It’s 1985 and we’re in an era where celebrity DJs were unheard of. Say that again? Yes, celebrity DJs didn’t matter.
Local heroes and society mattered because they were the driving force behind what made a good show. Hong Kong creatives, movers and shakers were ready for the next thing after having already experienced The Scene, Taipan Club and Disco Disco in the 1970s. And there was one common factor behind all those places, and the one that came next — Andrew Bull, a DJ, showman and booker who gave club life a real sense of belonging in Hong Kong. He knew how to put on a show, and in fact he still does. Being one of the busiest DJs in town at all the aforementioned clubs, he also knew it was time to put his headphones to rest, at least for a little while, and let new talent breathe through the city's disco-veins.
Canton Disco was that next place. By intention of design, Andrew turned Canton Disco into the first premiere social network to exist in Asia from its conception. It was the social network of the 1980s in Asia, and the club was the centrifuge of everything going on in the city when it came to fashion, glamour, arts and film. Body language was nothing without substance to your name, and everybody was somebody in their own right and they knew how to flaunt it — but, what came first was the show, and the music.
It was probably the only club in the world, at the time, and possibly still till now, that opened its doors nine times a week, over all seven days. That’s right — Andrew ran a club that opened nine times a week. How, you ask? Day clubbing was open to those under 18 on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, giving those who couldn't venture out at night without permission a taste of the wild side. These days, we’re lucky to get more than two nights a week of hedonism.
On March 30, 1985, less than a year after I was born, Canton Disco opened its doors for the first time to Hong Kong’s discerning purveyors of the night. Today we’re celebrating 36 years of a club whose history never ceased, and whose time capsule has no end.
How is it still alive? Friendships, businesses, fashion brands, celebrity careers, films, artists, actors and so many other peripherals to the Canton Disco’s culture were born from the club and still exist today. And a recently opened restaurant in Shanghai took, or perhaps stole, as some may see it, the Canton Disco name and opened a restaurant at The Shanghai EDITION hotel, in honour of the original club and the legacy that tailed with it.
I spoke to Andrew Bull about how he pinned Hong Kong on the map of disco and gave elucidation to the art of social networking with the following major milestones, during a prime era of colonial Hong Kong’s history. He also tells us how he dealt with his club in Hong Kong being turned into a restaurant in Shanghai, without him knowing.
1. New Order
"It was a full concert by the band, and I was surprised to learn they remembered the show when I met them backstage at Clockenflap in 2015. The hit from that night was ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, probably their next best hit after ‘Blue Monday’. But this wasn’t a show by me or the club — in fact, they were booked by outside promoter David Wong who rented out the club for the night. It was New Order live — of course it was one of the best nights we ever had!"
2. Eartha Kitt
"It was a delightful evening with Eartha Kitt. We first met when I was interviewing her for Radio Hong Kong when she was doing a show at the Harbour Room at the Mandarin Oriental. She opened the season for the hotel, around the time the first Hong Kong Arts Festival took place. I jumped on the chance to have her perform at Canton Disco — so we borrowed banquet chairs from the Prince Hotel and sold tickets like it was a theatre setting. And, it was absolutely magical. She hardly slept and she had two managers, each one on 12 hour shifts — she was a superwoman to work with us and put this together."
3. Swing Out Sister
"They were a supergroup in the 1980s, and the label was launching their album, and asked if we could get them over. It wasn’t a full concert, it was more like a half hour teaser for the album. What was amazing that night is that it coincided with Mild Seven’s ‘Live Under the Sky’ which was an annual jazz format festival held at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium (in Wan Chai). So, people like Herbie Hancock and other jazz greats were there as guests for the show!"
4. Run DMC
"Russell Simmons, the co-founder with Rick Rubin of Def Jam Recordings, personally brought Run DMC to Canton Disco, before Jason was shot, obviously. It was one of the most epic gigs, in fact, I’ve got a video of it, but it’s never been digitised. What was remarkable about that visit was we got a call from the China Fleet Club, and someone from the USS Enterprise had rung in and they knew that Run DMC was in Hong Kong. And they asked if we could bring Run DMC to perform on the deck of the USS Enterprise in the middle of Hong Kong Harbour… which we did, and you can’t find any photos of that! Can you believe it?"
5. Rambo III Movie Premier for Hong Kong
"John Rambo didn’t show up in his red beret. But Sylvester Stallone did attend the Hong Kong premiere for his Rambo III film at the Ocean Theatre, just down the road from where we were in Harbour City.Rigo Jesu and his wife Terri Lai, the Hong Kong film distributors, brought Sly and his entourage to the club for an afterparty, which obviously created a massive sensation!"
"Hong Kong’s number one rock group over the years. They did a number of shows at Canton, and they sold out everytime. Hong Kong stars shone bright on the Canton stage! Paul Wong, of the band, and I are still great friends today, as I am with everybody else on this list!"
7. Erasure - The Wild Tour
"I was a fan of early Depeche Mode and Yazoo, and Vince Clarke did both bands, and is the main composer for Erasure. They came to Hong Kong, but the agent asked if they could come a few days earlier while on their Asia tour, and they actually booked Canton Disco for rehearsals. So we had Vince and co hanging around the club for a couple of days, and much to the delight of all the DJs at the time who were all big fans of Depeche Mode, or anything Yazoo or Erasure. That was really an amazing show!"
8. Pepsi & Shirley
"Pepsi & Shirley were the backing singers for Wham!
Shirley is married to one of the members of Spandau Ballet, and Pepsi is my Facebook friend. We got them over to the club to perform their own tunes — some very 80s singles that were great! And then we hung in the private bar and had our jam session together. It was a very memorable night, and so is the photo of myself and the two girls."
9. Toshinori Kondo
"An avant garde Japanese trumpet player, who unfortunately died just a couple of weeks ago. He was the most brilliant trumpeter, and also a close business associate of mine in Japan. He came over to Canton to do his avant-garde trumpet thing, and it was a bit unusual for the club, but it went down and well and we had an absolute blast. One of the club’s major highlights, as far as I’m concerned!"
10. Kylie Minogue
"If you go to her Wikipedia page, it will tell you that her first performance was at Canton Disco, in 1988. The performance is on video for posterity — it was a legendary night which set her off on her career! She was on her way to England for live shows, and her manager Terry Blamey asked the record company, Hong Kong Records, if we could arrange a PA for a half hour show to get herself warmed up. And we were happy to oblige."
11. ... Canton Disco opens in Shanghai
"Although I have nothing to do with the Shanghai space with the same name as my old club from Hong Kong, I still get booked to DJ, at the age of 65, under my disc-jockey moniker DJ El Toro. Canton Disco in Shanghai was spawned from Hong Kong-based hospitality group Black Sheep Restaurants, and the way I see it, it’s a shrine to Andrew Bull and the Canton Disco legacy I was a part of — a legacy that still resonates to this day. So, thank you! And thanks for the DJ bookings!"