THE DARK SIDE OF HONG KONG NIGHT LIFE 1

By Hans Ebert
@hanseberthk

“It’s still a Nokia while the rest of the world has switched to the iPhone.” A former regular was talking to me about The Champagne Bar at the Grand Hyatt, once the most popular meeting place in Hong Kong.

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For many, it was a welcoming refuge and a shelter from the storm, especially during the SARs crisis that crippled the city in 2003. But even way before that, the Champagne Bar was where visiting and local actors and actresses, businessmen and tourists, well-known names in horse racing, advertising and the music industry interacted with each other. Around 10pm extremely attractive ladies from, especially Eastern Europe, would walk in and check out the 5-star business opportunities available on any given night. There was nothing tacky about it. It was simply business and these girls were regulars who became friends and even live-in girlfriends.

Then again, this was not only a very different Hong Kong, this was a very different world where we hadn’t become slaves to technology and actually didn’t live inside iPhones collecting “likes” and “views” and fake “followers”.

Though none of the 5-star hotel lounges in Hong Kong are doing a roaring business with, perhaps, the Blue Bar at the Four Seasons doing the best of them all though still lacking in those old “good vibes “, the Champagne Bar has lost all its fizz. Having mediocre resident singers who’ve seen better days warbling sweet nothings in the background and a repertoire heard almost thirty years earlier doesn’t help those nights when you somehow end up there- usually after dinner at one of the hotel’s restaurants, all of them serving some of the best cuisine in Hong Kong and seemingly free from those who would rather Instagram their food as part of this preoccupation to “share” online.

The former Grand Hyatt Coffee Shop, fairly recently refurbished and now known as the Grand Cafe, might be going through some teething problems with its new staff, but it still serves the best Hainan Chicken Rice with a side dish comprising three different sauces including an authentic chilli sauce made with chillis from Hainan. There are still hundreds of customers who come from near and far for just this one dish.

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Yes, it’s that good as is lunch or dinner at the superb Chinese restaurant 1 Harbour Road. The Steak House that used to once house JJ’s, the most popular club in town with ‘live’ music by the resident band the CC Riders, gets rave reviews as does the cuisine served at any function held by a blue chip company in the Grand Ballroom. The food served always gets two thumbs up.

Returning to the Champagne Bar, it’s hard to say why it’s become what it is: DOA. The staff are as always, exceptionally good. The drinks are fine. The interior, despite a fairly recent facelift, is okay without being anything close to having that Wow Factor. But as has been written here many many times is that any bar, restaurant or club only works when they attract like-minded people.

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No one wishes to sit around people who have nothing in common with you, something easily discovered after a simple hello, or looking around and seeing ghosts from Joe Bananas and working girls from Escape.

Worst of all is sitting there alone like Steve Martin from The Lonely Guy hoping to hell someone remotely interesting will come and sit down next to you other than the resident singer sharing the riveting news about the number of followers she has on Facebook and Instagram.

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This hardly makes for absorbing conversation. It’s a turn off. So, what to do?

From this former regular’s point of view, despite some cosmetic changes, nothing’s changed which makes the Champagne Bar seem old- and this “oldness” rubbing off on those who might irregularly frequent it.

There’s a very big difference in longing for and talking about the good old days and then feeling that the past has caught up and you’ve got old. No one wants to go anywhere to feel old- and to pay five-star prices for the “privilege”.

Here’s the chance for the Champagne Bar to reinvent itself and like Django unchained move away from being yet another boring hotel lounge with an ageing resident lounge singer backed by an ageing trio regurgitating the hits of yesterday. Working with the same old booking agents doesn’t help. Most don’t get out much and are hardly have a pulse on what’s happening today which is why it’s always yesterday once more.

Hell, it’s been almost two decades since Norah Jones burst onto the scene and even she is probably sick and tired of singing Don’t Know Why. Do we really need to hear some average talent still sing this song as if in a karaoke lounge? Of course not. Norah Jones has completely reinvented herself and remains relevant. And that’s what the Champagne Bar needs to become- relevant again.

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It needs a reason for people to come there and nothing beats music- but the right music- cool, sophisticated and contemporary. The old crop of booking agents who keep going to the same well aren’t going to make this happen.

Instead of one female singer perhaps it needs a trio. Maybe even a name trio for a week. Maybe a nostalgia act- very different to an average and unknown singer taking you all the way back to a distant past that some would rather forget. Think about One Night At The Champagne Bar with Richard Marx. Or Stephen Bishop. Or aim really high and bring in Carole King.

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Like a good cocktail, it’s about mixing it up. It’s about bringing back the atmosphere of Hong Kong in the nineties.. but for these times.

Get the music right and people will follow. And soon there’ll be a scene. This will evolve organically.

My personal feeling is that too much time has been spent trying to bring back a time that has gone forever instead of looking at today and creating something younger, but also very much possessing the fizz of champagne and caviar. It’s about putting on the ritz and being fashionable again. It’s probably about marketing the Champagne Bar as part of a one-stop night out at the Grand Hyatt.

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Now that the hotel finally has a General Manager who actually makes it a point to listen to the customer instead of walking around with his head up his bum, maybe things will start to happen. Bringing JJ’s back for one night- New Year’s Eve- shows that things are changing for the better.

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