By Hans Ebert
“I’m Avis and aaahhhm from Las Viiiiigas!” shrieked the singer before launching into something from Gladys Knight. It was your typical hotel lounge shtick, but when outnumbered by visiting mature L’il Abners who buy into average singers performing songs that are part of every has-been’s repertoire who’s fortunate enough to find a gig in Asia, one just downs a few mojitos until those senses are numbed and you can inhale all the bullshit going around you.
This was happening at the Champagne Bar at the Grand Hyatt a few nights ago- a very special place for many of us as the countdown to Hong Kong International Races week begins. As Lennon sang on “In My Life”, there are places I’ll remember. One of them will always be the Champagne Bar- the original Champagne Bar that smelt musky, where it had its odds and sods of regulars like Cheers, a gracious host in General Manager Gordon Fuller, staff who used to invite us to “siu yay” after their shifts, the late Johnny on keyboards playing “Beyond The Sea” whenever he saw us, and some of the more surreal experiences in life. Entering the Champagne Bar was always curiouser and curiouser. It was like Alice falling through a rabbit hole.
When with EMI Music, some called it my office. There were more deals signed, sealed and delivered there than in any conference room. There was more and better time spent doing business at the Champagne Bar than schlepping over to Kowloon side just to show my face in the real office. When Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, who were in the middle of creating Gorillaz visited Hong Kong, we met up at this office before letting the night take us to wherever and back. It was at the Grand Hyatt that the song “Hong Kong”, which had nothing to do with Hong Kong was written by Damon.
When Avis from “Las Viiiigas” finally stopped shimmying enough to take her break, one of the regulars of the Champagne Bar from back in the day showed up. Wally is a well-known dentist, now well into his Sevenites, was known for drinking enough scotch so that he would fall asleep in his chair. Tonight, he was dressed like a Boy Scout, was wearing shorts and leather boots, had downed his fair share of drink and wanted to get up onstage and sing. With his pipe in his mouth. No can do.
Seeing me, he headed to the bar and insisted we take a picture together. With his pipe in his mouth. This triggered off a stream of consciousness river of reminiscing that had my mind veer off into that not too distant past. It was like the buildup at the end of “Day In The Life” by the Beatles before those 24 pianos played the end chord together.
The Champagne Bar and its accompanying club JJ’s were not just local institutions, they were where we all met each other for the first time- music executives, horse racing people, visiting musicians, Keanu Reeve, Bill Clinton and a roulette table of ladies from various parts of Eastern Europe. Being one of the Grand Hyatt hotel’s regulars, one was always looked after by everyone from those in security to staff at every one of the hotel’s venues as a Thank You for the bills accumulated, usually treating perfect strangers. Or it might have been Gordon Fuller’s own Thank You for the HK$4 million spent at the Champagne Bar by us over a two-night period during a worldwide marketing conference.
These were the days when music companies had money, and us music executives thought we were the kings of the world. We had expense accounts that had no limits and were enjoying the longest cocktail party with no end in sight. Sadly, we didn’t hear Sinatra in the background singing, “The Party’s Over”.
Having just moved to the service apartments adjacent to the Grand Hyatt after being unceremoniously dumped by a wife who finally tired of living with someone with an addictive and self-destructive streak, the Champagne Bar offered shelter from the storm. Or so I thought. Actually, what it did was feed an out of control ego while paying for all the others who jumped aboard the gravy train for the free ride. But when enjoying those early days of renewed bachelorhood, there was a release of everything that had been pent up for years. It could now be shared and explored and enjoyed without any fear of guilt and being caught out. It was Django Unchained.
The candy shop for this kid was the Champagne Bar, and it was here that one got to know many in the racing game. There had been many stops and starts before, but it was at the Champagne Bar where many real friendships were formed. Perhaps it was a much simpler time, but, somehow, our lives became intertwined. There were no ulterior motives involved- just a group of very different individuals getting along, having a fun night out and with no strings attached or having trust issues.
