From spinning discs at The Peninsula Hotel’s nightclub, to living through the ‘67 riots, the handover and SARS, Beth Narain tells it all about her 50 years in Hong Kong. By Shreena Patel.
Tell me about yourself.
I was born in Durban, South Africa. I started ballet at the age of 5 in Cape Town and moved to London at 14 to study at the Royal Ballet School. By 17 I was travelling Europe as a dancer.
I couldn’t imagine life without music. I grew up surrounded by it: from my mother who loved to dance, to my nanny who – when I was a baby – used to strap me onto her back while she danced and did the housework to African beats. My personal favourite is ‘60s Motown.
I love wine, good food (I’d rather not eat if it’s not good) and I’m a TV addict. I love dramas and thrillers.
What brought you to Hong Kong?
I came to Hong Kong in 1966 after my older brother Tokkie Smith, who pioneered the Hong Kong Sevens, invited me here on holiday. I didn’t like it at all when I arrived – it was too conservative for me – but he’d bought me a three-month ticket so I stayed. Tokkie used to take me to parties at the HSBC living quarters up on The Peak but everyone was a lot older and it wasn’t really my crowd.
Given your first impressions of the city, what made you stay?
My feelings towards Hong Kong changed when The Scene Discotheque opened in the basement of The Peninsula Hotel. I attended the opening night in a silver lamé dress I’d bought from the BIBA boutique in London. They asked me if I wanted to spin discs and I said, “yes”. I became manageress and ran the disco for years. I worked every night, except Sundays, from 8pm until 2am – I was already used to the hours because of my dance career.
During the day, I worked as a ballet teacher and a choreographer for TVB’s Star Show (a pop show), so I didn’t sleep much! I’m making up for it now – I love a lie in.
Where did you live?
At first, I stayed with Tokkie and his wife at their place in Repulse Bay. There was no Cross Harbour tunnel back then (it opened later in 1972) so each night after we closed up I would catch the walla walla from Star Ferry Pier back to Hong Kong island. It only cost a dollar or two and was always full of drunk people.
What was it like working in Hong Kong’s hotel nightclub scene?
I loved my job at The Scene – it’s the reason I stayed in Hong Kong, even during the riots of 1967, which was a scary time for everyone. I chose all the music that was played at the club and had access to all the top hits. One of the best things I did was to introduce live music – I brought in singers from London, Hong Kong, the States…including Peter Nelson and The Lotus.
What was the crowd like?
We had a dress code at the club. Men had to wear a jacket and tie. Eventually, I persuaded them to relax it (to a turtle neck!) and then to something more casual.
We used to get a mixed crowd (there was no age restriction) including a lot of celebrities who were staying at the hotel, like the racing driver Stirling Moss, the actress Nancy Kwan and others.
The Vietnam War was going on at the time and American soldiers would come to Hong Kong regularly as part of the R&R programme. While here, the servicemen would spend money like crazy and, sometimes, they would come into the club for a jam session which was fun.
Are there any other places in Hong Kong of particular significance to you?
I got married at Union Church in Mid-levels. It was a hippy wedding: I wore a tie-dye kaftan and knee high boots!
For a while we lived on the island on Castle Road, but in 1971 there was a terrible typhoon (Rose) and a building collapsed nearby. One lady got caught in the rubble and died. We were on the 18th floor of a building called Merry Court and there was a blackout. The water came gushing in, the dining room table was flying up towards the ceiling and we literally had to grab our things and run down the steps. It was terrifying. After that, we decided to move to a little house in the New Territories on Castle Peak Road – before my two daughters were born. It was very isolated and I hated it. Later, we moved to Kadoorie Avenue.
I also started the city’s first ladies’ exercise studio – the Lotte Berk Studio – in the late ‘70s. The method we taught is now known as “Barre”. And from 1985 to 1995, I had my own studio – Beth’s Workout – on Wyndham Street. I took out an ad for it in HK magazine.
I heard you once punched Bruce Lee…
My husband was very creative and came from a tailoring family. We had a few shops in Hong Kong. The first was a boutique called The Om Shoppe at 1 Duddell Street. Later, we opened Jeans East in Wan Chai. My husband’s business partner, Andy, was also in the film business and was about to make a film with Bruce Lee. I remember him bringing this tiny guy (Lee) into the shop one day and saying, “This guy is really famous and very fit.” Lee said, “You wanna see how fit I am? Punch me,” so I did. And he was pretty fit. Unfortunately, Lee died before the film could be made.
How has Hong Kong changed while you’ve lived here?
I’ve been here 50 years and I’ve seen some big changes, but when you live in a place continuously, they appear very gradually. It’s like growing old: you look at yourself in the mirror everyday and you see a little wrinkle here and there, but it’s not a shock.
For example, just before the Handover in 1997, the widespread sentiment was one of excitement and hope. I remember a taxi driver (you get a lot of feedback from taxi drivers) saying, “Yes, yes! The British are leaving. We’re going back to the motherland – it’s wonderful,” but in the years that have followed this attitude has changed markedly – at least in part, as demonstrated by the Occupy protests in 2014.
How have your experiences shaped you?
Having worked in foreign countries since the age of 17, I’ve learned how to recognise dangerous situations and deal with them, although I think a lot of kids in Hong Kong nowadays are not equipped in the same way. Nevertheless, working at a nightclub, I did occasionally find myself in a spot of bother. I was once attacked by a group of bar girls on my way home. Another time, a man came into the club drunk and tried to sit at the staff table. I politely explained that it was the staff area and showed him another table where he could sit and he hit me. These things didn’t happen often though.
What’s been your worst time in Hong Kong?
The worst time in Hong Kong for me was during the SARS epidemic. It was a depressing and frightening time for everyone. People were taken from infected buildings in vans and isolated. It was very scary. Working as a personal trainer, people didn’t want you to come to their house in case you were infected. There was a lot of fear and misunderstanding. I went to Australia for two weeks and one of my friends didn’t even want to meet me for fear of catching it. My flight there was completely empty.
What do you love about the city?
For me, the best thing about Hong Kong is the convenience. I have the nail salon, the massage place, the supermarket, restaurants, shops, bars right at my doorstep. I couldn’t have chosen a better place to live.
What are you up to at the moment?
These days, I work as an instructor at PURE and do personal training. I’m also thinking about writing a book – I have a lot of stories to tell!
Beth still teaches. If you’d like to get in touch, visit bethsworkout.wordpress.com