King of Entertainment: Wong Kow (黃球) and his Mayflower (五月花) group of restaurants and nightclubs
York Lo: King of Entertainment: Wong Kow (黃球) and his Mayflower (五月花) group of restaurants and nightclubs
Left: Wong Kow; Right: Matchbox for the Mayflower Restaurant group in the 1960s which list the phone numbers for all four of its restaurants and Oriental Ballroom.
Wong Kow (1921-2017) was a major figure in the HK restaurant and entertainment industry in the 1960s and 1970s with his sixrestaurants and threenightclubsin HK and two restaurants in Singapore before divesting all of them and shifting his focus to finance and properties in the 1980s. His Mayflower restaurants and Tonnochy nightclub had left their marks in the cultural history of Hong Kong, the latter even immortalized in an all-star musical in 2014.
Building of Nightclub and Restaurant Empire in the 1950s and 1960s
Left: Article about the relocation of Oriental Ballroom with picture of Wong Kow in 1963. (WKYP, 1963-11-16); Right: article about Wong’s three ballrooms closing for three days for Chinese New Year in 1961 (WKYP, 1961-2-1)
Born into a poor family in Sun Wui prefecture in Guangdong province in 1921, WongKow, who also went by Wong Yiu-wan (黃耀寰), started working at an early age to support his family and came to HK at the age of 17 with 80 cents in his pocket. He worked as a construction worker and street peddler before working for a transportation company after the War and eventually ended up managing a car dealership for a merchant with the surname of Kam in Kowloon.
While he was working at the dealership in the 1950s, a few clients who were business owners complained to him about the lack of entertainment venues in HK relative to Shanghai which inspired him to open his own nightclub – Oriental Ballroom (東方舞廳, although as a firm it was not incorporated until 1962) with $8000 in savings plus $2000 he received from selling his Rolex watch plus $60,000 he raised from six friends. Soon he openedTonnochy Ball Room (杜老誌舞廳, incorporated in 1954 and dissolved in 1990) and Fuji Ballroom (富士舞廳, incorporated in 1965 and dissolved in 2000) in Wanchai. By the early 1960s, the total number of ladies working atWong’s three clubs exceeded 1000 and he was elected the 6th chairman of the HK & Kowloon Ballroom Operators Association in 1960 with Chan Chong-yau and Lo Yuen as vice chairmen and Suen Bun as supervisor. (WKYP, 1960-12-17)According to author and nightlife connoisseur Sun Sai-Shing, Tonnochy’s success in the 1960s was built on high quality staff who were not necessarily the prettiest, but all had captivating personalities and the article above also emphasized that all its staff had at least secondary school education. This enabled the club to charge $8 in the 1960s for the time of two songs, which was four times the rate of other nightclubs at the time. Since spending two hours at the club was equivalent to a regular person’s monthly salary at the time, the club cultivated a high-end clientele with deep pocket patrons such as real estate pioneer Eddie Chan who allegedly lavished some of the ladies with not only cars but apartments and as a result, some of the ladies were earning more than movie stars.
Left: Sign for Semiconductor Ltd at the Mayflower restaurant at 611 Nathan Road in 1966 (WKYP, 1966-3-29) Right: signs of Mayflower and Sun Hing Mayflower next to each other on Nathan Road
From nightclubs, Wong Kow jumped into the restaurant business. In December 1959, he opened the May Flower Restaurant (五月花酒家) at 735 Nathan Road in Kowloon with Leung Ying-kit (梁英杰) from Ying Kee Safe Co (see article) as chairman, himself as managing director and Lui Yee-king (雷豫敬) as manager. R. C. Lee (利銘澤) andMok Hing-shung (莫慶崧) were guests of honor at the opening ceremony. (WKYP, 1959-12-8)
In 1963, Oriental Ballroom acquired the second floor of Lucky House (華豐大廈) at 18-24 Jordan Road in Kowloon and opened its new location in November after spending $2 million in renovations.
