mark the beginning of Bull’s DJ contract with the club. “It had a country and western theme. He had chickens and ducks, and there was a horse on the staircase,” Bull recalls. “It was outrageous.” Huthart envisioned turning the streets surrounding his nightclub into an area much like Tokyo’s Ginza district. He asked Christian Rhomberg, who was working as an Austrian trade commissioner at the time, to help open other clubs in the area. “I had already decided to leave the foreign service, and I found this quite exciting. We even went on a trip around the world to study the latest trends,” Rhomberg remembers. He went on to open 1997, a café/bar/club opposite the back door of Disco Disco. The name was a cheeky reference to the dreaded Handover, which seemed a long way off in 1982. 1997 was a hit, and it drew in a well-heeled crowd. Public relations consultant Carline Ki handled event planning at 1997, including monthly art exhibitions. “1997 was frequented by a lot of suits with high spending power,” she says. The beautiful and wealthy crowd worked the room, with champagne flowing liberally. “Nowadays, people are different. They walk around drinking beer. It didn’t use to be like that.” Christian Rhomberg with wife Maria, David Copperfield and Carline Ki (L-R) at 1997 California Dreaming Allan Zeman opened California in 1983. Jonathan Zeman, Allan’s son and CEO of the LKF group, remembers the California days fondly. “I was 7 years old when California opened. My first memories were of my father telling us that we were going to open a new place. He said, ‘In the evenings, the restaurant will have a bar, and on the weekends, we’ll move away the tables and have a DJ.’” The elder Zeman dreamed up the idea because he felt Hong Kong lacked a place to socialize with clients. Hotels were stuffy and colonial, requiring a suit and tie. Zeman ran a fashion business and was more likely to be dressed in a sports jacket. “California really embodied the spirit of what he was, and what he wanted to create and bring to the area,” says Jonathan. The restaurant was decked out in pastel colors and light wood, with kitsch notes like Vespa scooters mounted on the wall. Allan Zeman pictured with his family outside California with manager Dick Kaufman (center) Disco Disco, 1997 and California. “That was the first nucleus,” adds Jonathan Zeman. Hong Kong’s elite and fun-loving party crowd began to venture to the small alley, changing the game in the process. “Until LKF came along, all nightlife—besides the hooker bars in Wan Chai—was on Kowloon side,” says Liam Fitzpatrick, author of Lan Kwai Fong history “Rats Liked it Well Enough: The 1997 Story.” “If you wanted to dance or hear a band, you had to go to Kowloon. People joke now about the ‘Dark Side,’ but Hong Kong used to be the dark side.” Liam Fitzpatrick (L) with brother Sean in Lan Kwai Fong, 1994 Yet going out was still an alien concept in conservative Chinese culture, and not considered respectable. “There was much more of a segregation in terms of going out and dating,” says Rhomberg. “I remember it was quite difficult for a westerner to take a Chinese girl out for lunch—can you imagine?” Events weren’t as easy to throw together, either. California asked Carline Ki to help promote a show featuring male dance troupe the Chippendales, who had been brought in by the restaurant’s manager Dick Kaufman. “People enjoyed it, but they were also shy about it,” she says. “The Chippendales were something new for the local Chinese. They were a group of men stripping down to their G-strings. Chinese people were not that open back then.” Party Like it’s… Almost 1997 Disco Disco closed its doors in 1986 after Huthart sold it, but the party didn’t stop there. As the city’s economy and society grew, so did Lan Kwai Fong. Bars and restaurants opened near the original trifecta, with the expansion of new outlets mainly driven by expats. “When the stock market took off, bankers who had lots of money in their hands would decide to get together and open a bar,” says Jonathan Zeman. Allan Zeman decided to buy the California Entertainment Building in 1988, followed by the acquisition of California Tower next door in 1992. Japan once again served as an inspiration for Lan Kwai Fong: On a trip to the country Zeman saw outlets opening vertically. He started to put install restaurants on the upper floors, such as popular Vietnamese eatery Indochine in 1993. For partygoers who flocked to LKF, clubbing was a daily activity—not just on weekends. “It was a golden era, because Hong Kong was booming,” says Rhomberg. “There was an optimistic spirit in town, and people were really enjoying going out.” Smaller bars began to open, catering to the different crowds that began to arrive in the area. But not everyone was able to survive in the increasingly competitive market and rising rents didn’t help. And it wasn’t just economic concerns. On New Year’s Eve 1992, 20 people were crushed to death in the square in a tragic accident. Freddie Fong ran D26 on D’Aguilar Street until 1995, when he went on to open longstanding bar Brecht’s in Causeway Bay. He witnessed the disaster take place right in front of the bar. “The year before it happened, the amount of people who filled up the place during holidays was already terrifying,” says Fong. On the night, the 15,000-strong crowd was in high spirits—a dangerous combination, since the revelry took place on a slippery slope with 120 policemen on standby. “The ground was wet from people spraying beer and champagne. One fell and then everyone collapsed. The whole thing happened quickly—lasting around 10-15 minutes.” After the tragedy an inquest recommended that a strict crowd control system should be implemented during holidays and festive occasions. The single-direction road blocks set up on days like Halloween, Christmas and New Year’s Eve continue still. “After it happened, I think people lost the mood to go clubbing,” says Fong. But ultimately, the stampede