“Come, come! Free shots here just for you!” shouts a club promoter, walking up to yet another passerby on the narrow slope of Lan Kwai Fong.
For many Hong Kong partygoers looking for more than regular chill drinks at a bar, this street is the go-to place on Friday night – a neon escape where you can dance and drink the week’s troubles away. The nightlife hub is unmissable, marked with the artificial glow of the many LED lights and a discordant, layered soundtrack of 2000s throwbacks, hip-hop bangers and this year’s Top-40s. However, for those who aren’t in the mood for bottle service and syrupy shots, options in this area are rather limited.
One person who felt this struggle was New Jersey native, Alicia Beale, an English teacher- turned-bar owner who came to Hong Kong 12 years ago after completing graduate school. As someone who grew used to nights out at the trendiest bars on the Lower East Side, Beale couldn’t help but feel disillusioned by the gaudier alternatives in Hong Kong, which she described plainly as either “old colonial pub style bars” or “‘show your tits, get shots kinda places.”
“Hong Kong was like, really … not interesting,” she comments, with a little chuckle and a side eye. “At the time, LKF wasn’t even playing the Top-40s of that year. They were just constantly rotating the Top-40s of the whole decade … I was always just like, ‘Well, wouldn’t you prefer to be somewhere that’s chill, but a bit more interesting? Where the music is better, [and] the vibe is better?’”
“I’d be like ‘Oh these bars are so poorly planned and trashy.’ If I had a bar in Hong Kong it’d be like this or that,” she adds. I ask her if this dissatisfaction was what inspired her to open her bar in the first place. She explains that her decision to open her own place wasn’t exactly an early response either. “I’d never really, in the time that I’ve been in Hong Kong, thought of myself as entrepreneurial,” she says. “I’d just be teaching English, hanging out, traveling and just enjoying being here in Asia.” It wasn’t until her temporary stay in Hong Kong turned to two years, then three, then ten, that she began to think more about her career and how to settle herself for a long term residency.
The beginning of The Aftermath
Only after some time had passed did she think to open her own bar, The Aftermath, where we now sit and speak about her beginnings. Located in a basement on 57-59 Wyndham Street, the entrance is easy to miss, marked only by a neon blue sign in a corridor sandwiched in between a dim sum restaurant and Thai place.
“So why did you open the bar in the end?” I ask. She recalls her initial transition out of teaching when she used her summers off work to throw junk boat party events, which then led to more events throughout the year on land as interest grew. “People really loved it, especially the music aspect – like you can’t really find live music in Hong Kong and I said ‘Well don’t worry about it, I will find the music for you, you just come to the event.”
“That worked out quite well, so I decided to turn it into a full-time thing,” she remembers. “But how would I scale it? How do I reposition this model in the market?” She recounts all the considerations she had to address as a new businesswoman about how to build a sustainable business model, which was challenging for Beale who completed her master’s in fine arts. Everything clicked into place, however, when she thought to open the bar to host her events.
“I already have the content, I already know all the organizers, all the bands, and I can just put in my own content. I already have an audience … and customers, then I [could] just bring them to my own venue,” says Beale. “I don’t need to collect money from ticket sales – I can collect money from bar sales, which is actually more lucrative. So I was like, ‘OK, let’s do that.’”
Since then, The Aftermath bar evolved into something much more than an events venue, blossoming instead into a hub and home for the creatives of Hong Kong. In just three words, Beale describes The Aftermath – “community, fun and relaxed.”
She stresses the importance of making sure that visitors of the bar and event organizers feel included in the community that she is creating. “The core of what I had envisioned for The Aftermath was to be a place for members of Hong Kong’s art and culture community. Where they can have a venue to explore, develop and create,” she says. “Not just music, but kind of like a 360 arts community … And the people who have come and organized have really found The Aftermath to be a home, in that they’re a member of The Aftermath, which is kind of awesome.”
This is evident in their diverse monthly event lineups, which regularly feature events and shows such as cabaret, stand-up comedy, game nights and open mic jam sessions. This results in a dynamic community that expresses their craft and explores new ones. “That’s where community grows, they bring friends and their friends … are really interested in the things we’re doing, and a lot of people start to network,” says Beale. “[Some people] are like ‘Wow, I really love immersive theater, I’m in a band and I’ve always wanted to do [immersive theater]. Can you put me in contact with the people who did that show?’ and I’m always like ‘Yeah, totally!’”
At the same time, Beale stresses that the bar isn’t just for the talented and artistically inclined. “[While] people want to come and be engaged in something creative, whether its music, theater or our film groups … but there’s also an entertaining aspect as well. People still want to come watch and be like ‘Oh, this is fun and different!’ It’s the difference that people come for.”
The pandemic hits
However, disaster struck for Beale and The Aftermath bar as 2020 rolled around. As Hong Kong tried to control the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the city, the nightlife industry fell victim to multiple rounds of restrictions and forced closures. This hit especially hard for independent business owners like Beale, who rely on a steady customer base to keep the business alive.
“When you’re a small business entrepreneur, your business is your life. Like, I don’t have an outside life. It’s been very tough,” she sighs. “As someone who is a naturally goal-oriented person and very active, to feel so limited is amazingly disparaging. It really is, it’s very disparaging where I feel like I can’t do anything. I really have a limited control and a very unknown future.
“And it makes you feel like you’re part of something much larger than yourself. But not in a happy way like when you’re skinny dipping at night and you’re like ‘Ahh I’m in the sea! Omg nature!’ No, it’s not like that at all.” Despite her unfading sense of humor, Beale’s usual bubbly demeanor is gone as she relays her fears for the future.
I ask how she finds motivation in these trying times, and she giggles slightly. “At this point, it’s panic. I’m just trying to find something to grapple onto and hold on to, but you just have to hustle hard in the end,” she says, “Yeah, I also like to listen to a lot of Maya Angelou, people who have gone through quite a lot in their lives, especially elderly people. It can be very comforting.”
Her determination is evident as she tells me more about the different steps she’s taken to keep the bar afloat. “So we’ve created an Aftermath live album, so you can have the Aftermath experience at home,” she reveals. “Also we’re selling merch like T-shirts and tote bags and have even created our own craft beer with the Yardley Brothers.”
She adds, “It’s a very different thing in that sense because we’ve been working very hard to create this community. We’re creating a brand outside, in some sense, of the venue itself. The concept lives on, hopefully, as its own product.”
In terms of whether she is hopeful about the future, Beale’s outlook is incredibly pragmatic. “I just think about focusing my energy on the things that I can control and try to keep thinking of new ideas and options of what can be possible in this new world,” she says. “We’ll try to navigate the government restrictions as well as we can. But ultimately, independent people who create an independent business put more heart and soul into it – and hopefully that resonates with people.”
Address: 57-59 Wyndham Street, Central, Hong Kong. Click here to find out how you can support The Aftermath.
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