The Other Side of Hong Kong Nightlife


Nobody really remembers how they first discovered Sense 99. Usually, they hear about it through a friend, who heard about it through a friend, who heard about it through a friend and so on. It is not quite a bar, not quite a private club, not an art gallery or a music venue, but it combines elements of all of these. To get there, you must make your way down Wellington Street, past the green-painted stalls of Hong Kong’s oldest street market, until you arrive in front of a worn metal door at the base of an old stone shophouse. Press the second doorbell from the top and a tinny voice will greet you through a speaker in the door.


There is no secret password. Say pretty much anything and you will be greeted by a loud buzz. The door unlocks. Head up to the second floor, towards the sound of conversation and live music, until you enter a room that appears not to have been touched since the early colonial days of Hong Kong: green-and-white tile floors, wood windowframes, French doors opening onto a narrow balcony. There is a small bar on the right and a collection of stylishly mismatched furniture on the left. Upstairs, another balcony and a lounge where musicians bring their instruments and jam until the early hours of the morning.

This is not a typical Hong Kong bar.

Sense 99

“If most Hong Kong people came across this space, the first thing they would do is ask, ‘How should I renovate it?’” says Sense’s owner, Rupert Wong, better known by his Chinese nickname, Ah Shek. Dressed in a dark blue sweater with jeans, black-framed glasses and a baseball cap, Ah Shek looks at least a decade younger than his 48 years. “I don’t care about that. This place isn’t about decor, it’s not about drinks. It’s about having a space where people can come together.”

And that is exactly what they do every Friday and Saturday night, when Sense is open until the sun struggles over the horizon and the last customers stagger home. The crowd is diverse — artists, musicians, students and self-styled creative types. There is usually the odd group of bankers, sleeves rolled up on their pin-striped shirts, looking a bit out of place, like puppies lost in the bush. “Everyone is welcome,” says Ah Shek, sipping a glass of straight whiskey. “It has a very natural, self-regulating atmosphere. It feels like it has no rules, but everybody gets each other.”

Temple Street, 10.40pm

Photo by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Hong Kong has always been awash in booze, a legacy of its history as a British-controlled free port, but its drinking spots have always had a certain mercenary quality: your cash (and plenty of it) in exchange for alcohol. Places with a soul, a purpose higher than the simple dispensation of liquor, have been few and far between. But that might be changing. Over the past few years, a new generation of creative nightspots have joined the established havens of counter-culture. They are antidotes to the grubby girly bars of Wan Chai and the cookie-cutter drinking holes of Lan Kwai Fong, places that capture a part of Hong Kong’s cultural zeitgeist — places to get away from the relentlessly commercial pace of life that characterizes so much of the city.

In the drizzly grey aftermath of a typhoon last October, I wander down a back lane in an industrial part of Kwun Tong. Burly factory buildings rise on either side of me. Standing up ahead is Kimi Lam, the manager of Hidden Agenda, an indie music venue located on the sixth floor of an industrial building. Lam is 23, with tattooed arms and a pugnacious build, but she is friendly and expressive. She apologies for being tired. “We’ve been moving these all day,” she says, pointing to a yellow bench her friends are loading into a cargo lift. “The jazz festival gave them to us. We got 45 of them. They were just going to throw them away!”

Thrift is a virtue when you are running a livehouse. Since its inception in 2009, Hidden Agenda has brought dozens of international acts into Hong Kong, with several shows every week and some of the lowest ticket prices in town — a deliberate strategy to make Hidden Agenda as accessible as possible. “In Hong Kong, we’ve got a lot of different concert halls, but they’re too big, they have seats, and they cost tens of thousands of dollars to rent,” says Lam. She and her friends have spent a lot of time in mainland China, where venues like Beijing’s D22 and Mao Livehouse support a thriving music scene. “We realized, if we have our own space, we could bring in a lot of bands.”

