Midnight Express, a former snack bar in one of Hong Kong’s most vibrant and eccentric nightlife area Lan Kwai Fong (蘭桂坊), was one of the primary filming locations of Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (重慶森林). In the film, Faye (Faye Wong) works at the snack bar while policeman 633 (Tony Leung) regularly comes to order takeout for his girlfriend. Behind the snack bar counter, Faye often dreams about the American West Coast, dances in the deafening music of California Dreamin’, and watches the revelry of Lan Kwai Fong’s party crowds. Standing behind the street-facing snack counter, Faye might have seen the partying individuals as empty and lonely, drinking, dancing and spending money as if there is no tomorrow. Chungking Express is just one of many films and TV dramas that picks Lan Kwai Fong (LKF), Hong Kong designated hub for partying, drinking and clubbing, to tell their urban tales. These stories have contributed to the myth making of LKF’s wild parties and charismatic lifestyle of the city’s high earners, expatriates and socialites. Since opening the first disco in 1978, the cool partying retreat was soon developed into a popular entertainment hub, and then becoming the city’s prime tourist attraction, the evolution of LKF reflects Hong Kong’s fast changing subcultures and economic circumstances in the past four decades.
Yet, LKF is not always about the glitter and glamour. A hundred years ago, LKF was home to brothels, marriage arrangers, and hawkers, and continued to be a back alley in the shadow of Central until the late 1970’s. It all began in 1978, when Gordon Huthart, son of the director of Lane Crawford luxury department store, collaborated with Andrew Bull, the legendary DJ who came to the city in 1974, brought the culture of Saturday Night Fever to Hong Kong by opening Disco Disco in LKF. Before Disco Disco, most nightlife in the city were associated with five star hotels. Disco Disco was the avant-garde venue that opened up a new era of subculture that welcomed all cool people in the city, be it queer or straight, rich or poor, to present their stylish outfits, glamorous persona and real character on the dance floor. Disco Disco was the pioneer in Hong Kong to break the social norms, and soon became one of the most phenomenal disco in Asia. International celebrities like Andy Warhol, Madonna, Sex Pistol, Rod Steward, Sean Penn, Sylvestor Stallone, etc. who happened to be a visitor of Hong Kong, would come for a drink and rubbed shoulders with the local socialites and celebrities. Despite shutting its doors permanently in 1986, Disco Disco has undoubtedly established the mythical foundation of LKF.
In 1983, the former Club 97 and Allan Zeman’s California Restaurant opened in LKF, and soon developed LKF into a prime nightlife destination, and a special venue for wild parties and celebrations for the New Year, Christmas, Halloween and Valentine’s Day. The sloped lane of LKF and the adjacent D’Aguilar Street (德己立街) were proved too small for the overwhelming crowds in 1993’s New Year’s Day, when a stampede accident killing 21 and injuring 62 shocked the whole city. Since then, stringent crowd control measures have been introduced by the police in LKF at every major festivals. Despite the tragic incident, nightlife continue to flourish in LKF and remain popular among expatriates, high earners, and tourists. Under the business vision of Allan Zeman, the biggest landlord in the area, LWF has become a unique business model that can be exported to other cities in China and Thailand. Today, a little more than a year since the first case of Covid 19 appeared in Hong Kong, LKF is facing its biggest challenge since 1978. Long periods of compulsory closure have shattered the entertainment businesses. From the coolest clubbing venue to a business formula that can be appropriated elsewhere in Asia, and from the designated party floor to one of the biggest business victims in times of the pandemic, LWF has seen its ups and downs. How may the partying ground adjust to the new order of post-pandemic Hong Kong is yet to be seen.
Whenever I flew with Cathay Pacific, I often selected Wong Kar Wai’s (王家衛) Chungking Express (重慶森林) from their entertainment system when I was about to take a nap. Indulging myself in the repeating music of Dennis Brown’s Things in Life and The Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’, and Christopher Doyle’s dynamic shots of Tsim Sha Tsui and Central always relaxed my mind. Chungking Express is undoubtedly one of my most favorite Hong Kong films. Chungking Express is lighthearted, complex, ambiguous, and beautiful. There are two stories in the film. The first story follows policeman 233 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and a female drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin) at Chungking Mansion in Tsim Sha Tsui. The second story follows policeman 633 (Tony Leung) and a female staff (Faye Wong) at Midnight Express, a snack bar in the entertainment district of Central. Released in 1994, three years before Hong Kong was returned to China, the film did capture a mixed bag of sentiments and mood of that era: sense of uncertainty, ambiguity, loneliness, loss, affection, impermanence, desire to change, hope for a brighter future, etc. Without pretentious shots of the city’s famous skyline, Chungking Express is a visually dazzling film that captures the daily life of Hong Kongers happened in wet market, snack bar, old tenement apartment, convenience store, and the Chungking Mansion, a huge mixed use complex in Kowloon where new immigrants and tourists gather and stay the night. Director Wong Kar Wai describes the film as his love letter to Hong Kong. 27 years have passed. Chungking Express remains as an icon of Hong Kong cinema, and an exquisite documentation of the ever-changing city in that particular moment in history.
Perhaps it is because both protagonists Tony Leung (梁朝偉) and Faye Wong (王菲) are two of my favorite Hong Kong stars back in the 1990’s, or The Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’ is too overpowering, or the filming locations in Central are just a few blocks from where I spent my childhood, I always like the story of Midnight Express more. Every time watching the film would remind me the old Central before the disastrous urban renewal projects that have torn apart Graham Street Market and gentrification that have wiped out uncounted tenement apartments and small shop owners who can no longer afford the skyrocketed rent. 1994 also marked the first anniversary of the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator (中環至半山自動扶梯), a 800m escalator system from Downtown Central up to the Mid-Levels. Wong Kar Wai chose the escalator and an adjacent apartment unit (home of Christopher Doyle, the legendary cinematographer of many Wong’s films) as the major film set for Chungking Express. Wong’s selection prominently imprints the escalator in the cultural atlas of the city, and introduces such unique urban feature to the whole world. In fact, the success of Chungking Express has consolidated Wong Kar Kai’s name onto the stage of international cinema, paving the way for his triumphs in the later half of the 1990’s, including Happy Together and In the Mood for Love.
Today, the 800m escalators system remains the longest in the world, and a popular tourist attraction. In 2015, CNN website picked the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator as one of the coolest commutes in the world. The idea of building an urban escalator system began in early 1980’s, when the Hong Kong government considered various options to improve traffic and pedestrian circulation between Central, the business district of Hong Kong, and Mid Levels, the residential neighbourhood on the slope of Victoria Peak. Cable car and monorail were also considered, but an escalator system was eventually selected. After 2.5 years of construction, the system was opened to the public in 1993. Wong Kar Wai seized the opportunity and became the first director to shoot a movie there. The escalator soon became popular among residents and office workers in Central, and led to dramatic gentrification of the surroundings. Buildings along the escalator system were torn down for new apartments. Small shops were replaced by bars and upscale restaurants, forming a vibrant entertainment district that we now call Soho. For both good and bad, the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator has been a major catalyst that wipes out the old Central I have known as a child. Yet on the other hand, the convenience it brings us who live in the area has undeniably become an inseparable part of our daily routine.