By Hans Ebert
It was not only part of Hong Kong coming of age, to many, it gave this unique city a very different pulse. As a much-used advertising copy line might say, here was the place to see and be seen- the vibe maker that was Canton, the disco on- where else, but Canton Road on Kowloon side- and at a time in the Eighties when Night Fever was finding its strut.
Sure, Hong Kong might have had other discos- Hollywood East, Hot Gossip, Manhattan, Pastels- but with its quirky, androgynous and now iconic logo, none of these in Hong Kong had the brand personality to attract a different group of regulars as Canton Disco.
Yes, Manhattan in Elizabeth House was popular with the advertising crowd. More often than not, it had its moments of shee shee pretentiousness with the usual suspects associated with advertising showing up for private parties and needing to feel miserable and pass that anger around. One never forgets those things, especially when they were hurled your way. Maybe they needed hugs.
Canton Disco was more street smart. So were the clubbers it attracted. It wasn’t some angry boys club for even angrier old expats from the ad scene who believed that they were either extras from “Miami Vice” or else were musical geniuses who the world had foolishly ignored.
I wasn’t a clubber. I was a young parent killing time in advertising, looking at different ways of making money, trying to make married life work, writing, observing the business of music and learning about the business of business.
Like a certain section of Hong Kong youth and future trendsetters in those days, Canton Disco swam against the tide. It was charting its own course. There was also something distinctively Made In Hong Kong about its Alan Chan designed logo. This had a ‘look’ that, no doubt, was the inspiration behind G.O.D- Goods Of Desire- Shanghai Tang, many ad campaigns and logos.
With no social media those days, Canton Disco was its own platform from which to dive into whatever lay ahead. Here was a hip field of dreams that when it opened its doors, they came- “they” being everyone who wanted to be part of everything Canton was and allowed to be. What was it? Guess either one had to be there to understand, or else things happened organically. There’s nothing to analyse.
To some, it was Hong Kong’s answer to NYC’s famous/infamous Studio 54, the club that symbolised much of the excesses of the Seventies and Eighties. This was where Andy Warhol hung out with Mick and Bianca Jagger, Margaret Trudeau was “digging the scene” without her knickers on and John and Yoko, Bowie and Rock gods and goddesses mixed with wannabe pretty young things wanting to be part of this melting pot of everything going on around them.
If this was taking place in the Age Of Aquarius, it would have been “A Happening “. But in the decadence- and it’s that word again- excesses- of those days, back in Hong Kong, Canton Disco was about pushing the boundaries of Change and marching to the beat of whatever heady mix of Bolivian powder the DJ was concocting.
Even today and against the backdrop of a city wondering where it’s heading with some of us looking back at the journey we have taken, the name Canton Disco lives on.
For those who were “digging the scene” there, it remains a vital part of many individuals’ past- and Hong Kong’s past.
The Ringmaster and hip carnival barker bringing everything together and stirring this melting pot of indulgence and over-indulgence and radical chic was Andrew Bull.
Here was someone who was not another privileged expat kid whose parents stepped out of James Clavell’s books “Taipan” and “Noble House”- books about big business in colonial Hong Kong. Andrew was an “army brat”- a gangly kid with wild hair who saw and learned much from the entrepreneurial skills of Gordon Huthart and his game-changing Disco Disco.
Regulars there included the late legendary Hong Kong Chinese personalities and fashion icons Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung. Disco Disco was also where some were trying to secretly figure out their sexuality away from the prying eyes of a certain unit that operated independently and had a particular disdain for homosexuality. With their paid informants, this nefarious outfit was the Dark Star to everything else going on.
As for Andrew Bull, he grabbed everything learned and experienced and understood with both hands. He and some others were the living embodiment of what as come to be described as Hong Kong’s “Can Do” spirit. One could and some often did with no safety net below. That would have been too easy.
Andrew Bull showed how things can be done. He inspired an entire generation of Chinese DJs. He was his own radio station that played whatever was right for that moment. It’s what he’s still doing albeit these days in Shanghai.
Now in his early Sixties, he’s still doing, he’s still “digging the scene” with an incredible roller deck and keeping that Canton Disco brand alive.
Though Shanghai being his home today with wife Sally, he knows he’s just a shot away from the city across the border that brought him from there to here.
Speaking to Andrew, he’s not some nostalgia act living off past glories. Yes, he’s worked with them all- Grace Jones, Kylie, Pet Shop Boys, Björk etc- but he’s still out there doing whatever fits into that word called relevance- DJing, partying, touring, seeing what’s going around him and creating new business and creative opportunities.
The day we spoke, record producer and DJ Paul Oakenfold called about a project they’re working on for Lunar New Year. That’s how Andrew Bull aka DJ El Toro rolls. He’s there in the middle of it all- and seeing the renaissance of Shanghai as being the new Paris. Again, he’s the ringmaster and bringing all the parts together.
Don’t, however, think that Andrew Bull has forgotten where it all started- Hong Kong and that disco on Canton Road designed for kings and queens, jockeys Tony Cruz and Gary Moore, many from the Hong Kong and international entertainment industries and everyone else who simply wanted to be part of it all.
Canton Disco was what Planet Hollywood tried to be in Hong Kong some years later and which failed spectacularly. An even more spectacular failure was Star East, the Hong Kong version of the aforementioned Planet La La cobbled together by a number of local mega stars and even listed on the stock exchange. But these are Hong Kong stories are for another time.
Canton Disco is remembered as the game changer it was and is still talked about with a reverence that’s rarely heard these days.
Now, that’s pretty cool, baby.
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