Hong Kong nightlife veteran Richard Feldman on why Lan Kwai Fong is ‘a magical place' and opening his new gay bar, Petticoat Lane

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Lan Kwai Fong, Allan Zeman got very involved, the LGBT community

I was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1965. Back then, Montreal was much more anglophone, an English city in a French province. My mother is from France and I grew up speaking French. My dad is first-generation Canadian, his parents were refugees from Poland during the war. My two older sisters went to a French school, but I chose to go to an English school.

Dad is Jewish and my mother is Catholic and growing up we had both the Hanukkah menorah and the Christmas tree in the house at the same time. We were taught that this is what our mother believes, and this is what our father believes, and you can believe what you want to believe.

On the French side of the family no one spoke English. And on the English side of the family no one spoke French. So, in the early days at weddings and functions, the five of us – my mother, father and my two sisters and I – were put in the centre of the room or the table and we translated for everyone.

Doctor in the house

My father lost most of his family in the war and my mother had to hide in the fireplace to save her life during the Normandy bombings. As a child, I was aware that there are different people with different beliefs and people are sometimes persecuted for those beliefs. We lived in a protected, safe home – bigotry, discrimination or anything of that nature wasn’t tolerated.

Lan Kwai Fong, Allan Zeman got very involved, the LGBT community

Feldman (left), then general manager of Graffiti restaurant, shares a toast with Phil Rosenberg, managing director of Great Wall Graphics, in Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong, in 1991. Photo: SCMP

We have many doctors in our family and growing up there was a lot of talk about medicine and biology; it’s something that fascinates me and to this day I watch YouTube videos of surgeries for relaxation – it’s inspirational to see what can be done to help people.

Both my parents worked at the Jewish General Hospital – my father was a doctor, a specialist in internal medicine, and my mother is now the assistant director of psychosocial services for the methadone clinic at the hospital. After school I’d take the bus to the hospital and do my homework there and then follow my dad around as he did his rounds and then at 6pm we’d drive home.

When I was eight, we were driving to our summer house when we came across a horrific car accident. There were people dying on the highway and others pinned under cars. My sisters and I sat in the back seat for 40 minutes as my father tried to save as many lives as he could. I have a tremendous appreciation for what doctors can do and for medicine and biology.

Feels like home

When I was 16, I went to Vassar College, a small school outside New York, for my undergraduate studies. I love medicine and was pre-med, but I was also interested in communication and theatre and ended up getting a degree in theatre. As a student, I worked at the all-campus dining centre as the assistant to the food and beverage director and chaired the food committee.

Lan Kwai Fong, Allan Zeman got very involved, the LGBT community

Feldman (left), then chairman of the Lan Kwai Fong Association, and Allan Zeman in 1994. Photo: SCMP

After I graduated, I took a year and a half to travel around the world. Two of my best friends at college were from Hong Kong and I came to visit them. As soon as I landed, I had an overwhelming feeling that I had arrived home. My friend took me for lunch at his brother’s restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong, Graffiti. I noticed that the kitchen wasn’t strong enough to support the menu and suggested some ideas to re-engineer the menu.

I continued on my travels and, when I reached Taipei, I received a message from my friend’s brother saying my ideas were a success and they wanted to hire me as the general manager. I thanked him, but said I was still travelling. Within a week of arriving home in Montreal, I received a telex saying there was a plane ticket for me to come to Hong Kong. I was 22 years old and running a nightclub, I loved it.

A magical place

When I arrived in Hong Kong, there were just a few bars and restaurants in Lan Kwai Fong – California, 97, Graffiti, Schnurrbart. I think Lan Kwai Fong is a magical place. I first got involved with the Lan Kwai Fong Association in 1989, but I resigned from it before New Year’s Eve 1993 because I didn’t like what they were doing from a marketing point of view, I thought it would get crowded.

After the deadly stampede (on New Year’s Eve 1993, which claimed 21 lives), Allan Zeman got very involved and I was brought back in. Allan asked if I’d chair the association, which I did for 10 years.

I’ve been in Lan Kwai Fong and SoHo for 34 years and have managed many restaurants and bars including Al’s Diner, Peak Cafe Bar, and Petticoat Lane. I set up the Bagel Factory in SoHo and then moved that to Yau Tong and sold it to Pacific Coffee and made all their cakes.

For the past six months I’ve been chairman of the SoHo Association. There is a wonderful community of businesses and residents in SoHo and we act as a conduit between government, police, licensing and businesses.

Government policies are top down these days and there’s not much oppor­tunity to change the legislation for restaurant licensing, but the industry is dynamic and there are lots of restaurants in different neigh­bourhoods. There are about 17,000 restaurants in Hong Kong, you could never try them all.

Lan Kwai Fong, Allan Zeman got very involved, the LGBT community

For the past six months Feldman has been chairman of the SoHo Association. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Setting the stage

I love the theatre and I love shows. To fulfil my need for the theatre, I’ve been on the board of the Academy for Performing Arts for more than 20 years. In theatre you study character – you develop a character and understand their motivation. I do that with my bars and restaurants, it takes my ego completely out of it.

I always personify my businesses, so I know exactly who Al (of Al’s Diner) is or Mrs Peak Cafe Bar. Not only do I know who they are, but I know what car they drive, where they are from.

When I did the Annex, I knew Mrs Annex was a 42-year-old woman who lived in Hyde Park and her husband worked in a small department at IBM. She had her favourite foods from the Hudson Valley, but since she had more money, instead of her kids’ favourite macaroni and cheese, she made them lobster and macaroni and cheese.

My preference is to be behind the scenes supporting those on stage from the sidelines, but I like to be involved in the concept and the purpose.

LGBTS community

The bar that I’m currently opening is a gay bar, Petticoat Lane – we called it an LGBTS venue; the “s” is for straight. There is still a tremendous amount of discrimination towards the LGBT community and we are trying to increase understanding.

When my sisters came to Hong Kong in the 1990s and suggested going to a gay bar, I was ashamed because they were dingy places and not great compared to bars in New York or Montreal. They would think that life for a gay person in Hong Kong was not good.

Petticoat Lane will open in California Tower in December – it’s the best building in Lan Kwai Fong and we have the best floor, the eighth floor. There will be art and lectures and digital art and history, a community centre to some extent and a restaurant. We want it to be a place where the gay community can bring their straight friends. I want to help the LGBT community and the heterosexual community understand each other better.

I have been thinking a lot about the expression “to walk a mile in another person’s shoes”, to think about things from someone else’s perspective. They might have a different history or culture, a different way of looking at things. There is so much more that connects us than separates us and if people could just communicate better …

Lan Kwai Fong, Allan Zeman got very involved, the LGBT community

Feldman with his beloved dog Adam. Photo: Richard Feldman

Good dogs

I work hard. For relaxation, I love gardening. I live in Mid-Levels and have a large terrace and plant things from seed and nurture and grow them. I love dogs. I teamed up with Kirsten’s Zoo (a charity in Hong Kong) in 2016 to host a dog adoption day at weekends at the Peak Cafe Bar and that’s been going strong.

I have three wire-haired fox terriers – Nathan, Chili and Maple. The minute I get home and see my dogs, no matter what’s happened that day, I’m instantly happy. Hong Kong is home in every way. I love Hong Kong and Hong Kong people and have no plans to leave. I really believe that we’re going to be OK.

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