I was working late one recent Friday when the message came through. Club 71 — the preferred watering hole of Hong Kong’s artists, filmmakers, journalists and anyone else who liked a cheap beer — was about to close. Get there for last drinks.
I rushed up the hill behind central Hong Kong to the bar, where scores of people were queueing for a final pint. The atmosphere was something between mourners lining up to pay their last respects and fans honouring a retiring rock star.
Because Club 71 was more than just a bar. Its name stood for one of Hong Kong’s biggest protests — a march on July 1 2003 against an early attempt by the government to introduce a national security law for the financial hub. Its very location was special. In the late-19th century, close acquaintances of Sun Yat-sen, the great revolutionary who became China’s first president, would meet nearby to plot the overthrow of the Qing dynasty.
From its art-covered walls to the warmth of its owner, Grace Ma, and her staff, Club 71 was a place for civilised, open discourse — whether about politics, football or the weather — now a rarity in a city polarised by protests and a crackdown on dissent.
Its owners say the bar’s closure was precipitated by coronavirus restrictions and high rents. But, for me, its demise is symbolic of the tumultuous political changes that shook Hong Kong in 2020, when part of the city’s former freewheeling character died and was replaced with a more authoritarian bent.
In June 2020, Beijing imposed a new national security law that bypassed Hong Kong’s de facto parliament. With its loosely defined wording and harsh penalties, the legislation sent a deep chill through the territory’s normally vibrant media.
The law followed protests in 2019 against an extradition bill that grew into a last-ditch movement to defend the civil, political and legal freedoms promised to the territory on its handover in 1997 to China from British colonial rule. The violent clashes became the pretext for Beijing’s intervention.
The authorities have since followed with a growing opposition crackdown, such as this week’s arrest of 53 pro-democracy politicians. They have also begun purging the civil service, schools and universities. Some fear the city’s world-respected judiciary may be next in line. But if these institutions were the bedrock on which the old, free-spirited Hong Kong was built, bars like Club 71 were its soul.
Club 71 was the reincarnation of an earlier bar also run by Ms Ma called Club 64, standing for June 4 1989 — in remembrance of the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing. After that bar closed — again reportedly because of high rents — Ms Ma and her partners set up Club 71 on an open terrace called Man Hing Lane. Nearby, there is an official monument to Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary friends and their soirées, the host of which was murdered here by Qing agents in 1901.
A local artist has painted a cartoon depiction on a wall of Sun Yat-sen and one of his wives discussing whether to have another drink. “Mr President. Let’s have another shall we?” The artist later blanked out the speech bubbles to represent the degradation of free speech in Hong Kong.
Many of Club 64’s patrons migrated to Club 71, such as former legislator Leung Kwok-hung, known as “Long Hair”, arrested multiple times for illegal protests last year.
Club 71 “was a place for people to exchange ideas and you could say whatever you liked”, said Ivy Chan, a former waitress. She recalls some of its wall paintings, mostly done by local artists, such as the ceiling, which looked like blue sky with clouds but hid the form of the “Goddess of Democracy”.
Ms Ma had grown weary of the bar and its financial troubles, which formally closed its doors at the end of October. But Ms Chan said her former boss might be considering another kind of business, such as seminars teaching people how to approach life and also death, a taboo subject in Chinese culture.
All of which raises the question of whether the old Hong Kong can survive the coming years of closer control from an ever more iron-fisted Beijing. “We who are still here have to stay strong and think smart,” Ms Chan says. “Hong Kongers can still endure.”