Inside Hong Kong’s Underground Bar Boom

While American speakeasies are often born of nostalgia, Hong Kong's underground bar scene has become a way to escape high rents and the city's grandiose nightlife scene. From a bar in a wet market to a hidden tiki shrine, here's a tour of Hong Kong's avant-underground.

The unmarked entrance to Ping Pong 129, an underground bar built into a former tennis table center. The first craft cocktail bar in Sai Ying Pun—one of Hong Kong's few neighborhoods that can be described (just barely) as "up and coming"—Ping Pong speaks perfectly to the element of practicality driving many of the city's new bars.

The lettering on the back bar at Ping Pong 129—鍛煉身體—reads "keep your body fit," a wink to the space's former use as a gym and table tennis center.

The entrance to 001, hidden within an outdoor wet market (a place to buy everything from live poultry to vegetables) in Central.

001's doorbell, the only marking on the otherwise nondescript entrance.

Sky Huo, the head bartender at 001, shakes her signature cocktail, the Nightmarcher.

Sky Huo's the Nightmarcher is a riff on the Last Word, combining Chinese mangosteen fruit, tequila, mezcal, yellow Chartreuse and celery bitters. It's garnished with a piece of frozen smoked mangosteen served on a pineapple leaf.

The contrast between Ham & Sherry's front tapas bar and secret back bar, which is accessible through an unmarked door in the alley beside the restaurant. Located in Wan Chai, both have become runaways successes.

The back bar at Honi Honi, Hong Kong's first and only tiki bar. Opened in 2012, it's hidden on the 3rd floor of a commercial building on a side street in Central.

Honi Honi's Bounty Hunter, a mix of Michter's bourbon, coconut milk, Aztec Chocolate Bitters and coconut syrup.

“Through an unmarked door and down a dark corridor” has become the bar world’s “once upon a time.” So appropriated is the speakeasy concept that it’s often dismissed as gimmickry—the default opener to a tale we’ve now heard a hundred times. But in a city like Hong Kong, where vertical opulence has become the cultural calling card, the “underground” bar has a different sort of significance.

Over the past three years Hong Kong’s craft cocktail scene has expanded at a breakneck pace; an estimated dozen or more craft cocktail bars have opened, successfully, since 2010. Yet most of these bars stand in stark contrast to the Western view of Hong Kong as a sort of Meatpacking District in the clouds. This new avant-garde has almost universally eschewed the bling-bling approach to nightlife, preferring instead to riff off of the speakeasy, but for reasons more practical than aspirational.

While it’s true Hong Kong’s craft cocktail boom has been building for a decade, most credit the recent rapid growth to the success of one bar: Lily & Bloom.

“It’s in this absolute tourist trap section of Central that most people with any degree of class tend to avoid,” says Sam Jeveons, the co-founder of Old Street, who has worked as a bar and nightlife consultant in Asia for more than 10 years. “But they put this beautifully designed bar with great cocktails there.”

The irony, he says, is that the very reason Lily & Bloom failed to succeed in the delivery of its concept—a speakeasy-style bar in a hip place—is the same reason it succeeded: the location.

“Instead of pumping out jazz for a refined kind of audience, they were pumping out high-volume hip hop to a baseball cap, T-shirt wearing kind of crowd,” says Jeveons. “But by nature of its location the audience was very mass.”

Soon after its opening in 2010, it became a destination bar for travelers and a source of inspiration for a growing number of young entrepreneurs based in Hong Kong. For many bars post-Lily & Bloom, the embrace of unorthodox locations—whether it be a neighborhood or the space itself—has remained a unifying thread.

“Perhaps this is a generalization, but in most cities your idea, your concept, is what you lead with,” says Jeveons. “But here, because rents are so high it’s often, ‘I’ve got this amazing opportunity with this venue, I better snatch it up fast—what fits here?'”

While these bars fit the typical difficult-to-find requirement of speakeasies, they lack the exclusivity and nostalgia that has come to define some of the most iconic establishments in the genre, like Death & Co. and the original Milk & Honey in New York. As Jeveons sees it, the speakeasy concept’s growth in Hong Kong is less deliberate; instead, it almost acts as justification for the alternative spaces these new bars have chosen to occupy.

