In 2004, the landlord of Club 64 decided to double the rent, a blow the business could not withstand. The bar was closed which turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Ma’s current life-partner agreed to become her business partner in her next venture.
They chose the current address in Man Hing Lane, off Hollywood Road and signed a seven year contract for the space in 2005. At first, she wanted to name it “Retreat” in English, to convey the idea of a hideaway or sanctuary. But some misinterpreted it to mean giving up the fight. A regular customer who was also a friend suggested the name ‘71’, as a continuation of the spirit of “64” and, Club 71 was born.
Indeed Ma does have special feelings towards 71. On July 1, 2003, half a million people marched against proposed national security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law. On that day, she saw the unity of Hong Kong people. “It was the very first time in Hong Kong history, when people stood up and expressed themselves to criticise the government.”
The first two years of Club 71 were so tough that Ma became a frequent visitor to the doctor. Once the business was more stable, they could afford to hire staff. Ma says her partner has been a great support throughout. “He [her partner] helps and takes up a lot of my pressure,” she says.
However, Ma always believed in maintaining a friendly distance from her customers. At least she did until her partner suffered from a paralysing stroke in October, 2012. This coincided with the pressure of steep rent increases and complaints about noise from nearby residents. As a result of the complaints, the bar had to close earlier, leading to lost revenue.
Ma’s customers – that is to say, her friends – stepped in to turn Club 71 into a coffee shop during the daytime to recoup the lost business. “This is the very first time I can feel a close friendship,” she says with a broad smile.
Friends are also responsible for the décor at Club 71 which was designed and executed by three local artists named Choi Yee-yuen, Wong Yan-kwai and Guk Zak. Ma gets excited when talking about the unique design. She points at different elements, introducing them one by one.
Choi painted a cloudy blue sky on the ceiling where the Goddess of Democracy statue is camouflaged by billowing clouds. Wong created a colorful mural on the back interior wall while Guk offered a portrait, “The Height of Seventy-one”, that hangs beside it. Between the 19th-century brick side wall and these art pieces, there is a dialogue between history, art and democracy.
Club 64 and Club 71 have witnessed a quarter of century of Hong Kong history, from a British colony to a special administrative region of China. The city has had to face changes and upheavals, much like Ma. But, though it has never been a straight, smooth road, she has somehow managed to find a way to survive and to keep on fighting, showing perhaps that, “there is hope.”
Edited by Antonia Wong