Paid to Party: Behind the Scenes of Hong Kong’s Paid Nightlife Industry

Hong Kong is home to one of the most robust nightlife industries on earth. In the densely built city center, bartenders, brewers, and tourists all come here to discover the wonderland under sweeping neon lights where their native traditions meet with new Asian ingredients. For a century, standing as the junction between the East and West, Hong Kong has welcomed sailors and tycoons around the world. In this global nightlife capital, you will find everything from tiny Japanese cocktail joints to avant-garde craft beer bars, all packed into the quixotic center of this city which still maintains a strong scent of its Anglo nostalgia.

Over the years, the alcohol and bar industry in Hong Kong is rapidly developing as consumers are more willing to spend on expensive drinks and cocktails. Such robust growth in alcohol spending is driven by the rising income level in Hong Kong which is boosting a thriving landscape of alcohol consumption, pushing up the demand for both liqueur producers and bars.

According to data from the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong is projected to see an average 5.4% annual growth in consumer spending from 2017 to 2021, with the total spending reaching HKD 1.95 trillion in 2021, up from HKD1.59 trillion in 2017. Within the breakdown of consumer spending, alcoholic drinks and tobacco are projected to be the fastest-growing segment in Hong Kong, which is estimated to maintain a 7.1% annual growth in the following years, reaching HKD 6.9 billion in 2021.

The continuing growth of household income is believed to be the major factor driving up consumers expenditure on premium alcoholic drinks. According to data from the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department, the percentage of upper-income households, which consists consumers who are more willing to spend on premium drinks, will reach 19.6% in 2021, up from 16.6% in 2017.

While people are spending more and more money in Lan Kwai Fong, there is actually a group of people who get paid to drink and flirt in bars and clubs. Insiders call them party girls, or more officially, public relations executives of those bars.

Public Relations at Volar, Rebecca Yin, partying with a friend (left).

Rebecca Yin: Life of a Bar PR

Rebecca Yin, 27, is a Public Relations executive at both VOLAR Hong Kong and HQ by Terrace Concepts. Having grown up in Shanghai and studied at Shanghai Far East Ballet School, Yin said that she came to Hong Kong as a mere coincidence.

“When I was five years old, my parents sent me to a ballet school to study dancing and they found my talent. After graduating from my high school, a bunch of people from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts came to our school to recruit students,” Yin said. “I’m not good at studying and I can’t go to college in Shanghai. So that’s the only option I had.”

After college, Yin went to work at Hong Kong Disneyland as a Parade Dancer to pay her bills and college expenses. That was where Yin met the person who introduced her to the bar industry.

“At that time I had just broken up with my boyfriend and I didn’t want to go to work because I was in a bad mood. There were many male models from Abercrombie & Fitch coming to Hong Kong at that time, and one of my friends at Disney knew a model from A&F,” Yin said. “I’ve never been to bars or Lan Kwai Fong before, but they took me partying for the first time and I somehow became an unofficial party girl. Four months after my unofficial party girl stint, I eventually became the official PR representative.”

Having worked in the industry for almost four years, Yin has grown accustomed to the nocturnal routine of a PR executive.

“I basically sleep all the time in the morning. Usually, I wake up at around 3 to 4 PM and go to the first bar at 5 to 6 PM. I will switch to the second bar at 12 AM. And I will go back home at 4 to 5 AM and go back to sleep,” Yin said.

Yin said that the biggest challenge for her as a bar PR is to talk to people.

“I didn’t enjoy talking to other people at first. As a PR, when you are standing in the bar, you are supposed to talk to each customer,” Yin said. “So the first sentence I usually ask is, ‘where are you from?’ If I have been to this country or have knowledge about it, then I get a common topic.”

Encountering sexual harassment in bars is common not just for PR personnel like Yin but also applies to every woman who visits a bar, Yin suggested.

“There are so many perverts. Sometimes people talk to you with sexual implications like ‘Wow your ass looks great’ and I was like ‘Okay, I know that but it’s none of your business’,” Yin said. “And there are always men who are trying to grab your waist or ass. It’s really disgusting.”

Even though the price for alcohols in bars is slightly overcharged in Hong Kong, Yin said that customers are still willing to spend their money.

“Many people, like those tycoons from the mainland, they just like to splash their money to show off their wealth and social status. And also I guess there are so many people who have birthdays every day in Hong Kong. I mean if a girl tells some friends that she wants to have a party, they can come together to hold the party and share the fees. It’s not that expensive.”

Working six days a week, Yin currently earns a monthly salary between HKD 20,000 to HKD 30,000. But she is still not happy with her job.

“I mean I’m not a big drinker. But as a PR, you have to drink on many occasions even when you don’t really want to. And usually, if you greet each table with a shot, you’ve already drunk 20 to 30 shots,” Yin said. “Drinking and talking all the time ruins my voice. I used to like singing.”

The greatest thing about her job is that she can meet different kinds of people from different industries.