The five-month-old Ping Pong 129—an underground bar built into a former table tennis center in Sai Ying Pun, one of the few neighborhoods that can still (just barely) be described as “up and coming”—speaks perfectly to the element of practicality driving many of the city’s new underground concepts.

“Space here is such a luxury,” says Juan Martinez Gregorio, a Spanish ex-pat who co-owns Ping Pong 129. “Hong Kong is so driven by money that there’s not much room for bars or restaurants that aren’t mainstream, especially in places like Central and Wan Chai where you have to fight with the big rents.”

Gregorio describes San Ying Pun as a more eclectic, creative neighborhood on par with Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin or Williamsburg in Brooklyn several years ago, when both were gazing at—but not yet defined by—rapid gentrification. The lower rents in Sai Ying Pun allowed Ping Pong 129 to take a chance, both with the design and concept.

The bar, which is accessed through an unmarked red door and—yes—down a dark corridor, is a riff on a gintoneria—a Spanish-style ode to gin and, more specifically, the gin & tonic. But the space itself is truly a tribute to the neighborhood. Gregorio and his partner have preserved many of the original details from Ping Pong City, the building’s former tenant, as well as integrated the work of Chinese artists, like Kong Yu Wing, Paul Yeung and the late graffiti artist, Tsang Tsou Choi.

“I wanted to open something for the neighborhood,” says Gregorio, “but it’s also become a destination.” The mixed, artistic crowd not only stands as a reminder that there is creative life beyond the grip of the city’s financial center, but it’s a direct reflection of the bar’s eclectic mash-up of cultures.

001, a bar lodged deep in the bowels of Central, plays a very different role within Hong Kong’s new avant-garde. Behind an outdoor poultry and produce market and through a black door affixed with nothing but a brooding doorbell, 001 has become a haven for good craft cocktails. It’s also a prime example of how “positioning isn’t accidental,” as Matt Magliocco, global sales director of Michter’s Distillery puts it. As a frequent Hong Kong traveler, he’s observed location choices as “a response to prohibitively high rents in prime locations as well as a rejection of more superficial atmospherics.”

The same can be said of Stockton, a brand new hidden bar down an alleyway in Central, as well as Wyndham 4th, just a few blocks away on the ground floor of a nondescript office building. Even Honi Honi, Hong Kong’s first and only tiki bar—which opened in 2012—is tucked, discreetly, into the 3rd floor of a side street commercial building, also in Central.

While these bars fit the typical difficult-to-find requirement of speakeasies, they lack the exclusivity and nostalgia that has come to define some of the most iconic establishments in the genre, like Death & Co. and the original Milk & Honey in New York. As Jeveons sees it, the speakeasy concept’s growth in Hong Kong is less deliberate; instead, it almost acts as justification for the alternative spaces these new bars have chosen to occupy.

Even the secret bar behind Ham & Sherry, which is more difficult to get into than most—a tight space of only 30-some seats—has no reservation list and no bouncer. The door might be hidden, but it’s still open to all. Ironically, the city’s new nightlife seems to be both harder to find and more accessible than ever.

Still, in the collective mind of the West, Hong Kong remains typified by high-rise buildings and lavish hotels—a tiny island off the coast of some more prosperous future. But the combination of high rents and the squeeze of the financial crisis (which hit Hong Kong a bit later, around 2010), has offered the bar community and its influx of young entrepreneurs a chance to challenge stereotypes. Turns out, whether we like it or not, the future is full of speakeasies.

Talia Baiocchi is the Editor in Chief of PUNCH and the author of the James Beard Award-nominated Sherry (Ten Speed Press) and co-author of the forthcoming Spritz (Ten Speed Press, March 2016). She has written for The San Francisco Chronicle, Saveur, Bon Appétit and Elle, among many others. She has a degree in journalism and political science from New York University and has been featured in numerous publications, including Forbes as a member of the magazine’s 2013 “30 under 30” list. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.