DJ, impresario and local legend Andrew Bull backtracks with Jon Wall about his time at the epicentre of Hong Kong’s music scene.
Had you, like the then-14-year-old Andrew Bull, stepped off a BOAC flight from Heathrow to Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport in the summer of 1972, possibly bushy tailed but certainly not bright-eyed after a journey involving stops in Frankfurt, Bahrain and Bangkok, what might your first impression have been? Perhaps that of an impossibly hot, cacophonous yet spectacular Chinese city, where a teeming populace of more than 4 million people was lorded over by a thin stratum of Europeans, the former unknowably exotic and the latter drearily familiar. If such images indeed formed the young Bull’s first snapshot, they would change pretty quickly.
Although arriving straight from his boarding school at the edge of South London to spend the long holidays with his parents, the lanky teenager’s excitement at being somewhere utterly different was doubtless tempered by the fact that, for him, foreign travel was nothing new. His father, a British army chaplain, was constantly moving around between the diminishing number of spots on the globe where the Union Flag still fluttered, and Hong Kong was only the latest in a string of overseas postings: some of Bull’s vacations had been spent on the edge of South America in the newly independent republic of Guyana, an “amazing tropical paradise” where the Brits still upheld a military presence. The family had occupied an old sugar-plantation house – and it was there he realised music would become a key part of his life, one that would soon propel him to the epicentre of the Hong Kong scene for three decades and more.
“We had to go to bed quite early,” Bull recalls of his childhood days in Guyana, as we talk over whiskies and beer more than half a century later, “but at around 7 or 7.30pm we were allowed to watch the bats coming out of the roof of our house. On Friday nights, the estate management would hold what they call a jump-up, with live steel bands, calypso and the incredible sound of human happiness percolating from these vibes. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it outside my mosquito net. And I just knew I was going to be drawn like a moth towards that flame – of being involved in some way in creating that human happiness and energy.”
Bull indeed caught the bug, first hanging around the British forces’ radio studios in Germany and later trying his hand at DJ-ing for events in his co-educational school. “I was doing Valentine’s dances, Halloween, any-excuse-for-a-party discos during the school term,” he says. So, once in Hong Kong, he inveigled his way yet again into the army’s broadcasting studio, which, for the benefit of the Gurkha garrison in Shek Kong, transmitted in Nepali for three hours each night. “I was given the job of sitting in a blockhouse in a paddy field outside the camp fence, where the AM transmitter was located. It was full of mosquitoes and about 43 degrees. It was quite atmospheric, swatting mozzies, drinking masala tea and listening to Hindi film music.”
At that time, the Hong Kong music scene mostly comprised visiting acts from overseas – the occasional big name, like the Bee Gees, who played in ’72, but mostly has-been or never-were singers and groups from the ’60s and even ’50s – while the local Chinese bands covered Western songs in English, Cantopop being no more than a faraway blip on the radar. But there was another major influence, in the form of US troops from Vietnam, who were descending on Hong Kong in their droves for rest and recreation. “They’d serve three months,” says Bull, “and if they didn’t die they got two weeks in Hong Kong, with a lot of money to hang out with, and then they’d go back. So that two weeks was an intense moment for these guys.” And they’d bring their music with them, “shit-kicking stuff like ‘Smoke on the Water’ for the white guys” and early Kool & The Gang, Blue Magic and “more sophisticated funky stuff ” for the blacks. Though they fought shoulder-to shoulder on the battlefield, when it came to time off each had their own favoured haunts. “The black guys would go the The Scene, which was in the basement of The Peninsula, and the white guys to the Yellow Submarine, on Hankow Road. It wasn’t race why they separated, it was music.”
At the age of 13 Bull already measured a towering 1.9 metres and thus, as he says, “was able to get away with murder. By the time I first arrived here I was also a trained DJ, in terms of what that meant in those days – I was a bloke who could put records on!” So he got a part-time gig at the Yellow Submarine, then later added a spot at The Scene in The Pen, where he ended up working until 1977.
“It was an incredibly fertile time … five years, six hours a day and six days a week. In those days, Hong Kong was a very international place, and The Peninsula lobby was a bit like a Baz Luhrmann movie – you know, Run Run Shaw, Kenzo, Imelda Marcos, film directors and all kinds of bizarreness going on. There was no ‘Made in China’ then – everything was made in Hong Kong. The airport was at Kai Tak and Kwun Tong was where stuff got made, so the hotels in Tsim Sha Tsui were full with people from fashion, toys and general manufacturing. There were people in export companies whose job it was to schmooze the buyers and clients, so at any one time, 365 days a year, there were people being taken out, going out, mixing and matching. All the energy that eventually got dissipated across China was laser-focused on Hong Kong – and particularly within two blocks in Tsim Sha Tsui. The intensity was extreme and the party scene was outrageous – and don’t forget this was pre-Aids, which was absolutely critical to the energy.”
