What became of all those great bars in Asia

By Harold Stephens

Whatever happened to all those old bars and saloons that flourished in Asia a couple of decades ago? We are reminded every time we see an old movie, or when we read accounts by writers who roamed Asia back then.

Or it could be from tales old timers tell. Those were the days when a man could get a drink in the surroundings he knew.

But was it fiction, something we read or heard?

New York Bar

It was not fiction, believe me. Let me tell you what I remember when I was in China as a marine after World War II. In those freewheeling days all the ports in China had their share of rambunctious waterfront bars — Shanghai, Tsingtao, Tiensin. In any one of these ports you were certain to find an ABC Bar (American—British —Chinese), a New York Bar or a Little San Francisco.

Some were duzzies, run mostly by white Russians, with swinging doors, taxi dancers and live music. White Horse Whisky and Hubba Hubba Vodka by the bottle, without ice. It costs 10 cents a ticket to dance, or a dollar for a lady to sit at your table for an hour. Then you didn’t have to pay her to dance.

Bamboo Bar at the old Oriental Hotel

After the war China’s days were numbered, and so were the bars. Sailors, expatriates, war profiteers and an increasing number of foreign travellers called tourists found watering holes elsewhere, mainly in Southeast Asia. Hong Kong, Manila, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Bangkok. All in time took their places and added sparkle to the lure of Asia. The age of bars and saloons reached its peak during the Vietnam War; it ended when the war ended.

When it comes to bars, Asia is a strange place. In Europe and America bars and saloons have a knack for survival. I can think of dozens of establishments that have flourished for decades, and they’ll be around longer than most of us. Harry’s New York Bar in Paris is one It’s an institution, where Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald chug-a-lugged in the roaring ’20s end where you can still have a stein of beer and a hotdog, right in the very heart of Paris. There’s another Harry’s in Venice, and Hussongs in Mexico, and Buena Vista in San Francisco, to name but a few.

But in Asia bars do the disappearing act. Only a few, a very few, manage to linger on. Occasionally imitations will spring up, bearing the name of an old establishment, but they’re only bad copies. It’s much like Bugis Street in Singapore. That infamous Bugis street was torn down, and in it’s place today is a “Bugis Street Centre,” a “Bugis Street Restaurant,” a “Bugis Street Square,” and a half dozen more Bugis Street Something-or-other. But they are all fakes, none which can even remotely compare with the old place.

Some of the modern-day bars we find in Asia are like meteors. They appear suddenly, glow brightly for a short spell and then fizz out in a flash.. There was a time, not so long ago, when Bangkok had some great bars where everyone went to meet friends and drink. No one thought they would ever end. But they did. (Remember Sam Scott? And Maurice Rocco?)

One of the best bars in Bangkok 20 or more years ago was the Bamboo Bar at the old Oriental Hotel. The most popular place in town, it was located in what they call the Author’s Wing today. After working hours the place was jampacked, a gathering spot for expatriates, journalists, tourists and GI’s seeking a respite from the war in Vietnam. Sultry Australian songstress Shirley Simmons sang there for years, and entertained thousands of homesick GI’s with “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

Bamboo Bar at the old Oriental Hotel, 1947

But let’s go beyond Bangkok. Let’s begin with Singapore.

Singapore had a longtime reputation among seaman as a “good port.” But when independence in 1966 the new leaders were keen on creating a new image. Rowdiness was out, along with all traces of colonialism. They succeeded, and as a consequence, they destroyed Singapore’s biggest tourist attractions.

A bar in Singapore that reached world fame was Bill Bailey’s Coconut Grove off Orchard Road. (The pre-war Grove was on the East Coast but Japanese bombers used it for practice and Bill took up residence in Changi Prison for the duration.)

The war ended and Bill Bailey didn’t go home. He opened another Coconut Grove, off Orchard Road. Times were hard but he never gave up, and no amount of singing— “Old Bill Bailey, won’t you come home”—could make him change his mind.

The second Grove was in an old Chinese mansion, with piano and fanback chairs. In latter years the Grove became the unofficial foreign corespondents press club. Then came urban renewal; bulldozers leveled it to the ground and in its place today is a 14-storey highrise.

Until just a few years ago, the Pub on Orchard Road had all the prerequisites for a good English pub, with heavy wooden panelled walls and brass rails, but like Bill Bailey’s, it had to come down to make room for glass and concrete highrises.

There were others too, like the Boots and Saddle, a real Western bar, with the occasional barroom fight to give it authenticity. But the government didn’t care for rowdy Western bars, no matter how many tourists and oil men it attract. They not only closed the doors but they bulldozed the building flat to the ground.

