Lan Kwai Fong: From sweaty taverns to decadent discos

Lan Kwai Fong: From sweaty taverns to decadent discos

On the eve of the demolition of landmark buildings in Lan Kwai Fong, we look back to see how this bawdy area of the 1870s has been transformed into Hong Kong's home for hedonists
lan kwai fong
"What do I think of what Lan Kwai Fong became? That's like asking somebody who went to the desert and found a village called Las Vegas what it was like to come back 50 years later and find the Wynn Resort." Andrew Bull, DJ and promoter.

Lan Kwai Fong has a history of decadence. The sloping L-shaped street that is the center of Hong Kong's nightlife today with a reputation that reaches across the region, was the nexus of a bawdy pleasure zone as early as the 1870s, when British colonialists frequented its sweaty taverns.

this was the party where thousands of dollar notes were exploded from cannons over the people in the bar area. Gordon had bought US$10,000 in new bills ... it was a mad grab to see who could get the most — Alex Poor, customer relations manager at Disco Disco

But it wasn't until the launch of California bar and restaurant in 1983 by Allan Zeman that Lan Kwai Fong as we know it took shape. 

After the Canadian textiles mogul opened his bar and restaurant, he purchased his first tower, California Entertainment Building, in 1988. He bought California Tower in 1992.

The two buildings came to house a variety of lifestyle outlets, such as Indochine 1929, C Bar and di LUX. They set a standard for the 100-plus food and beverage spots that moved into Lan Kwai Fong over the next 20 years. 

Tomorrow, California Entertainment Building and California Tower will be demolished. The landmark buildings will make way for a 25-story edifice with glass lifts and wide smokers' terraces on each floor. 

“The new California Tower will be amazing,” Zeman says, “It's like seeing one of your children grow up and move on.” A fitting analogy from the man known as the "Father of Lan Kwai Fong."

However, Zeman's reign as king of the hill was preceded by a period of reckless parties with an underground feel, led by one Gordon Huthart. For Hong Kong's young and restless at the end of the 1970s, there was only one single oasis in Central: a raucous basement nightclub on D’Aguilar Street, which stood where Volar is today.

The place was Disco Disco. It was the brainchild of Gordon Huthart and it was the stuff of legends, leading some to go as far as saying that Huthart was "the real father of Lan Kwai Fong."

Huthart's parties were more than drunken escapism, they were a platform for self expression and they seemed to embody the spirit of a booming city, coming to terms with its newfound status as one of Asia's biggest economic successes as well as the implications of the looming deadline of the 1997 Handover.

lan kwai fongGordon Huthart.A disco like no other

Disco Disco launched days after "Saturday Night Fever" opened in cinemas across town in December 1978. It's founder, the late Gordon Huthart, was the youngest son of a Lane Crawford director at the time and he was openly gay when homosexuality was illegal in Hong Kong.

That, combined with a liberal embracing of drugs in the club's back rooms, meant the police were never far from Huthart's door. But the people danced on. 

"Disco Disco was the only place where East and West were mixing, the only place where the beautiful affluent Chinese would mingle with the more adventurous expats and visiting international [figures]," says Christian Rhomberg, founder of the infamous 1997 cafe and Kee Club's impresario.

Rhomberg was deputy Austrian trade commissioner when he met Huthart in 1980. He sensed in Huthart his ticket out of the dry world of diplomacy and into Hong Kong's nascent nightlife scene.

Decked out in a jumble of Egyptian kitsch, Disco Disco -- known affectionately as DD -- and its heedless parties drew comparisons with Studio 54 in New York and attracted stars from the Sex Pistols to Andy Warhol when they passed through town.

Alex Poor worked as customer relations manager at DD from 1979 until Huthart sold it in 1986. He remembers serving champagne to Madonna and Sean Penn, who were filming "Shanghai Surprise" in Macau at the time. The most outrageous party Huthart threw, Poor says, was the one he named "Decadence: an Evening of Ostentation." 

"This was the party where thousands of dollar notes were exploded from cannons over the people in the bar area. Gordon had bought US$10,000 in new bills, in denominations of up to US$100. It was a mad grab to see who get the most," Poor recalls, "I remember the night very well. [Body builders] paraded on the bar counter and fashion designer Diane Freis did a belly dance [up there] as well.