In September 1964, Wong Kow opened the second Mayflower restaurant(五月花酒樓, also refer to as “New Mayflower” to differentiate from the original Mayflower) at 611 Nathan Road. The new restaurant featured Chinese palatial design with a 100-table restaurant from the 2nd to 5th floors, Mongolian restaurant on the 6th floor and ball room on the 7th floor. (KSEN, 1964-9-11) In March 1966, Semiconductor Ltd, the HK-based affiliate of American electronics giant Fairchild, booked all 330 tables of the three largest Chinese restaurants in Mongkok – Mayflower, Sun Ya and King Wah for a banquet for its 3000 employees to celebrate the opening of its factory since there were not a single restaurant that could hold number of guests and the heads of the firm presided over the festivities at Mayflower.
In January 1967, the six organizations controlled by Wong Kow – the three ballrooms and three Mayflower restaurants (two on Nathan Rd and an additional one in To Kwa Wan which was added) jointly donated $1000 to the Wah Kiu Yat Po children scholarship fund (WKYP, 1967-1-16)
In 1968, Wong Kow spent six months to renovate his three clubs and upgraded its program to cater to both local and international customers. (WKYP, 1968-12-7) Sometime in the late 1960s, Mayflower opened its fourth restaurant at 6 Tonnochy Road in Wanchai near Wong’s two ballrooms.
Directors of Mayflower at its 10th anniversary celebration in 1969. Wong Kow (was second from the right) (WKYP)
Expansion in the 1970s
The 1970s was the golden era for the Mayflower group which embarked on major expansion. In 1970, Mayflower’s Wanchai branch which comprised of four floors (ground, 3rd. 4th and 5th) ran out of space and acquired the seventh floor to open VIP room designed by Au Yue-on (區裕安) of Tat Mei Design which opened in September. (WKYP, 1970-9-30) Further $150,000 were spent in 1972 to upgrade the VIP room with new furniture and fixtures and the room were staffed with young attendants with over 3 months of training.(WKYP, 1972-7-12)
In August 1971, police descended on the original Mayflower restaurant at 733 Nathan Road when staff found 6 bullets in one of its bathrooms. The bullets were suspected to be from a gun stolen from the Wong Tai Sin police station days before by someone who pretended to be a policeman. (KSDN, 1971-8-4)
In April 1972, Mayflower took over Sky King Restaurant, which was originally founded in 1969 and re-opened it as “Sky King Mayflower” (天皇五月花酒樓, although English name remain just Sky King) in 1972 at Wu Sang House at 655 Nathan Road (built in 1966 by the Wu family of Central Taxi, see article) with 150 tables. Wong Kow was chairman and managing director of the restaurant with Lee Man-bun (李文彬) as vice chairman, Fong Yik-fai as supervisor, Leung Hung-kit (梁鴻傑) and Lam Kam-hung (林錦洪) as managers and other directors included his own son Wong Chung-sum (黃松深), Ngan Shing-sang, Cheung Ngok, Chiu Sing-bun, Leung Yiu-sing, Chan Kwok-kui and Ma Yu-ming. (KSDN, 1972-4-21)
Left: Front page ad for the opening of Sky King restaurant in 1972 (WKYP, 1972-5-16); Right: front page ad for the opening of Sun Hing Mayflower in 1974 (WKYP, 1974-9-16)
In November 1972, the Mayflower group organized a customer and partner appreciation dinner at its 611 Nathan Road location for over 1000 guests from its business partners and preferred clients taking up over 100 tables from its 2nd to 7th floor featuring special dishes such as snakes and cigarettes and beverage provided by HK Tobacco, BAT, Seven-Up Schweppes and Coca-Cola. (WKYP, 1972-11-11)
In September 1974, the Sun Hing Mayflower Restaurant (新興五月花酒樓) opened on the 7th and 8th floor of the Sun Hing Building at 607 Nathan Road, right next to the “New Mayflower” at 611 Nathan Road. For the morning shift from 7am to 3pm, over 10000 customers came for dim sum while the evening time was also fully booked with all 130 tables sold out, breaking the record for the first day sales of any Chinese restaurants. (KSDN, 1974-9-17) Wong Kow was the chairman and managing director of the restaurant while Leung Hung-kit was deputy managing director and Cheng Fai was general manager.
