Putting her best foot forward, Guangzhou-born Isa Lai is banking on Hong Kong’s embrace of all things mainland to make her latest venture, Cheeky Binders, a resounding success.
In 2005, Lai and her then boyfriend, Cliff Clough, established the Société Nouvelle des Pieds Bandés (SNPB; “New Society of Foot Binders”) in France, bringing a taste of imperial China to the swanky Sixth Arrondissement of Paris, where the society held its meetings.
“We wanted to share the joy of foot binding with a new audience,” says Lai, who had lived in the French capital for 17 years and, although an unfortunate medical condition precluded her from binding her own feet, had long been an advocate of the practice. At one stage, the SNPB boasted more than 600 members, 65 per cent of whom, surprisingly, were men.
“They are attracted, I think, by the pain; the endurance is seen as macho,” said Clough, in a 2012 interview.
From its inception, the SNPB had been funded by a wealthy Hongkonger, who preferred to remain anonymous, but, in 2014, he and Clough deserted the society, crossed the Atlantic and threw their lot in with impresario Simon Cowell. Before meeting Lai, Clough, the son of coal miners, had run a chain of “strap-dancing” clubs in the north of England, which gave rise to Strapping Young Lads and Happy Feet, boy bands whose dainty feet drove young girls wild. He has updated the idea and now tours the LGBTI clubs and NRA conventions of North America with a burlesque-type strap-dancing show.
Distraught, Lai wound down the SNPB and went into rehab. Now, however, encouraged by a dramatic upsurge in Instagram posts by Hong Kong-based enthusiasts, she plans to make Cheeky Binders the city’s first club dedicated to the discerning foot binder.
“I’m not at liberty to say where the club will be, exactly,” says Lai. “Because it’s in the illegal basement of one of Hong Kong’s top dogs. But true binders will find their way to us when we open, in May.”
Will Clough and Cowell be attending the grand opening? “Cliff emailed me to say they would,” says Lai. “But I believe everything I read; sometimes I feel like such a fool.”