By Hans Ebert


Growing up in Hong Kong, there was a time when adults spoke about Wanchai in hushed tones. It was the notorious red light district in a city still growing up and with many from everywhere in the world coming to this then British colony to set down roots and try and make dreams come true.

Hong Kong is where American and British sailors came for R’nR and Wanchai was their first port of call where there were tattoo parlours, a string of small bars all down Lockhart Road with a Mamasan sitting outside and inviting them in to check out the delights on offer in tight cheongsams with long slits to reveal their best assets sitting there and waiting to be approached.

My uncle, and elder cousins knew the ins and outs of Wanchai, but my parents wouldn’t even talk about this “filthy place”. Though knowing what went on in Wanchai, what happened in Wanchai stayed in Wanchai.

The first time Wanchai entered our young lives was in secondary school when some of the “loose girls” had been spotted in the red light area arm in arm with- quelle horreurs- tattooed sailors. As Don Henley sang years later, it was the end of the innocence.

Though us boys explored the underbelly of Kowloon and the wild side of life in Mongkok and down Temple Street before quickly knowing the girls in the various schools who were ready and open to adventure, Wanchai was out of bounds.

When the film “The World Of Suzie Wong” was released with Eurasian actress in newcomer Nancy Kwan stepping in for an ill France Nguyen, prudish Hong Kong went into shock.

Though tame and a sterile cuckoo by today’s standards, the film tackled the taboo subject of the love between a Chinese working girl in Wanchai (Nancy Kwan) and an American artist played by William Holden trying to eke a living in Hong Kong during the Sixties.

Us kids were banned from seeing the film and I’m still to see it. But “The World Of Suzie Wong” put Wanchai on the map with the area quickly becoming a popular tourist attraction. Going down to Wanchai was like a Lou Reed song: dark and a walk on the wild side.

Over the years, Wanchai grew and took on a life of its own. New bars opened along with restaurants and clubs. The Chinese hostesses somehow disappeared and were replaced by mainly Filipinas. Later, adding to the variety on offer were Thais and Indonesians, and more recently, many from South America, especially Colombia.

Wanchai was booming with bars and clubs like Makati Inn, Joe Bananas, Neptune’s 1,2, 3 and eventually the pickup joint Fenwick’s.

Though Hong Kong stopped being an R’nR destination for American sailors, Wanchai attracted tourists and foreigners- gweilos- living in Hong Kong. It has never ever attracted local Chinese.

For this “consumer group” and other Asians, the popular hunting grounds were in triad run Kowloon, some more expensive than others. In the large and hugely expensive escort club like Club Volvo, the largest, most opulent and garish hostess club in the world, one could be driven in a gold Rolls Royce from one end of the club to the other.

Club Volvo was forced to change its name to Club BBoss, and where worked the most attractive Chinese girls along with extremely attractive “dancers” flown in from Eastern Europe who doubled as high priced escorts for those with the big entertainment allowances to buy them out.

Wanchai carried on happy being a poorer cousin with no triad involvement and for a completely different clientele- the more budget conscious punter. The less discerning. Usually older and happy to be called “baby” and “honey” and being asked if they wanted “love you longtime”. Wanchai was their playground. Many were like (very old) children in a candy store. It was popular tacky stuff.

Wanchai today is a wasteland. With the Chinese owners and investors having, at least on the surface, having sold and moved out, the Nepalese have taken over. But who really knows?

Bars and clubs have opened and closed equally quickly with only Dusk Till Dawn going against the trend, possibly because it attracts couples and has the best ‘live’ band in the area. But how long will this club last?

The club Insiders has closed, Centerstage, formerly Spicy Fingers, is on its last legs as are a number of neighbouring bars and clubs including the New Joe Bananas and the once popular Escape, which is the former Fenwick’s. It attracts some absolute fools and who are quickly taken care of by the no-nonsense Nepalese bouncers.

Customers are a dying breed and the working girls have moved onto hotel lounges where there’s the chance of picking up a more affluent clientele and areas like the once trendy Lan Kwai Fong.

Two gruesome high profile murders of working girls picked up in Wanchai by expats high on drugs haven’t helped the image of the area. Neither have the spiralling rents. It’s no longer even a curiosity piece to visit. It’s just one big yawn for desperadoes and not somewhere to be seen with a “new Wanchai” adjacent to the bars and clubs down Jaffe Road and on Star Street catering to a younger and more upwardly mobile crowd with trendy venues like Ophelia.

While escort clubs like BBoss closed down years ago and Eastern European working girls doing 2-3 “tours” that include clubs like Brix in Singapore and the five-star hotels in Hong Kong or marketing themselves online, Tsimshatsui East struggles to make a comeback whereas Wanchai struggles to just stay alive.

It’s chances of continuing as a safe, entertaining lads night out, well, that’s now part of a distant past. Today’s old Wanchai is DOA.

It’s cleaning up its act and trying to be something completely different, but seems lost to know what this might be.

#Wanchai #Hongkong #clubs #TsimshatsuiEast