HONG KONG, May 4, Reuter – Young women in evening dress drive patrons in a replica vintage car around the huge dance floor, but behind the pink and gold opulence of Club Volvo lies a hard-nosed world fired more by dollars than pleasure.
"All the romance is gone. Now it’s just like everything else in Hong Kong: money, money, money," lamented one veteran of the club scene.
At this most lavish of the city’s hostess clubs, the money ethic extends even to the men’s toilet, where attendant Wong Man-ting pays 15,000 Hong Kong dollars (2,000 U.S.) a month for his monopoly on tips, which total 1,000 Hong Kong dollars (130 U.S.) a night
The fortunes of Club Volvo — no relation to the Swedish carmaker — are inextricably entwined with those of the stock market, and unorthodox economists regard attendance as an indicator of Hong Kong’s economic health.
Six months ago, the October world stocks crash that blotted out a third of Hong Kong’s stockmarket wealth in a single day turned the club into a morgue.
That was just weeks after club investor and then stock exchange chairman Ronald Li sought a public listing for Club Volvo. The plans came to naught as Li followed the market in its tumble into misfortune. He now faces trial on charges of accepting bribes.
Club-goers say the appreciative audience for the topless dancers who emerge from clouds produced by dry ice is back to about 70 per cent capacity, but its profile has changed.
"There are many fewer broker types" said one U.S. stockbroker with a sad shake of the head.
"It’s a matter of weighing up the cost of taking clients out to clubs against the amount of business they are likely to give you," he said. "Even soft bribery has to be justifiable."
Despondent financial types who have been bumped off the expense-account circuit might go to less exorbitant bars to seek solace from women who needn’t invest a fortune in silks and satins.
At Bottoms Up, tourists, local construction workers and Japanese executives vie for service from topless barmaids, and the ladies toilet is crowded with half-naked women discussing the price of vegetables as they add layers to their make-up.
Brokers whose jobs fled with their fortunes and who can spend idle hours stalking the back-alleys of the Kowloon Peninsula will come across girlie-bars even they can afford.
Red Lips, which claims to be Kowloon’s oldest bar, and certainly has some of its oldest hostesses, sells beer at something close to supermarket prices.
Volvo’s thousand or so hostesses are kept in check by clocking in to a computer-linked meter at guests’ tables, and slick men with walkie-talkies bustle about officiously coordinating their activities.
The hostesses themselves don’t serve drinks: that job goes to waitresses in pink satin Aladdin costumes, their shoulders covered in meteor-showers of plastic gems.
Rather, they concentrate on flirting and flattering. The credit-card-like time cards with which they toy are a constant reminder that patrons are paying 350 Hong Kong dollars (45 U.S.) an hour for the privilege.
Club regulars have honed arrival time to a fine art. "Too early and it makes for a very expensive evening. Too late and you get left with all the dogs," said a habitue of the scene.
Regulars have developed a series of rituals that ensure they and their guests will be treated to top-flight service.
Entertaining non-Chinese clients can be a problem, since many of the young Chinese women firmly believe that foreigners are more prone to the sexually transmitted disease AIDS than the Chinese.
Although procuring clients for prostitutes is illegal in the British colony, club owners say they have no control over what goes on after clients have left the club.
"Of 1,000 girls at Volvo, only about 100 will go near a gweilo (foreigner). If a ‘Chinese only’ girl is seen fooling around with a gweilo she will lose business, and fast," a club regular said.
"I would never tell my friends I work here," said a hostess in another expensive club. "Lots of girls are here because they don’t have papers to work elsewhere."
She keeps a wary eye on a digital monitor on the wall. "When that flashes 888 the place breaks into a panic. Girls grab their bags and run out the back door." 888 means immigration officials are on their way up.
The 23-year-old said she hoped soon to make enough money to leave the club and open a beauty salon. If she succeeds she will be an exception, regulars say.
"The girls get sucked into this thing," said one club-goer. He cited a world of debt, drugs and involvement with triads, the violent secret societies that control Hong Kong’s underworld.
"No regular would dream of taking a girl home, for fear of triad reprisals," he said.
Instead they rent rooms by the hour in love-hotels in the middle-class suburb of Kowloon Tong.
This seedy end to the evening confirms that in the apparently glittering world of Hong Kong’s clubs, the glamour and sophistication are only skin deep.