A Lost Symbol of the Rich

The Chinese name of the club was 聽濤會 (a direct translation would be 'Wave-Listening Club', which was quite fitting as the one-storey club building was located on South Bay Road in Repulse Bay, very close to the beach. It used to be a prestigious private club for the most affluent of Hong Kong society in the 70s and 80s.

Nautilus Club, like so many other old buildings in the Repulse Bay area, gave way to luxury residential development, like sands giving way to a high tide. Though no longer standing, it was an unmistaken symbol of Hong Kong’s material success and adventurous spirit. But perhaps it is the stories of the rich and the not-so-rich who happened upon or left their mark on it that are more fascinating and memorable.

It was purely by chance that I was there on one occasion while working for an ex-boss, a real estate tycoon. The occasion was a dinner reception in honor of his heart doctor, an American who was visiting Hong Kong from the States, and I was asked to join in the capacity of an interpreter for them. The hosts included my former boss, his wife, their three sons and their respective partners.

I can still remember what clothes I was wearing that evening: a modest white blouse with a bow in front, topped by a maroon cardigan with a small company badge pinned on, and a dark red checkered pleated woolen skirt. Out of a mixed emotion of excitement over the function and anxiety about my assignment, my heart just couldn’t stop throbbing that whole evening and my knees went weak a few times.

The party first met at the boss’ residence in Repulse Bay, which was right across the road from the Club. Drinks were served in the enormous living room, heavily ornate with gold-rimmed French palace-styled furniture, sparkling chandeliers, mirrors and thick plush carpet. The hosts and the guest were engaged in small talk for a little while. Then the group walked slowly over to the Club premises.

That was the first time I came upon two exclusive and luxurious places all at once in my young life then. Having been awed by the lavish mansion, I was pleasantly surprised by the contrastingly subtle tone of the Club dining room. There was a certain passionate quality in the understated décor of the place, which could only be felt by the heart. I only remember that I was deeply drawn to all the oil paintings in gilded frames that were hanging on the dark green (or dark blue?) satin-lined walls, each illuminated by a spot light. I thought to myself then that whoever chose those paintings must be someone with exquisite tastes and a passion for life. The dining table and chairs were of elegant mahogany and the chair upholstery was of rich lilac velvet. A large white-and-green flower arrangement on a buffet was the focal point of the room, while exuding a delicate floral scent that permeated the entire place. The glittering chandelier that lit the room was the only ‘loud intruder’ in the otherwise hypnotizing ambience. Overall, it was those paintings that gave the room a warm soulful touch.

Then there was the sumptuous French cuisine that was being served. Everything from the first course to the last tasted heavenly to me, needless to say, although my memory fails me as to what exactly I was served. I couldn’t judge whether it was authentic French cooking, but the taste had a distinct oriental twist to it. I did notice though that the fine cutlery was all in shining silver and the wine glasses were all tinkling crystal.

I have no idea how I got through that evening, as I must have been feeling like a fish out of water. But I imagine that I might have forced myself to focus on listening to the conversation between my ex-boss and the doctor and on interpreting the dialogue for them. All the while, I couldn’t help wondering how drastically serendipitous life could be for those whom Fate selected to be born into prodigiously rich families.

Many years later, I found out that the person responsible for decorating the Nautilus Club was Bonnie Kwok, a descendant of the Kwoks of the Wing On Group, who was at the time married to the youngest son of the founder of the Club, the late Sir Kenneth Fung Ping Fan. She later helped to decorate Joyce Café, an offshoot of the famous Joyce Boutique, which is owned by her sister. The grandfather of the sisters was Kwok Shun, who founded the trendy Wing On Department Store in Shanghai at the end of the 19th century.

And who was the head chef of the Club at that time? I have just stumbled upon an old newspaper article that tells me it was none other than the legendary Wong Kwan, easily a protagonist of one of the most popular rags-to-riches stories in Hong Kong. Through working as a Club executive chef and making contacts with guests patronizing the Club, who were either dignitaries or extremely wealthy businessmen, Wong was able to save for future capital and accumulate connections that paved the way for his subsequent success. This Shenzhen native who was the son of a fishmonger shot to fame when he bought at the peak of the property market in 1997, consecutively, two luxuriant Peak mansions - ‘Skyhigh’ from the then Yaohan International chairman Kazuo Wada and ‘The Genesis’ from stock trading guru Heung Chik-kau, for a whopping total of HK$915 million (= US$117.3 million).