"There were models, TV and movie stars, hairdressers, radio personalities, fashion designers and photographers -- the who's who of Hong Kong."

Andrew Bull, often hailed as the city's first DJ, contributed to a Facebook page in memory of Disco Disco 

where he was resident. Back then his most requested tracks were "Lay All Your Love on Me" by Abba and "Enola Gaye" by OMD.

"Like Studio 54, what DD had that was sensational was frisson and immediacy," he wrote in one wall post. "It exuded communality. It manifested humanity, in most of its guises. It kindled liberation and independence while mocking convention and sociability. It was the best."

Bull went on to open his own nightclub, Canton Disco in Tsim Sha Tsui, where Run DMC and Kylie Minogue topped the roster of live acts he brought in. He now works as an events promoter in Shanghai. 

"The key [to Disco Disco’s renown] was having a very committed, insane but incredibly intelligent and visionary owner, who was sufficiently business savvy and well funded to carry out his ideas," says Bull.

"It was more than a guy opening a business to sell Heineken at a mark-up. Gordon was kicking Hong Kong in the teeth for being so stupid about [homosexuality]. He really believed that he was going to make his life's statement by making the most incredible disco that Hong Kong could have ever imagined, which led to a review of people’s social norms. He did that, without question.”

lan kwai fongAndrew Bull.LKF's rite of passage

As Huthart continued to set the bar higher for bacchanalian excess in the area, Christian Rhomberg kept an eye on a lot opposite Disco Disco's back door.

With Huthart's blessing, he bought it and with four partners transformed it into an Austrian cafe-bar-art gallery, which opened in 1982.

Audaciously, Rhomberg named it 1997, for the uncertainty which Hong Kong's fast-living society felt about the end of colonial days.

Liam Fitzpatrick wrote a limited-edition book about the early days of Lan Kwai Fong, "Rats Liked it Well Enough: The 1997 Story," which was published in 1993. In it, the Hong Kong based journalist claims that "the cafe gained overnight notoriety on the strength of its name alone."

"People would come for lunch and they wouldn’t leave," Rhomberg remembers. "It really put Lan Kwai Fong on the map."

In the book, Fitzpatrick credited the establishment with nothing less than the awakening of his generation.

However, today Fitzpatrick says that "the very small, rather elite, international school-educated crowd I hung out with back then was in fact radically unrepresentative of our generation of Hong Kongers, who for the most part would never have set foot in 1997 or even Lan Kwai Fong."

In a sentimental portrait in the foreword of the book, he writes, "To those of us who grew up in Hong Kong, 1997 represented the wider world beyond the thick grey harbour and charmless office towers of a provincial city… 

"[It] became the place where we held our first exhibitions, saw drag shows, gave poetry readings, found jobs as pony-tailed waiters, discovered House music, held gigs, organized [parties], watched fringe theatre and alternative comedy, met the loves of our lives, plotted revolution, read LA Style and checked to see who had made it into Keeping Posted, started businesses, used as an informal office for our jobs as stylists, producers, writers, left-of-centre freelancers, danced till dawn, made confessions, networked, loved, loathed, bitched, got into Mingus and Andreas Wollenwieder and table-hopped. It was our rite of passage. We sat at window tables and felt a sense of belonging."

It's difficult not to envy these outpourings of nostalgia for the good old days and to wonder whether Lan Kwai Fong's newest denizens could begin to let go, make a stand, find an idea or nurture a philosophy amid the polished rooms and crammed streets of today's party hub.

As local nightlife luminary Joel Lai commented on Disco Disco's Facebook page, "You all knew how to party in the right way. Hope the new generation can learn something from it."

As for Huthart, he always talked about developing Lan Kwai Fong. Inspired by Tokyo's Ginza district, his idea was to buy buildings in the area and move entertainment outlets onto multiple floors. Sounds familiar.

"Gordon's problem was that he talked and dreamed about all of this, but he never actually did anything," Rhomberg says. So Allan Zeman got there first.

Samantha Leese is a Hong Kong based writer and editor, focusing on travel, arts and culture. Her articles have been published internationally by titles such as Condé Nast Traveller, The Spectator, Artforum and Time.

Read more about Samantha Leese