There are many reasons to dread visiting Lan Kwai Fong (or LKF), the legendary nightlife zone in the middle of Hong Kong’s busy Central business district.
The precipitous incline that spells trouble for tipsy high heel wearers.
The unavoidable shoulder-rubbings along narrow, sweaty streets.
The not-so-subtle, disapproving once-overs from cool-than-thou partiers.
But those are the same reasons that make LKF the most popular party area in Hong Kong – and in recent years, a hot commodity that every Chinese city wants to clone.
LKF is technically the name of a short L-shaped street in Central.
Back in the 1870s, the street began its urban life as an area of prostitution.
By the early 1900s it was popular with hawkers, or street traders.
In the last three decades, it’s become a slick entertainment and dining area that has sprawled into neighboring D’Aguilar Street, Wyndham Street and beyond.
Many attribute the area’s rise to one man: Allan Zeman, “the father of LKF.”
Sitting in his office in Central – more like a stylish tea house adorned with art pieces including sculptures by Chinese artist Liu Bolin – the former textiles mogul from Canada tells CNN the story of LKF’s success.
For Zeman, it all started back in the 1980s when Hong Kong was still counting down the days to 1997, when Britain would hand the territory back to China.
“In those years when the British were here, the restaurants were in hotels and were quite formal – they gave you a tie and a jacket,” he says.
As a young upstart from the fashion industry, Zeman didn’t quite fit in.
“I don’t wear ties, I don’t wear a jacket, I don’t wear socks,” he says (still wearing neither tie nor socks).
“I felt that Hong Kong, as such an international city, needed an area like LKF. That’s why I started it.”
And so, three decades ago, he opened up the California Bar.
An immediate hit, he quickly expanded to other LKF properties, including the multistory California Tower and the California Entertainment Building.
These became home to Central’s major party complexes and caused a ripple effect as other bars and restaurants moved in.
In 2010, the iconic buildings were demolished to make way for the bigger and bolder California Tower, a 27-story landmark that opened last summer.
People watching people
Beyond building into the sky, Zeman has witnessed other major developments over the past five years that have inked LKF firmly onto Hong Kong’s map.
“LKF has become one of the most important icons in Hong Kong’s tourism industry,” he says Zeman. “It’s become a lifestyle brand.
“Tourists now come here, some just to take a picture of the LKF street sign with themselves.”
Zeman now helms the Lan Kwai Fong Group, an association overseeing the 100-plus bars and restaurants crammed into the party zone.
Its lucrative business and no corner of LKF goes to waste.
“There is a place to go on every floor, in every hole in the wall – see Brickhouse (a popular taco place hidden in the back alley), which really is in a hole but it lures people.”
Bimonthly street carnivals help draw in more crowds, but Zeman says LKF owes its success largely to its maze-like physical environment.
“Because it’s on a slope and in a narrow space, it creates and compresses a lot of energy into one space,” he says. “If the street was much wider, it’d be hard to have such an energy.”
In addition to making bar crawling easier, the narrow streets enable another popular activity – gawping.
“One thing I’ve learned over the years is people love to watch people,” says Zeman.
“LKF’s a great people-watching place because you can see from the straight nice people to the crazies.
“You can bump into tourists from everywhere in the world taking a drink.
“And there are different changing crowds – from lunch to happy hours to dinner to club.”
Expansion to China
Another crucial development for LKF during the last five years is expansion into China.
“I get a call every single day, from almost every city you can name in China,” says Zeman.
Chengdu, in Sichuan province, was the first “LKF” project outside Hong Kong.
“The government built 19 blocks there and originally they were doing retail, but they had problems,” says Zeman.
“So they came to see me. At that time, I was thinking – ‘Chengdu?’ It didn’t sound so exciting to me, but I thought I would go and take a look.”
He fell in love with the place and Lan Kwai Fong Chengdu opened in 2010, a move he says earned kudos for local leaders.
“The government of course was very proud,” he says.
“For the government, it’s ‘big face’ to attract the real LKF – there are so many copycat LKFs in China.”
But, he adds, rebuilding something so organic isn’t simple.
“As I always say: people make the party, people make the place,” says Zeman.
The group now tweaks its formula in response the location and its people.
“For example in Chengdu people like spicy food. So when a famous U.S. rib place opened there, it didn’t do well because its food wasn’t spicy enough. You’ve got to identify each of the cities and its people.”
LKF now has an outpost in Shanghai, partnered with DreamWorks animation studio.
It also operates a hotel in Phuket as well as other residential properties.
Ambitious, perhaps, but Zeman is a bold operator who has already branched out into virtually all corners of the entertainment industry.
Until 2014, he served a successful 11-year stint as a chairman of Ocean Park, Hong Kong’s homegrown theme park.
During his tenure, the park became the first and only theme park in Asia to be given the Applause Award (an international amusement park accolade).
Zeman was also called “the mouse killer” by Forbes for his ability to triumph over the then newly opened Disneyland Hong Kong.
“I’m like a cat that has nine lives,” says Zeman, who has lived in Hong Kong for 47 years and renounced his Canadian passport to become a Chinese Hong Kong citizen seven years ago.
“I think my mission in life is to make people happy,” says Zeman.
“When I was in the fashion business, my goal was to make people look beautiful.
“Later, I am able to take the beautiful people and feed them and party them.
“And so it’s every part of my life is to make people happy.”
So how does the nightlife guru party nowadays?