What remains in Singapore today is the Raffles Hotel, one of Asia’s oldest hotels. Nightly, the Long Bar is jammed, with tourists who come by bus loads for a quick Singapore Sling and a look at what Singapore used to be. One waiter at the Author’s Bar still remembers serving Mr Maugham when he made his sentimental journey to Singapore in 1961.

Kuala Lumpur almost suffered the same fate as Singapore but somebody up there stopped them before it was too late. A few years back the old Selangor Club was doomed to destruction, but at the last minute the old colonial institution was given a reprieve. It would have been a tragedy to see it go.

The Tudor-style Selangor Club was built and opened back in 1884 long before there was any other permanent structures in the city. It became a friendly place where members could refresh themselves, talk, read the months-old London newspapers), play cards or just loaf. It’s still there, a landmark in the centre of town.

While the Selangor Club is private and you must know someone to have a drink at the bar, the old Coliseum Cafe & Bar on Batu Road is open to the public. It hasn’t changed much in the past 70 years. The decor, the menu, the aging waiters, and even a few old patrons, are all the same.

The Coliseum caters to expatriates and has been their refuelling station for half a century. It’s still the favourite for planters, tin miners and local officials. Occasionally a curious passing tourist will enter the swinging doors and find himself in another era.

The bar is separate from the dining room. The bar looks much like an English pub with dart board, bulletin board, a coat and hat rack in the corner and a brass rail around the counter. The bar also serves as front desk for the hotel rooms upstairs. Keys hang on a rack behind the bar. Old timers talk about past days when they had to hang their sidearms and solar topees on racks before ordering their drinks.

North of Kuala Lumpur is Penang, one of the oldest towns in Asia. It has a lot of the old world charm and nostalgia, especially when you go to the E&O Hotel for a drink. It’s one of the three oldest hotels in Asia. And sister to Raffles in Singapore and Strand Hotel in Rangoon.

For an unusual bar in Penang, and a truly sailor’s bar, there is the Hong Kong Bar on Chuila Street. It’s a place where you literally get yourself into the picture. When you step inside and order a drink, a pretty Chinese girl will appear with a camera and flash.

First impulse is to say no, that you don’t want to have a photo taken. But she will tell you that she wants your picture. What you may not know is that it goes on record. The girls at the Hong Kong Bar have photographed virtually every customer who has stepped through the front door. The albums add up to many dozens. They are carefully numbered by the volume.

Tan Phoon Kee started the bar in 1953, and from the very beginning it was a seaman’s bar, with photographs of naval ships on the wall, all signed and autographed.

Both Manila and Cebu in the Philippines were considered to be excellent liberty ports, ever since the US Navy steamed into Manila Bay at the turn of the last century. Many of the crusty bars were owned and operated by ex-GI’s who, like Bill Bailey, never went home.

One ex-GI who did just that was Eddie Woolbright. While others failed, Eddie succeeded. His famous bar and restaurant is still there on the waterfront in Cebu— Eddie’s Log Cabin Bar and Restaurant.

From the outside, it looks like a rundown godown. Step inside and it’s what the name says, a log cabin. Wagon wheel overhead, old posters on the walls, brand marks burned into the beams, an excellent Western menu. Eddie, married a zillion times and with nine daughters, came with the military in World War II and stayed on.

Then we come to Hong Kong, once the night owl’s paradise of the Orient. In 1948, when I first went to Hong Kong as a young marine, it was a sailor’s town, with only four or five bars. But what excitement these few bars had to offer! Everybody was out for a good time, bar girls and sailors alike, and nothing else mattered.

Twenty to 30 years ago, the town peaked out as Asia’s best night spot. Hong Kong got much of its fame and reputation from Wanchai District, where Suzie Wong did her tricks and Richard Mason wrote about her. But the old Wanchai District isn’t what it used to be in the days when Suzie Wong reigned, and back when Hong Kong was an R&R centre for GI’s escaping the war in Vietnam.

Today Wanchai’s bar scene has gone downhill, all the way to the bottom. Most of the bars are girlie bars, designed for big spenders. Fewer are the pubs and solid drinking bars, but a few still exist, the old fashion pubs with dart boards, like the Old China Hand and Horse and Groom.

Most of the action today in Hong Kong is on the Kowloon side. A good pub here is Blacksmith’s Arms at 16 Minden Avenue. There are several very good Australia-style bars, the Kangaroo and Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, the latter having some good jazz.

Kathmandu is not what you would actually call a night owl’s town but there is a bar there that is one of the best in Asia. It’s called the Rum Doodle. It might not sound that great but it is. The name is a spoof on mountaineering. Nightly it’s jam packed with trekkers and climbers.

Atmosphere is the key at Rum Doodle. On the walls are paper cutouts of foot prints, scribbled with autographs of all the world’s great mountain climbers for all to see, from Edmund Hillary to Barry Bishop. the drinks are superb.

What Asia needs is more Rum Doodles.