Space was easy to find. Hong Kong was once filled with factories making cheap clothes, plastic flowers and toys, nearly all of which have left for cheap land and low wages in mainland China. As a result, entire industrial neighbourhoods are now half-empty, and they are being colonized by visual artists, performers, design studios and architects. In Kwun Tong, hundreds of amateur bands use old industrial space to rehearse.

Moving upstairs, Lam takes me around Hidden Agenda’s 4,000-square-foot space. The ceilings are low and concrete pillars block some views of the stage, but the walls are decorated with murals by local street artists, the fridge is well-stocked with Tsingtao beer and the stage was recently expanded. Kimi, who first got into music in primary school when her brother gave her a Radiohead CD, has eclectic musical taste, something reflected in Hidden Agenda’s lineup: one night might be Swedish dream-pop duo JJ, the next Chinese-Japanese rockers Lee Su Fu Connection.

“They’re crazy, rebellious young people,” says musician and performance artist Kung Chi-shing. “It comes down to having a vision, an attitude that goes beyond making a profit.” Kung got to know the Hidden Agenda crew after he started organizing Street Music, a free outdoor concert held every month in a small plaza next to the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Since it began just over two years ago, Street Music has attracted a loyal crowd of followers who come for the mix of local and international musicians from every genre imaginable. “There’s a group of people who come every time and bring an ice bucket with sparkling wine,” says Kung.


Street Music Series

Kung and I meet over a drink at his favourite watering hole, Club 71, a low-key spot tucked inside a leafy back alley in Central. The interior walls are covered in a brightly-coloured mural; in the laneway outside, old men play cards until the evening, when they are gradually replaced by drinkers. A black-and-white cat meanders indifferently between the legs of some bar stools. Kung takes a gulp of house red. He has a bohemian air about him, with long grey hair, clear-framed glasses and a braided goatee. Since returning to Hong Kong in 2005, after living for a decade in New York, he has been a mainstay in the city’s music scene, tirelessly organizing outdoor concerts and cultural events. “People ask me why I don’t take a break, even when it’s so hot in the summer,” he says. “But if you don’t have a regular spot, if you aren’t always there, the impact is limited.”

That kind of consistency is rare in Hong Kong, where bars, restaurants and entire creative movements are extinguished almost as soon as they flare up. Club 71, named after a huge pro-democracy march in 2003, is the successor to Club 64, a larger bar that opened just after the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989 — a traumatizing event for Hongkongers. Throughout the 1990s, 64 was a haven for Hong Kong artists, musicians and left-wing political activists like Leung Kwok-hung, better known as Cheung Mo — “Long Hair” — who is now a rabble-rousing member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.

1997 was another creative oasis that existed in the early days of Lan Kwai Fong, before it was taken over by chain bars. “What made 1997 unique was the personal warmth of the people who owned it. If you had an idea for an event or art venture, you could go to Christian Rhomberg and Nichole Garnaut” — the owners — “and they’d listen,” says one of the bar’s regulars, Liam Fitzpatrick, who is now a senior editor with TIME Asia. “Usually they gave you creative license to do what you wanted – either by lending you their venue or by helping you with sponsorship or putting you in touch with the right people or whatever. They must have mentored an entire generation of promoters, stylists and designers in that way.”

Otherwise, “the scene was hopeless,” says Fitzpatrick. “There were fake Tudor pubs, karaoke lounges, Wanchai girly bars or the tiny smattering of places in Lan Kwai Fong – take your pick.” So he and some friends started running raves in a rice warehouse in Western District. “Until we were shut down a few months later, we were having thousands of people in there every weekend – everyone from school leavers to socialite heavies to genuine celebs. Kylie Minogue showed up one night. Michael Hutchence came.”

