Image: Past Performances at The Wanch, via The Wanch Facebook
Once hailed as Hong Kong’s ‘home of live music’, the over 30-year-old live music bar shuttered in late 2020 after a cacophony of chaos from the 2019 social unrest segueing directly into the COVID-19 pandemic.
I woke up on 17 Aug 2021 to a message saying the Wanch had closed. A candid photograph had been spread across the indie music scene, and rumours had spread that the Wanch had sold off all their equipment to other venues. The walls, once covered to the brim with pre-1997 satirical art, artifacts collected over the years including old tram signs, and first edition albums from local indie bands, had been stripped bare.
No one was surprised, only disappointed. Live music had been banned from April to June 2020, but just as everyone got back in the groove, the government announced another COVID-19 shutdown: the second wave had come. In four months, live music was heard for 27 days.
The Wanch’s social media was filled with comments begging the popular spot to stay open for at least one final party.
“If the news is going to be bad” wrote one comment “at least have one final closing bash please…”
No official announce was made till 30 Aug confirming that The Wanch did close – or rather into indefinite hiatus. Everything was in storage until running a live performance venue was viable again.
“We have decided to suspend operation of The Wanch until the coronavirus is totally under control, the chance of government forced closures is over and the business environment is once again positive” read the post.
“We are committed to reopening The Wanch when the time is right […] The Wanch Management and Staff look forward to coming back &rocking HK even harder in the future”.
The future is now. The time is right. Hong Kong will rock again.
Coming Back Uptown
Their new location, taking over from Uptown 90 on the corner of Jaffe and Fenwick, sees the Wanch expand to three times its old capacity.
They had originally wanted to re-open the Wanch, if even briefly, at the old location but was told by the landlord that the entire building will be turned into a hotel. Something that John Prymmer, co-owner and undeniable public face of the Wanch, says the landlord had “told me [he’d] do for eleven years, but now he was”.
John only managed to return to Hong Kong in November after flight bans locked him out in Australia with his ex-partner Bridget (“we’re still good friends”, he assures me). The idea to shutter the Wanch was made while he was abroad, sensing an inability to even come home, let alone keep a rock bar alive with no rock.
Greeting the new entrance is a grand double staircase leading up to a large dance floor – a far cry from the regular shoving through wooden doors in a back alleyway that regulars had gotten used to. The staircase is a remnant of Henley Building’s early history, when the ground and first floor were part of the same store. The ground floor is currently occupied by Bar Amazonia, another venue deeply entwined with Wanchai’s music scene.
“We’ll be dancing right above Amazonia’s stage” says John wryly.
While music will always be the heart of the Wanch, John and remaining partner musician Keith Goodman (of The Sleeves fame) are branching out offerings to include a wider range of drinks, including local craft beers brewed especially for them, and fully functioning lunch and dinner menus.
The old Wanch did have a kitchen but the size, layout and focus of the business simply didn’t allow for any meaningful food service. By the time the bar closed, it was no more than a glorified storeroom for band equipment. Even the USB charging ports for the mics would only work half the time.
Though the expanded food and drinks menu are new to the business model, John promises it will be in good hands. Both the Head Chef and General Manager are ex-staff of Coyotes, another tragic casualty of COVID-19. The new taps will include an exclusive craft beer by local brewery Yardley Brothers – ‘Live Session Ale’ (Session Ale) – previously only available in bottle form. Traditional favourites like Old Speckled Hen, Guinness, Asahi also reappear alongside a surprise rotating guest tap.
The new venue also includes a 4.7 x 3.6m elevated stage and all new Yamaha equipment, replacing the vintage but sometimes unreliable speakers from the old Wanch. Another unforeseen side effect of the flight bans was an inability for John to get his equipment to Hong Kong.
“I had to send it through a friend in Switzerland” he remarked.
An even more unbelievable change is the inclusion of dining tables with charging ports on the far side of the bar. Another sign that the Wanch is dragging itself belting and screaming into the 21st Century.
Keeping the old, in with the new
“We’ll have art from the old place as you come up the stairs, and then it’s all new stuff up here” said John as he showed me around the empty space.
John and his team, which then included Bridget, Keith and Steve Turner, took over the Wanch in 2010, taking over the business from businessman Brendan McKeon. Though the location had always been an entertainment venue, it wasn’t always known as The Wanch.
It was established as the Diamond Bar during the golden age of Wanchai’s red light era. In 1987, two local expats Howard McKay & Roland Hastings bought the bar and renamed it the ‘Wan Chai Folk Club’; musical offerings quickly expanded, and the venue became known as one of the best places to hang out at the end of the week for good drinks, company and music. The illustrious history of the Wanch has left visible marks – the walls were covered with art satirizing the Handover, posters from Hong Kong’s golden cinema age, photos of local indie bands, and various original Hong Kong tramway antiques. The fact that the venue itself had real brick walls only added to it being a living museum for Wanchai’s international history.
Even though the clientele had been mostly English speakers, mostly pre-1997 ‘Honkies’, John made it very clear that he wanted The Wanch to be more than just a ‘gweilo’ bar. Collaborating with agencies like Chorus School of Music and The Underground, The Wanch became the go-to venue for any band wanting to try their hand with a friendly audience. The yearly weeklong H2 Festival (previously called Handover Hallelujah) also drew in international performances.The Wanch was a venue for all and this was reflected in the musicians they worked with which included local Cantonese and English bands, multimedia artists and even showcases for children (in the day time of course!)
It’s continuing with this goal that The Wanch reopens. It won’t be the same, but the spirit will still be there.
“The tram seats are going on the window sills” he gestured to large decorative banisters jutting out from the wall.
“But you can’t sit on them anymore” I said, having been a regular of the old Wanch and for a while a part time sound engineer as well, I really wanted to sit on the old tram seats.
“Well, no” said John “but you’ll have a sense of familiarity when you come in”.
“The old and new”
The Wanch is currently planning on re-opening in March 2022, depending on restrictions.
Address: 1st Floor, 90 Jaffe Rd, Wan Chai
Edit: A previous version of this article incorrectly described Bridget Toon as John’s ‘ex-wife’, and that ‘For Those About To Hop’ will be available on tap at the new Wanch. Only ‘Live Session’ will be avaiable.