did not have long-term consequences for businesses—it took less than two months before people came out again. “You know how Hong Kong is. They forget about things quickly.” Chinese Takeaway The handover in 1997 dramatically changed the landscape of Hong Kong. Before 1997, the partying scene—as well as Hong Kong itself—was characterized by the large number of British expats who resided in the city. Whereas the 1990s were defined by rave culture as well as a mix of foreigners working in different fields, after the Handover only the “executive expat crowd” remained, says Bull. “The different dynamics were directly related to the political changes post-1997. After immigration tightened up, all the customers became different animals.” Fitzpatrick thinks the changes came even sooner. “None of the early owners in LKF set themselves up to cater predominantly to expats, because that’s just not a good business model. I know many owners went to a lot of trouble to attract Chinese people, and that really started to pay off.” Enter the Dragon By the noughties, crowds had begun to disperse from the heart of Lan Kwai Fong, moving upwards towards Wyndham Street and SoHo. The move was partly influenced by the opening of Dragon-i in 2002, the brainchild of Gilbert Yeung. It’s hard to fathom now, but D-i’s Wyndham Street location was chosen because it was a cool alternative to staid LKF. “We wanted to be away from the center, because that brings the place a bit of an edge—at the time, at least,” says Yeung. Dissatisfied with the limited entertainment options for Hongkongers, Yeung hit the nail on the head with Dragon-i—it quickly became one of the hottest places to see and be seen. “In the 90s, going out to nightclubs didn’t have a very positive image,” he says. “We helped to motivate the Hong Kong mentality of going out.” Jonathan Zeman agrees: “Dragon-i really helped to change the scene, because Gilbert lives and breathes [entertainment].” Gilbert Yeung (R) at one of Dragon-i's parties Meanwhile, young Hongkongers who had been sent abroad to be educated were returning home. Having partied overseas, they were bringing back what they saw. The venues’ audiences began to shift dramatically. Lan Kwai Fong was now not just an expat playground, but a hotspot for bright young things. In 2004, Magnum Group CEO Rocky Wong opened Hei Hei Club—which later became Billion and is now Dizzi. One of the first nightclubs in the area to target a local Chinese audience, Wong’s venture was a huge success. He went on to open Beijing Club and Magnum, as well as new nightclub Zentral inside California Tower. “There are around 100,000 foreign nationals living in the city,” says Wong. “I jumped out of that bubble.” During the Hei Hei years, he says, a bottle of Moet sold for $900. These days, it goes for almost $2,000 at his venues. “We can’t ignore the spending power of the Chinese.” Rocky Wong (R) pictured at the opening of Billion with legendary publicist Paco Wong The Next Step What’s next for Lan Kwai Fong? Just as California shaped Lan Kwai Fong back in 1983, the new California Tower could shape the Lan Kwai Fong of the future. The California Entertainment Building and the old California were office buildings, making them less than ideal for bars and restaurants to operate in. In 2010, the two were demolished to make room for the new California Tower. “It presented a good opportunity to create something very special, both for Lan Kwai Fong and for Hong Kong,” says Allan Zeman. The new purpose-built complex has 27 floors with terraces and 4.5-meter-high ceilings on each level—a rarity in Central—which will serve its F&B tenants well. Zeman has a plan, but is it all smooth sailing from here? The California Tower was originally slated to be unveiled in October last year, but it didn’t open until a few months ago and currently, there are only two tenants inside the building. By its grand opening in September, Jonathan Zeman says the tower will be 95 percent full. Lan Kwai Fong continues to face a number of problems. “Landlords are killing entertainment or restaurant businesses,” says Christian Rhomberg. “You can open, but you will close after two years when they increase your rent.” He says that unless rents go down, it’s going to kill the business. Drug dealers in Lan Kwai Fong have become significantly more obvious in the past year. Many of them appear to be African refugee claimants, and critics have accused the police of turning a blind eye. Then there are the 7-Eleven outlets in Lan Kwai Fong, popular with those fed up with extortionate prices in bars (read: everyone). “Club 7-Eleven” is exempt from the same liquor licensing laws that bars are subjected to—meaning lower overheads as well as less stringent rules on ID checks. While it’s good for (overage) customers, 7-Eleven’s presence has become such a problem for LKF bar owners that the Lan Kwai Fong Association has been up in arms trying to fight the chain. And of course, Hong Kong is always looking for the next big thing—just like Lan Kwai Fong itself all those years ago. The rising costs of Lan Kwai Fong have pushed F&B businesses into spreading outwards. Beyond SoHo and Sheung Wan, an abundance of bars and restaurants have opened in other areas in recent years. The movers and shakers of Hong Kong nightlife, however, don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. “The scene now is more mature and sophisticated,” says Gilbert Yeung. “You can go to Sai Ying Pun, where for $350, you can have a nice meal and good service, ambience, lighting and music. 10 years ago, you would go to a restaurant on Staunton Street that wasn’t even half decent.” “For me, Lan Kwai Fong has become much more like Wan Chai,” says Christian Rhomberg. “The creative nightlife scene is moving out to new areas, at the end of Hollywood Road going all the way to the Western District.” Will the California Tower bring the crowd back to the heart of Lan Kwai Fong? Don’t discount it just yet.