Everyone has memories of dearly-departed nightspots. When I meet with Ah Shek at Sense 99, he places an envelope on the table and pulled out a stack of photos taken in 1999. “This was Oil Street,” he says, referring to an abandoned government supply depot that was occupied by artists for a year. Many now speak of the time in reverential tones: there were impromptu performances, wild exhibitions and a general sense of camaraderie and creative fervor. “And there was a bar,” says Ah Shek with a grin, pointing at a photo of a well-stocked wood bar. An old television sits on one end of the old bar; it survives at Sense, where it now functions as a fish tank.

Like so many other creative ventures in Hong Kong, Oil Street was shut down by the government, which intended to sell the supply depot to a hotel developer. (The sale later fell through and the site is still vacant.) 1997 is just a shadow of its former self; Club 64 fell victim to high rents. Hidden Agenda recently announced that it must find a new home when its lease ends in February. And most Hong Kong bars are still as bland as they were when Fitzpatrick threw his warehouse parties in the early 1990s. The cycle can seem vicious and endless. Because rents are so high, business owners need investors, and those investors are unwilling to take big risks if it means cutting into potential profits. “You see people opening up a new club or restaurant every week and the depressing thing is, they’re all going for the same aesthetic,” says Cassady Winston, better known as DJ Enso, whose diverse range of influences have earned him acclaim as one of Hong Kong’s best DJs. “I don’t know how you could look yourself in the eye if you’re doing the same thing as everyone else.”

But history is not always doomed to repeat itself. When I ask him if the spirit of 1997 lives on today, Liam Fitzpatrick says, “Sometimes I find myself walking down some obscure alley in Sheung Wan or NoHo or Western, and seeing the lights of a single bar or café up ahead, and maybe a gallery or a boutique, and there are a couple of hipsters sitting on a step drinking beer out of bottles in the cool evening air and everything is very quiet and undiscovered and cool – that’s what the original Lan Kwai Fong was like.”

Recently, no shortage of unusual ventures have emerged in those obscure alleys. There’s Visage One, a tiny barbershop that hosts raucous jazz sessions publicized only by word of mouth. Les Boules is a lofty basement pétanque bar opened by a Frenchman who wanted a place to play balls and drink pastis. In October, the design space Konzepp opened a casual nighttime social club where friends can gather over a bottle of wine. Another design space, the Wan Chai Visual Archive, took a similar step by opening a quirky back-street bar, Tai Lung Fung, named after a 1960s Cantonese opera troupe.

What all of these places have in common is that they place more emphasis on cultivating a sense of community than on generating a profit. Last spring, after throwing a New Year’s Eve party at Hidden Agenda, Enso was so inspired by the venue’s do-it-yourself ethos that he decided to open his own space. The result is XXX Gallery, a club and exhibition space located in a former bank vault four floors underground. Every week features some of Hong Kong’s best DJs, like Alok and Yao, and US- and UK-influenced sounds that range from bassline to dubstep and juke.

When he first came to Hong Kong from San Francisco in 2007, Enso found himself disappointed with Hong Kong’s club scene. “I figured there would eb some really cool stuff going on here because of the influence of the UK and China, but 99 percent of stuff was really mainstream,” he says. So he and some DJ friends started throwing a series of electro parties called Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy, which “recontextualized” hip hop and pop songs. They brought it big names like A-Trak and Major Lazer. Now, says Enso, “the scene has changed. It’s stretched out and gotten more diverse.”

That’s something that becomes abundantly clear at XXX. On a Thursday night last October, the gallery was the venue for a collaboration between American experimental hip-hop composer DJ Spooky and the classical Hong Kong New Music Ensemble. As the audience leaned back in black sofas, bathed in ultraviolent light, Spooky and the ensemble played pieces from Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, an audio exploration of the Antarctic. “This is like a living room session,” said Spooky. “It’s an unusual night. I wish you guys had pillows.”

7-Eleven + taxi

This story was originally published in the December 2011 edition of Travel and Leisure.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday December 29 2011at 10:12 am , filed under Art and Design, Asia Pacific, History, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Comments are closed.