The founder of Dragon-i, Cassio and Tazmania Ballroom tells Tatler about the early days of Hong Kong nightlife and how the birth of his daughter changed everything
Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to meet Gilbert Yeung, a Hong Kong nightlife legend, when he was in his 30s and on the cusp of a nightlife revolution in Hong Kong? For years, Yeung’s hotspots Dragon-i, Cassio and Tazmania Ballroom, all places to see and be seen, were where models and moguls converged, celebrities like Snoop Dogg and the late Avicii performed, and where champagne flowed by the caseload.
Now at 54, the entrepreneur behind some of the city’s most iconic venues looks back on the early days of his career and humbly chalks his success up to “luck” and “timing”. A main character in Hong Kong’s party history, Yeung, as you may imagine, has a lot of stories up his sleeve. This week, he shares those of triumph and failure, and how a chance encounter with Pierce Brosnan sparked an idea that would change the city forever.
Describe what you do in one sentence.
Through my business, I make the people of Hong Kong smile.
What was your goal when you launched Dragon-i in 2002?
At that time, I was kind of a naughty boy. I was in my early 30s, and I loved music, I loved my life, and I loved serving people. In the 1990s, [popular Hong Kong nightclub] Club 97 was the place to be. I saw James Bond there: Michelle Yeoh [who starred in Tomorrow Never Dies] asked me to book a table for her there once, and Pierce Brosnan came too. It was then that I thought: when James Bond comes to Hong Kong, there needs to be a sexier, more sophisticated environment with good music, good sound systems and a great mix of people.
Was it hard to be taken seriously at a time when nightlife culture hadn’t really taken off in Hong Kong?
Even though nightlife culture didn’t really exist here, we got lucky. I had the opportunity to do Pink Mao Mao [Yeung and his friend Gordon Lam’s original club concept] at my family’s hotel [the Emperor Hotel in Happy Valley]. We built a strong following on Wednesdays, and we started to cultivate a nightlife culture. Pink Mao Mao was a platform for us, and starting Dragon-i after that was much easier because of it.
What do you put your success down to?
[With our concepts], we were innovative and very forward-thinking. We didn’t mind breaking the rules because we were very young and cheeky. Today, I honestly still don’t think I’m successful. I believe being successful has a lot of layers. You have to be a nice person, a good family man, a good husband and a good dad. For success, I also think you need to be lucky.
How has your business made a difference to Hong Kong?
Humbly speaking, [the venues] had a small part to play [in the success of Hong Kong’s nightlife scene]. In the 1980s, all Hong Kong’s expats were bankers or CEOs, but in the early 2000s—2005, 2006 and especially 2007— there was a big influx of different expats, like hairdressers and fashion designers, who came here to stay. Champagne culture became a thing, and younger Hong Kong kids who studied abroad in London or New York and who vacationed in Mykonos and Paris were coming back to live in Hong Kong post-university. They already understood nightlife culture. So, we got very lucky. Everything just came at the right time.
Do you have any mentors? If so, who are they and what is the best piece of advice they have given you?
In the nightlife space, Allan Zeman has always been my mentor. Lincoln Cheng from Zouk inspired me a lot. I’ve been a big fan of his work since the mid-1990s. Alan Yau from Hakkasan was the one who put Chinese restaurants in a sexy sector. Back in the day, when you thought of Chinese food [outside Hong Kong], you’d think of a dirty Chinatown restaurant with a wet floor, but Alan put Chinese food on the map. Louie Vega is my favourite DJ.
If you're talking about life mentors, then it’d be my father Albert. He inspired me a lot. It takes vision and strength to be successful. You can only fluke success for a short period of time. With long-term success, there is no fluke.
What do you look for in a potential employee?
That they like me [laughs].
What has been your biggest career obstacle to date? How did you overcome it?
Obstacles? There have been many. Life is full of them and that’s part of life. In terms of hardship, we had a [robatayaki grill] project called Busy Suzy in Tsim Sha Tsui near 1881 Heritage that didn’t work. We invested a lot of time and love into it, and it was so painful. But no pain, no gain. I don’t want to sound like a grandfather, but I’ve always said that when you’re in your 20s and 30s, it’s really good to have hardship. It teaches you a lot.
Also, this pandemic has been the biggest obstacle. We are still trying to overcome it. During Covid-19, I learnt a lot. I became more humble, more grateful and more appreciative of what we have right now. When we are doing well, we always want more and more. But Covid-19 taught me to be content with what my career has offered me so far.
Do you have any business regrets? If so, what?
I don’t have any regrets. Whatever has happened in the past is a lesson.
How do you plan to develop your business over the next five years?
I have many ideas in my mind because I always like to be innovative and inspired. But at the moment, I have to stay put and not be too ambitious. The market is still uncertain in Hong Kong. When the timing is right and the opportunity arises, I will bring new concepts to life.
How have you evolved over the years?
I only started to change when my daughter was born seven years ago. I was standing at the back of the delivery room at Adventist Hospital and was speechless. Since that day, my lifestyle and values have changed. Instead of watching E! Entertainment, I started to watch the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and the BBC. It’s so funny! I started taking care of myself, too. I stopped eating beef and pork, and I learnt to be gentle with myself. In my opinion, the biggest issue right now is mental health. So many people are stressed and have anxiety. [Since her birth] I’ve become calmer, more content and more compassionate towards people.
What is one surprising thing about you that most people don’t know?
I love a good foot massage. Obviously at 10 Feet Tall because it’s mine [laughs].