Developers Change Hong Kong’s Red-Light District : The World of ‘Suzie Wong’ Is Fading

Associated Press

Soaring land prices and commercial developers have transformed Hong Kong’s notorious “Suzie Wong” red-light district into a complex of office buildings, international hotels and cultural centers.

In a few years, developers predict, many of the honky-tonks in the Wanchai waterfront area will be memories, driven away by dwindling business, higher rentals and the popularity of classier nightspots elsewhere in this British colony.

The transformation of Wanchai from aging low-rise buildings to commercial and residential skyscrapers--and new respectability--began slowly a decade ago. The pace has quickened, and today there is a construction project on almost every block.

“Many companies are moving to Hong Kong to establish a base for their China and regional markets and they need offices,” explained Richard Cheung, associate director of Jones Lang Wootton, where he serves as a real estate agent and property consultant. “The traditional Central business district is full and it is natural to move east toward Wanchai.”


Wanchai was a popular hangout for sailors in the 1940s, but its dingy, dark and small girlie bars became internationally famous 10 years later when author Richard Mason chronicled the life of a gentle-hearted prostitute in his best-selling novel, “The World of Suzie Wong.”

Suzie Wong and Wanchai became synonymous.

During the Vietnam War, action in Wanchai peaked. Thousands of U.S. servicemen on rest and recreational leaves spent freely on women, liquor and temporary solace in the numerous bars crowding the district.

With the end of the conflict in 1975, Hong Kong lost its role as a regular leave center for the servicemen. Business suffered and many of the girlie bars and hostess clubs closed.


Despite Wanchai’s fading reputation, the district remains an attraction. Tour buses still bring curious foreigners eager for a glimpse of Suzie Wong’s world, where bars are staffed by topless hostesses or waitresses in miniskirts.

The U.S. Navy also visits occasionally, but veteran hostesses say the new generation of servicemen spends less on the girls and more on shopping and sightseeing.

In June a convoy of 11 U.S. Navy ships led by the aircraft carrier Enterprise spent five days in Hong Kong. U.S. Consulate officials said its 9,000 personnel converted about $500,000 into Hong Kong dollars, but only a fraction of that was spent in Wanchai.

“During the (Vietnam) war, business was much better,” said Selina Chin, wife of the owner of the San Francisco Cafe and Bar. “Fifteen years ago we had about 40 girls. Now there are seven who dance and 10 who sit at the bar.”


The club, in the middle of the red-light district, is open from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. Starting at 8 p.m., dancers in cutaway leotards perform on a small stage in the center of the circular bar.

Lily, who declined to give her full name, has been a bar girl for nearly 20 years and she recalls the big spenders, big ships and big days and nights of the Vietnam years.

“There was the Midway, the Constellation, the Coral Sea, the Kitty Hawk, and they came twice a year,” she said. “Many sailors . . . big business.”

With Wanchai’s metamorphosis, the price of land has soared. A prime site, measuring 12,000 square feet, that sold for the equivalent of about $8.3 million in 1986 went for $31.1 million a year later, said Cheung of Jones Lang Wootton.


But this has not deterred the area’s development.