Inside The Design Mind Of Hong Kong Nightlife Legend Gilbert Yeung
“I used to be the naughty one, in their eyes,” Gilbert Yeung, owner of some of Hong Kong’s most prominent nightclubs, including Dragon-i, Tazmania Ballroom and Cassio, tells me, speaking of the government officials who have been as much a part of his daily life as wild revellers are of his nights.
For the past year, Yeung, along with fellow entertainment magnates including Allan Zeman, the “father of Lan Kwai Fong”, has met with regulators every three weeks to discuss how and when the city can safely reopen its bars and nightclubs as the pandemic continues.
“The government usually looks at me, or people like me, and assumes I’m the bad guy. So to have this open dialogue, to have these conversations, has been a silver lining during Covid-19,” says Yeung. “Back in the Seventies and Eighties, club owners were often uneducated or part of Hong Kong’s underbelly, but it’s good for them to see that today’s operators are educated and civilised businesspeople looking to contribute to Hong Kong’s economy.”
Yeung is speaking from behind his desk. His office is perched on the 30th floor of The Centrium, which straddles Arbuthnot Road and Wyndham Street, the heart of Hong Kong nightlife, at least as far as Yeung is concerned. Through vast corner windows, a golden-hour glow lights up the smattering of skyscrapers behind him.
Around his office are artworks he’s collected over the years, along with photos of his family. He points to one of a young girl: “This is my niece. She made me promise to never take her photo down, even after my children were born,” says Yeung, who is a father of two, with a smile.
There’s also evidence of Yeung’s affinity for all things old-school, including a rotary DJ mixer sitting on the windowsill. “Old-school and analogue is coming back into fashion, you know?” he says.
The retro resurrection suits Yeung just fine, and he’s fully embraced the movement in his recent renovation of Cassio. Since it opened four years ago, Yeung and his team have been taking notes on what was, and wasn’t, working for the Wyndham Street hotspot. “We observe how people use the space: where do people smile? Where don’t people go? We wanted to reconfigure the venue so people feel a sense of intimacy with the space and the people behind it,” says Yeung.
His more famous restaurant and nightclub, Dragon-i, has been legendary for its hedonism, known for its models-and-moguls clientele, guest performers including the likes of Snoop Dogg and the late Avicii, and its notorious Dom Pérignon champagne trains. For the uninitiated, that’s when a small army of staff carrying bottles of Dom Pérignon lit up with sparklers march through the club to the tune of the Star Wars theme music.
The new and improved Cassio, however, takes a gentler, more personal approach. “I wanted to do something different from what people have come to expect from me,” says Yeung. “We had been planning to renovate Cassio for about two years, but we didn’t get around to it until Bernie Thomas introduced us to Cédric and Nicolas Hervet.”
Thomas, formerly of Lane Crawford, had asked Yeung if he was interested in hosting an after-party for the Hong Kong debut of Paris-based luxury furniture design house Hervet Manufacturier, headed by cousins Cédric and Nicolas Hervet. Cédric served as Daft Punk’s creative director for over 15 years, designing album covers and overseeing the set design for the duo’s performance at the 2014 Grammys.
“Daft Punk was instrumental in bringing dance music back to a calmer, disco tempo; I really respect that,” says Yeung, gesturing to a set of Daft Punk figurines displayed on a shelf in his office. “It was a great opportunity to work with their people and their philosophy.”
While the pandemic didn’t allow for the aforementioned after-party, Yeung stayed in contact with the Hervet cousins. “It started with me asking if they’d design a DJ booth,” he says, adding that one thing led to another and before they knew it, Cassio was getting the full Hervet treatment, albeit remotely.
Mid-century modern elements of walnut wood, turquoise velvet and hairline brass dominate in Cassio’s design overhaul. Hervet Manufacturier produced custom furniture, lighting and a DJ booth, which Cédric describes as a “spaceship that landed on the dancefloor”.
The dancefloor is surrounded by retro-futuristic booths and tables, including a VVIP table that grants exclusive access to a private, hidden bar, accessible only by a one-time password that changes with each customer using this coveted table. Rather than being numbered, the tables at Cassio are named after some of Yeung’s favourite DJs, including Little Louie Vega and
Tony Humphries. “Of course, one of the tables is named after Bernie, who was instrumental in putting this together,” says Yeung.
The new interior design includes vintage pieces from Yeung’s personal collection of antiques, including velvet and floral fabrics as well as furniture, which he’s acquired over the years from trips to Tokyo, Copenhagen, Milan and Paris, where he always makes a stop at Saint-Ouen flea market.
One of his favourite pieces is a baroque-style sconce he found in Paris, which he completed with a custom marble tabletop made in Hong Kong. It is now mounted beside the bar on Cassio’s outdoor terrace.
“Five years ago, I started to meditate and do yoga, which really transformed the way I consume,” says Yeung, adding that he tries to buy vintage where possible, and his family now eats a predominantly plant-based diet. In 2019, Dragon-i introduced a vegan dim sum menu. “There are too many choices, too many options and too much waste. I used to consume so much, so mindlessly, but in the last few years I have worked at becoming more mindful.”
This new mindset is apparent in Cassio, where everything has a story.
On a trip to Tokyo some five or six years ago, Yeung chanced upon Son of the Cheese, a multifaceted creative space in Ebisu that combines fashion, art and a janky retro diner that serves a menu of over-indulgent grilled cheese sandwiches. It resembles something you might see in a Quentin Tarantino movie.
“I noticed that the menu and the artwork displayed in the space were done by the same artist, and I had to find out who it was,” says Yeung, adding that he eventually found the artist, Naijel Graph, who “doesn’t speak a word of English, but we clicked right away and bonded over shared interests”.
Graph went on to design Cassio’s mermaid logo, which Yeung says was inspired by kitsch tiki bars. “The whole concept for Cassio is based on that mid-century grandfather vibe. So uncool that it’s cool,” Yeung explains.
Custom illustrations by Graph can be found throughout the club and pay tribute to some of Yeung’s favourite musicians, including Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Gang Starr. “I think we have at least eight of his pieces in Cassio right now,” says Yeung, who says he plans to add more to the collection.
There’s also a brilliantly chaotic digital artwork by Milan-born, New York-based video artist Marco Brambilla that sits above one of Cassio’s three bars. “I went to New York nine years ago, where I stayed at The Standard High Line. A huge mistake,” says Yeung, 53. “I like André Balazs’ work with The Standard and Chateau Marmont, but I found it to be a bit young and trendy for my taste, as I was already in my early 40s.”
It was in the lift that he discovered Brambilla’s artwork, and he contacted him straightaway. They remained in touch and met several years later, in 2016, when Brambilla made his first trip to Hong Kong, where he exhibited at Simon Lee Gallery.
“Simon Lee hosted a dinner at Carbone, where I was sat next to Marco. He’s a bit of a party boy, too, and Cassio came up. I showed him an area where we needed a piece of artwork, and he said he had some footage that might just fit the space,” Yeung explains.
The artwork, Evolution, depicts a “vast panorama in an apocalyptic spectacle of constantly unfolding human conflict”, according to the artist.
“The universe aligned,” says Yeung. “There are some projects you try too hard to make happen, and the results are never great. But when it happens organically and just flows, it’s magic.”