Today? Well, today one has to constantly be on guard because horse racing has become the biggest game in town, and with it have come the users, abusers and ten time losers. But in the Eighties and Nineties, there was a real sense of camaraderie.
Being in music, we were racing hobbyists who never ever asked for tips or the ins and outs and over, under, sideways, down of the sport. We were caught up in our own world of how to sell more and more copies of Coldplay, Robbie Williams, Norah Jones and Gorillaz to please the bean counters at head office.
At the same time, we just wanted to have a good time doing what we were doing. The jockeys we knew looked at us both with interest and envy. After all, while they had to get home in order to wake up early for trackwork, the party was just starting for us. And when certain former jockeys and others sitting out suspensions joined in on the activities, it would have made The Wolf Of Wall Street blush.
Before all this- and it wasn’t that long ago- the music and horse racing industries crossed paths in Hong Kong, but neither really understood each other. We in music were happy galloping off into what eventually was an abyss. To us, the racing industry was made up largely of pukka colonial bureaucrats who had no idea of how to have fun, marched down Rue Morgue Avenue with blinkers on and whose only job was to get people to punt and keep punting.
We, on the other hand, hung out with Rock stars and did our very best to lead a Rock star life even if it was to kill us. And this lifestyle took its toll on many. One can only party like it’s 1999 until maybe 2000. Party longer and one is surfing on borrowed time. Even Prince knew that.
Somewhere along the way, however, we got to know and understand jockeys, trainers and a few open-minded racing executives. Ties that bind were created which still exist today. It was probably realising that there’s a touch of madness in all of us without resorting to “do a Van Gogh” to prove a point, and that there could be some method in each other’s madness.
The first racing person I got to know was Tony Cruz. Tony was actually the entry point for everyone from that generation into racing. When starting out in advertising, Tony was an apprentice making his mark on Hong Kong racing along with another promising young rider named Eddie Lo, back row. Lo went onto be a fairly successful jockey and then trainer before passing away much too soon. Is there ever a good time?
My parents were acquaintances with the local Macanese community and through them knew Tony’s father and amateur rider Johnny Cruz. “Uncle” Johnny who worked for one of the banks wasn’t exactly the greatest rider in the world. He had one style of riding which was to charge to the front and try to hold on for dear life. There were a couple of other Macanese amateur jockeys riding at that time- Joe Pereira and Tony Silva- and with my family knowing them, the elders talked about the races, and what was going on. Us youngsters eavesdropped and thought this could be an easy way to make some extra pocket money. We seldom did, but were hooked on following racing and getting to know the players involved.
Almost every Saturday, a group of us from work would meet up for lunch, exchange tips and head off to Happy Valley. Those were the formative years when actually knowing a jockey somehow raised one’s status in the city. And at that time, everyone either wanted to know Tony Cruz, or say they knew Tony Cruz.
After Hong Kong racing being in the hands of expats, both on and off the track, there was finally a local hero to follow. This is where the whole jockeys-are-treated-like-Rock-stars-in-Hong Kong story began. The truth was that the local movie and music industries barely existed, so horse racing, and some of those associated with it, became heroes. They were like gunslingers- living just outside the law and attracting those Wile E Coyote businessmen who could see where all this could lead. Mainly to their bank accounts.
As young guys just starting out in the workforce, there was something dangerous, and even sexy about horse racing and jockeys, especially Tony Cruz with his shades, pompadour hairstyle, and dressed like a character out of West Side Story. We dug him, man. He was cool, man, and he could ride. He’s still cool, man.
Having jockeys as friends meant receiving inside information. Not that we had much money to gamble and, like today, this was not to say that the information was much good. Knowing that every horse was “trying” has never been a great insight into a horse’s chances. But these were early days, and the characters some of us were to meet later showed us a very different side of the sport and how they approached it. There was something Dickensian about the whole thing.