As in most parts of the world at that time, homosexuality was illegal in Hong Kong and the law was enforced to the extent that men who danced together in clubs could, at the very least, expect to be be thrown out. But while working at The Scene, Bull met one Gordon Huthart, who made a point of dancing with other men simply so he would get thrown out. “He was agitating for LGBT rights – the first person in Hong Kong to do that – there should be a statue to him.” It was, Bull adds, a deliberate career move too, because Huthart, whose father was the then-managing director of Lane Crawford, not only had plans but also the means to carry them out. Coincidence or not, at almost the same time as The Scene closed for good in 1977, Studio 54 opened in New York – and that gave Huthart the idea of doing something similar, not in Kowloon’s traditional nightlife zone but instead a back alley in Central.
“In those days, Hong Kong was a very international place and The Peninsula Lobby was a bit like a Baz Luhrmann movie”Andrew Bull
“There was no Lan Kwai Fong then,” says Bull. “It wasn’t a through street: there was a staircase at one end and it was full of bag ladies dragging flattened-out cardboard boxes up and down, and some flower shops.” But Huthart’s father had shrewdly figured the imminent opening of the new MTR line would break down long-held notions of Hong Kong side, Kowloon side and rarely the twain ever meeting. Nightlife, in other words, could be located just about anywhere, so long as it was in easy reach of the subway. “Amazingly, Gordon found the place, put a team together, got the concept, designed it and launched Disco Disco, and all within a year of Studio 54’s opening in New York. From day one there was no contest, it was streets ahead of any F&B-manager-led hotel bar in Hong Kong. Game changer? This was the shit!” No surprise, then, that Bull soon gave up “an excellent gig running two clubs in The Miramar” (now The Mira) he’d taken up after The Scene’s demise and moved, for the first time, across to the island.
“Gordon curated an incredible mix,” he says. “You had all the LGBT variants in their different roosts around the place and it was totally racially mixed; you even had an afternoon disco at weekends with no alcohol and no one over 18. You need to have a lot of trust and a consensus from the audience, so I curated the music very carefully, and stopped short of pissing off one tribe in favour of another, There was a lot of high-energy disco, there was slower stuff, and we even began with the New Romantic trend – Spandau Ballet, Visage, Steve Strange, Rusty Egan…”
Hathart eventually sold Disco Disco and the place soon slipped from its pedestal. Bull had moved on too, opening a record store – Music Boutique Bull – on Lan Kwai Fong, “where the 7-11 is now. I was a lousy shopkeeper,” he says, “but it was incredible to be running that store. It wasn’t a bar, but you’d get all the human waifs and strays and detritus of life coming through the Fong, and we opened until 10pm, so people would come in there and moon around, already off their tits…”
As that was clearly hardly sufficient to sustain a business, Bull moved back to Kowloon, where after teaming up with his former boss at The Miramar, he opened Canton Disco in 1985, on the Harbour City site that today is occupied by a Hermès flagship store. This was also when he hung up his headphones and began to move into the very different world of concert promoting, a move that wasn’t easy. “The hardest thing I ever did was to stop being a DJ,” he says. “It was a bit like slicing your own arm off with a penknife, and it hurt a lot, but I’d wanted to use everything I’d learned in my 12 years of DJ-ing, about how humans and the tribes in Hong Kong work. I had a pretty clear view of what the market was and how to manipulate it for a new era – it was basically a social-networking algorithm.
“We had six years at Canton, plus one extension, that’s nine times a week for seven years. We staged Kylie Minogue’s first live concert in her career. She was going to London from Australia and her record company was looking for a venue where she could get her confidence up in front of a live audience, so I said, ‘OK, we’ll have some of that!’ We also had Swing Out Sister, Erasure and lots of local acts like Beyond, Anita Mui and Lesley Cheung. Although Pet Shop Boys didn’t perform at Canton, I promoted their concert in 1989, which was the first they’d ever done, and they rented the place for a week for rehearsals before the show. They wanted to do it somewhere remote, far from London, as a dress rehearsal in front of a live audience. We also had lots of after-parties for big shows at the Coliseum.
“What was amazing about Canton,” Bull adds, “is its positive long-term cultural impact – it epitomised Hong Kong gaining confidence in its own cultural chops. And that’s been recognised by the M+ Museum, where there’s now a Canton Disco glass case in the Hong Kong visual design section, with Alan Chan’s graphics.”
