Hong Kong’s Hottest New Nightclub: 7-Eleven

Largely a product of lax liquor laws and exorbitant drink prices, 7-Eleven convenience stores have become the hottest new hangouts in Hong Kong's nightlife epicenter. Sarah Baird on the strange phenomenon that is "Club 7-Eleven."

No one looks their best under the retina-searing zap of florescent light, much less under those lights after a night of drinking. When stumbling into a neighborhood convenience store on the walk home from a bar, one glance into any reflective surface usually reveals that the evening’s high hopes have degraded into flaking lipstick, smeared mascara and a craving for Totino’s pizza rolls.

There’s a reason that bars, almost universally, keep the lights down low.

But in Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s pulsating, nightlife epicenter, 7-Eleven convenience stores (yes, home of the Big Gulp) are hotbeds of Gucci-clad nighthawk activity, each franchised outpost a miniature social club for the hard-partying masses.

With 950 stores and counting (that’s basically one store per half square mile), Hong Kong has more 7-Elevens than any country in the world, except neighboring Macau. In Lan Kwai Fong alone, there are five cookie-cutter shops packed into a one-block radius, the signature 1970s signage a luminous, omnipresent force. During the day, these familiar spaces sell ham and corn wraps, Coca-Cola Light and cartons of banana milk to the crowds, functioning in a sleepy, humdrum fashion just like one might expect. But below this unsuspecting demeanor lies a rambunctious personality just waiting to burst forth under the cover of darkness.

“My friends—and almost everyone—call them ‘Club 7s’ or ‘Club 7-Elevens,’” says Charlene Dawes, co-owner of a Hong Kong cocktail empire that includes Quinary, Origin and The Envoy. “People drink there before or after the clubs because it’s so much cheaper than getting a drink anywhere else in Lan Kwai Fong. Plus, you can just spill out into the street.”

Living in New Orleans, I’m often smug about the ability to roam the streets freely with a drink in hand, but Hong Kong’s freewheeling attitude toward alcohol makes anything stateside seem out-and-out prudish. Open container laws simply do not exist, allowing drinking in practically any form or fashion across the city—including in the passenger seat of a car if someone else is driving. For better or worse, booze regulations in Hong Kong are so laid back they’re practically horizontal.

Due to cramped corridors and lax drinking laws, crowds at “Club 7-Eleven” sprawl in front of each store out into the street, displaying a menagerie of crushed cans and broken glass. At the end of the night, enough detritus has collected (rogue shoes, earrings and bodily fluid) to make Bourbon Street appear as sterile as a surgery ward.

The topography of Lan Kwai Fong, though, is decidedly not horizontal—rolling up and down in waves of sharp cobblestone inclines and pitched hills. Unfortunately, the area is also home to the most popular 7-Elevens in the city. It’s a challenge to trek up some of these gradients stone-cold sober in the light of day, much less with the impressive ease of the six-inch-heel-clad 20-year-olds that wander the streets each night.

“My feet do hurt,” a Hong Kong-native student said as she sipped a Tiger beer crouching among the discarded bottles outside of one store. “They do, but also I want to look cute when I go out, you know? So I wear these shoes.”

The 7-Elevens in Hong Kong play host to the United Nations of sloppy inebriation, with exchange students from Kenya, Taiwanese teachers and (plenty of) Australians standing shoulder-to-shoulder over recently cracked beers in the store’s refrigerated section. It’s perhaps one of the only places in the world where a person can hear “I love you, baby,” drunkenly slurred in six languages simultaneously. It’s stomach-turning and impressive all at once—a cosmopolitan train wreck so glorious and terrible, it’s difficult to look away.

Due to cramped corridors and lax drinking laws, crowds at “Club 7-Eleven” sprawl in front of each store out into the street, displaying a menagerie of crushed cans and broken glass. At the end of the night, enough detritus has collected (rogue shoes, earrings and bodily fluid) to make Bourbon Street appear as sterile as a surgery ward.

Everything about this Club 7-Eleven culture is indicative of a curious duality that runs much deeper than 7-Eleven’s new day and night personas. Like a case of (benevolent shopkeeper) Dr. Jekyll and (rager-loving) Mr. Hyde, it’s easy to see how this nightly takeover of an otherwise mundane third place might be cause for greater concern.

It’s a worry that weighs heavy on the minds of Lan Kwai Fong’s club, bar and business owners, many of whom view 7-Elevens as a threat to their overall livelihood. Drinks cost roughly a tenth of the price of those served in the clubs, which are obligated to pay DJs, bartenders and bouncers on a nightly basis, while complying with the city’s enforced laws of sale. What’s more, underage binge drinking has steadily increased across the city over the past five years, with 7-Eleven no doubt serving as a primary instigator.

“[7-Eleven] lacks the safety requirements which other outlets have to fulfill—a limit on the number of customers on the premises, having toilets, the presence of an escape route… to name but a few,” Vanessa Wong, Lan Kwai Fong Association marketing officer, told Time Out Hong Kong in March.

For now it’s difficult to imagine their presence will cause Hong Kong’s club scene to completely unravel. And despite concerns about binge drinking and litter, Club 7-Eleven does provide something of a necessary low-key alternative to the thumping, stylized—and expensive—club ambiance that is so often exalted as the pinnacle of Hong Kong revelry. And a fluorescent glimpse into a youth culture that’s both unexpected and a little ingenious.

Perched above Lan Kwai Fong’s D’Aguilar Street at sunrise one Sunday morning, I watched over a 7-Eleven as the last of the night owls trickled out and coffee-thirsty early birds fed in, converging in that rare moment of night-and-day dichotomy when the dueling faces of a space lock eyes for a moment—then quickly look away.