“I don’t view it as a long-term work. So if you want to quit in the future, maybe those networks can help you in some other industries in the future,” Yin said.

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Bar Manager Fung of HQ by Terrace Concepts

Tsang Wai Fung: Secrets of the Bar Industry

Tsang Wai Fung, 27, is a bar manager at HQ by Terrace Concepts. Fung attended Bartending School in Hong Kong and worked as a manager at a French restaurant. He just began his career as a bar manager at HQ three months ago.

“My daily job includes checking stock inventory and cleaning up the bar to make sure it’s ready for the business session. Then during business hours, I will be in charge of monitoring the bar and satisfying customer needs,” Fung said.

The competition within the bar industry is becoming more severe in recent years as more business are entering this industry to find their nocturnal fortune.

“You see all those bars closing and reopening again over the years. I guess it’s really hard for small players to survive,” Fung said.

Intense competition within the bar industry has already shrunk the profit margins of current players. In this case, most bars will cooperate with their suppliers to run promotion programs to attract customers.

“Suppliers like the biggest supplier MHD will come here and bring new promotion campaigns such as theme parties. When there are more activities, more people are willing to come to play and thus more opportunities for business.”

Among all the promotion strategies, PR executives and party girls play crucial roles. Fung said that almost every bar will hire PR executives to promote their business, but hiring unofficial “party girls” is only common in clubs rather than bars. Fung also claimed that HQ was currently not hiring any unofficial “party girls”.

“To be honest, the real PR will actually do their job, do promotion, talk to the customers and things like that. But the fake party girl will be more like if any man finds a girl in the bar they are more willing to buy the girl a drink,” Fung said. “Usually if you come to a bar without many people, you don’t want to stay there. In this case, we can spur more consumption by making the bar more crowded.”

Nowadays most bars and clubs hire unofficial party girls through outsourcing and most of those party girls belong to their own agencies. The identity of party girls is usually hidden which means that it is difficult for customers to identify them from other customers.

“Unless those party girls speak out for themselves, it’s really hard to distinguish. And usually, their agents will strictly forbid them to tell their real identity. They are told to say something like ‘I’m just hanging here because my friend is here’,” Fung said.

Fung said it is difficult for the government to regulate such practices because it is usually hidden and without any public records. But he also stated that he did not think such practices are illegal.

“I don’t think they are doing anything illegal. They are just trying to promote their own business through whatever way.”

The Liquor Licensing Board, the government organization which handles legal complaints and lawsuits about liquor business, declined to comment.

In the end, Fung said that even though party girls and PR play an important role in most bars, many things are also vital to the success of a bar’s business.

“Different people look for different drinking experiences. PR and party girls are definitely important but there are many other criteria that our customers will look for, like the vibe, the profiles of other customers, what kind of drinks they can order,” Fung said.

Derek Manson Ip and other models are hired to party (far right).

Derek Manson Ip: the Unusual Type  

Derek Manson Ip, a 22-year-old model who graduated from Oxford University, is paid to party at bars including Dragon I, Volar, Fly, Play, and Zentral.

Ip was scouted while he was traveling in the United Kingdom, and decided to join the modeling industry as it offered him exciting opportunities to travel around the world. He is signed with multiple agencies in different cities.

A typical workday as a model starts with me waking up at 6 AM. The first thing I do is head to the gym to maintain myphysique,” said Ip. “I typically go to some castings, around once per day, and when we get booked, we have shoots. Working hours are pretty relaxing compared to other jobs and we get paid per job.”

Besides getting paid for photoshoots, Ip is also paid to party.

Models can enjoy free dinner at certain clubs or bars from Monday to Sunday. And on Mon to Sat we get paid if we go to certain clubs and stay for certain hours. It’s a common thing models do to have fun, party and at the same time earn some decent extra pocket money,” said Ip.

Ip explained that nightclubs typically provide a model’s table, and having models in a club helps attract business.

“But fashion models and party girls(boys) are different. We are usually hired by more high end clubs and get paid so much more,” said Ip.

Even as a male model, Ip still encounters sexual harassment in his workspace.

“As models we experience sexual harassment almost weekly or even daily for girls. We are used to it. It’s a superficial world,” said Ip.

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Lan Kwai Fong: where dreams flourish and vanish overnight

Conclusion

Hong Kong’s nightlife industry has become evermore cutthroat over the years, with new bars and clubs mushrooming in Central and other districts but quickly vanishing overnight without making a name for themselves. To cope with the fierce competition, bars and nightclubs hire official public relations personnels, unofficial party girls, and models to uplift the atmosphere of an empty watering hole during an uneventful weekend and create the illusion of a packed venue.

Despite the generous pay and easy job requirements, those paid to party must adapt to nocturnal working hours and cope with unwanted sexual advances from drunk customers.

Hidden public records and lack of government regulation can only make those in the industry more vulnerable under certain circumstances. The legitimacy of such practice is still controversial and the government needs more clear and direct actions to regulate such a gray area industry.

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