It couldn’t last, of course, given the Wharf group’s plans to turn Canton Road from a scruffy backwater to a luxurious shoppers’ showcase, but by that time Bull was ready for the next step yet again. “They didn’t want Andrew Bull’s dodgy disco, they wanted the space back to they could jack the rent up by some incredible amount. But it was perfect – it was a weight off my mind because I was able to focus on the events side.” Outside of the disco itself, his first gig as a promoter was a concert by jazz pianist/vocalist Randy Crawford at the newly opened Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in 1989. His business grew so quickly that, during a 10-year peak during the ’90s and early noughties, almost no international artists visited Hong Kong without Bull’s involvement and he was promoting at least two shows each month, everyone from Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club to Motown diva Diana Ross.“The Lyric Theatre, Ko Shan Theatre, Queen Elizabeth Stadium, the Convention Centre, you name it. I even rented the old Kai Tak airport, with Céline Dion on the runway. And I liked events, because you were able to build up to them and then they were over, whereas when you’re running a club, it doesn’t matter how great it was last night, you’ve got to do it again tonight. And tomorrow night, and the night after that. You’re a slave to the rhythm. And I liked the idea of doing a Simply Red concert that takes three months to mount, and then you do it and he goes and everybody’s happy for a while.”
And Bull’s biggest triumphs? “I was very proud of the shows at the stadium in 1994,” he says. “For the grand opening we had Jean-Michel Jarre with the full production – scaffolding that looked like the Hong Kong skyline – and the next day we had Peter Gabriel. Then one day off and we re-set the stage for Depeche Mode, and then another day off and TVB held this massive concert in the round for the Chinese audience. And Depeche Mode – my God, what a show that was! I sold nearly $2 million of merchandise with that one. And we sold out clean.
“The biggest event I put on alone was the Unity Party in 1997 [the epic 12-hour rave in Kowloon Bay featuring Grace Jones and DJs Boy George, Paul Oakenfold and Pete Tong], which we pulled straight out of our arses and put together within six weeks of the handover. It’s still the largest indoor rave ever mounted in Asia – there were 12,000 people at that event.”
And then there’s what he calls “the biggest concert we ever did, which never happened”, namely Michael Jackson at Sha Tin racecourse.“ Allan Zeman was my partner, and we made an offer to Marcel Avram, who was the global promoter of the Dangerous tour. They were looking for a Hong Kong date, but there were no appropriate venues – the stadium was a dead loss – so what were we going to do? OK, it wasn’t the racing season, so let’s go out to Sha Tin, which was a horrible venue for a concert, because the stage is in the middle and the audience is over in the stands and there’s a fucking racetrack in between, which you’re not allowed to go on. “Anyway, we were selling the tickets, because we hoped the energy of Michael Jackson would be so compelling we could tell the Jockey Club we’d need to put something on the grass, but we were going to save that till the last minute. But we never got to have that conversation because he was having his legal problems – he didn’t want to cancel the show, but he had to move the date because of his court case. And that was how we got shafted, because the new date they offered us fell within the racing season. Even if it was Michael Jackson, the Jockey Club weren’t going to talk to you about that. As non-events go, that was my top one, hahaha!”
Now based in Shanghai, where he and his Taiwanese wife Sally Kwok – they met all those years ago in Disco Disco and eventually married in the early ’90s – have lived for the last couple of decades, Bull now runs a flourishing business that leverages his promoting expertise to run branded events in the mainland. “At the peak,” he says, “we’d be doing 900 shows a year across the country, six teams a day, all brand marketing, and we’re still doing it, working with all kind of brands.” For years, he’d hardly thought about DJ-ing, until a severe road accident left him hospitalised in Suzhou and, later, Shanghai.
“I had my headphones there,” he says, “and I found the music started speaking to me again while I was in that space. So I eventually decided to join the dots by doing a weekly show on this digital radio station we ran at our office, and it gradually built from there. That was 2012, 25 years after I’d hung up my headphones, so I thought it was relatively risk-free, reputationally speaking. I mean, it’s very tricky, if you’ve been a popular name and you just keep going, people get older and older, and so do you, and the crowd’s moved on.
“But the Chinese aren’t as ageist as other people. So I was doing gigs in Shanghai – and I’m quite good at it, because I’m trained to sense the crowd, it’s in my DNA, so it’s a bit like having a classic car in the garage that you were meaning to fix up and you never had time to do it until you were semi-retired, and now you have this 1930s wagon that everyone’s jealous of … And, hopefully, that’s what it looks like, rather than, ‘Oh no, not that geezer again!’”