As for those early days, HK $100-$200 went a long way with none of us thinking anything wrong with a record salesmen taking our bets over the phone and coming into the office on Monday to collect our losses. We rarely won. But these were the Wonder Years, with many of our parents wondering what the hell to do after 1997 and the end of colonial rule. Watching tanks from China roll in and Governor Chris Patton and his family leave Hong Kong is something those of us who were in this city at that time will never ever forget. It left many feeling numb and uncertain.
Some of us left Hong Kong until the dust settled and returned when realising that the One Country, Two Systems political ethos could work. Hong Kong was booming, horse racing was growing and going stronger and faster than ever, and a number of us were welcoming in the Champagne Years at the Grand Hyatt.
By this time, Tony Cruz had made that successful transition from champion jockey to champion trainer. Like many others from very different businesses, he was a regular at the Champagne Bar and JJ’s. We would meet up often, talk openly, and had some great times together- even those moments when Tony would recall his horror fall in Europe where he saw himself heading towards the White Light before he heard (wife) Pauline call him back.
Some of us have heard this same story for over twenty years along with the footnote about Tony telling us about doctors having to remove his face and screw it back on in the operating theatre. It’s something we can laugh at now, but there’s nothing funny about going to hell and back. It changed Tony’s life, and if at times he veers towards another dimension and speaks to the Blue Meanies, so be it. Blame it on that White Light, man. Tony Cruz is a living legend who’s done it all and seen it all. And he’s still standing, yeah, yeah, yeah.
As “Amy from Las Viiiigas” finished her last set and the L’il Abners tried to strike up one of those mundane bar chats, I had travelled back in space and time and was thinking of the number of resident singers who had performed at the Champagne Bar. The most popular was the very striking Filipina named Pam, and who made such an impact on one of our Very Important Dolts visiting from Head Office in the UK that he screamed out the rather gauche, “Baby, I have the power to make you the new Norah Jones”. As we cringed, Pam ran out. As for the corporate dolt, he didn’t have much lasting power and was let go a month later.
The Champagne Bar really had it all and has seen it all. There was the time two girls from Oz opened up their bag of tricks and showed a couple of jockeys and myself- and everyone else around- all the toys they had inside to keep one of their client’s staying at the hotel happy. It was everything one needed to escape from Alcatraz.
Another night, two jockeys and I scribbled down the names of the most overrated riders in the world. That was the first RB post and it would not have happened if not for the Champagne Bar- and the amount of bubbly consumed.
Where the Champagne Bar really comes alive and bucks fizzes all over is during Hong Kong International Week. And though it’s a far more sedate watering hole these days, it will still be the meeting place before heading out for dinner at the China Club, and Closing Time after the races on Sunday, December 11.
Then again, one never quite knows what to expect at the Champagne Bar. It’s where Frankie Dettori could walk in with a cheery, “Hallo, boyz. Whatza happening?” and make things happen. It’s where the Irish lads from the excellent band Starsailor met their idol Michael Kinane.
Its where singer Norah Jones, unknown to everyone around, sat in a corner with her glasses on, hair in a bun, and requested that the resident singer sing some of her hits. At JJ’s a few months earlier, she gave a brilliant and intimate performance at a By Invitation Only gig attended by a large number of the racing fraternity.
It was during an HKIR week that I first met and relentlessly wooed the amazing looking Irina from Lithuania. That one almost went the distance. It’s where Brent Thomson, red glass in hand, has reminded many that “It’s all about us anyway, isn’t it, mate?” Guess so, BT. It’s where one HKIR year Keith Richards of the Stones walked in, chatted with jockeys and trainers, and made many weak at the knees. Even the manly men.
It’s where again, this year, many of us will meet up, reminisce and toast those Champagne Years and to the future. That was then and this is now and time waits for no one. And on 11/9 and not 9/11, when it looks like America has been well and truly Trumped and short-changed, I’ll be heading to the Champagne Bar after the races at Happy Valley and plan on making those good times last. They’re way too few and far between. Cheers!