With six restaurants in HK, Wong Kow began to set his sights on overseas expansion. In 1973, he opened the Mayflower Restaurant on the 3rd floor of the DBS Building on Shenton Way with total investments of S$3 million. Managed by Chan Won-ming and staffed with 10 cooks from HK, the 10,000 sq ft restaurant had over 100 tables which could host 1000 guests and was one of the first modern Cantonese dim sum restaurant in Singapore. (WKYP, 1973-8-10; New Nation, 1973-9-15)
In July 1978, Mayflower acquired the Peking Restaurant at the 3rd floor of the International Building on Orchard Road for S$5.5 million from the husband and wife team who were retiring and allegedly introduced char siew (Cantonese BBQ pork) to Singapore, outbidding the Goodwood Group who offered S$4.8 million. The restaurant was renovated and re-opened as “Peking Mayflower Restaurant” with cooks brought in from HK. (Business Times, 1978-7-26)
Left: advertisement for Mayflower mooncakes in Singapore in 1978 (Straits Times, 1978-9-3); Right: interior of Mayflower Restaurant in Singapore in 1973 (SCJP, 1973-10-6)
In 1979, Mayflower acquired three units at a new complex called Hong Kong/USA in Oakland Chinatown in California to open a Mayflower restaurant and a Mongolian beef restaurant. (New Nation, 1979-5-27) The plans never materialized as the HK/USA project fell apart.
Transition in the 1980s and Beyond
In October 1980, a Level III fire broke out at Sun Hing Mayflower which required 80 firefighters and 16 fire engines two hours to put out and 400 residents of the building were evacuated from the building. the security guard for the restaurant died from smoke and four others were injured and the 7th and 8th floors were completely damaged. (WKYP, 1980-10-11)
In December 1982, 4 burglars broke into the Fuji ballroom at 389-399 Lockhart Road, tied up the two security guards and tried to break open the safe. When that failed, they tried to burn down the nightclub before they left out of anger. Fortunately, the guards were able to escape and the firefighters arrived on time to put out the fire which resulted in minor damages. (KSEN, 1982-12-2)
In the mid-late 1980s, Wong Kow began to divest his interests in the restaurant and nightclub business. In 1984, he sold Tonnochy to the new nightclub king Tang Sung-kwong (鄧崇光) and his brothers for HK$20l0,000 and the brothers re-opened the club as “New Tonocchy Night Club” at the former location of Mayflower’s Wanchai branch at 6 Tonocchy Road and went on to greater success before declining in the 1990s and ultimately closed in 2002.
Left: Wong Chung-sum presenting a $1000 check on behalf of Sun Hing Mayflower to the head of the Mongkok Police Station who was accepting it on behalf of the Police Welfare Fund in 1975. (KSEN, 1975-2-15); Right: Fire engines outside of the Fuji ballroom in 1982 (KSEN, 1982-12-2)
In 1989, Mayflower sold its premise at International Building in Singapore for $13 million. (Business Times, 1989-4-8) As a firm, Sky King Restaurant Ltd was dissolved in 1987 and May Flower Restaurant Ltd was dissolved in 1990.
Starting in the 1960s, Wong Kow started to diversify with his profits from the restaurant and nightclub business into real estate and other ventures. In 1961, he incorporated Hing Yip Investment (興業置業) to invest in real estate and the firm renamed Hing Yip Finance & Investment Co (興業財務置業) in 1971. He also invested in a quarry in the late 1960s to capitalize on the construction boom.
With the help of his son Wilfred Wong Wai-sum (黃偉深), he entered the financial services industry in the 1980s. In 1986, the Wong family established Hing Wong Securities (興旺證券), which began trading stocks for various banks in 1988. In 1988, Hing Wong Gold Dealers (興旺金號) and Hing Wong Finance were incorporated. In 1991, it moved into its 13200 sq ft space at United Centre in Admiralty and started its partnership with Bank of China in 1992 by being one of the cornerstone investors in its BOC China fund. Wilfredhas served as a councillor of the Stock Exchange of HK from 1990 to 1993 and chairman of the HK Securities Association in addition to member of the Guangdong CPCCC.
Since China re-opened in 1978, Wong Kow had donated millions to his native Sun Wui to build schools, hospitals and infrastructure and teamed up with his friend R. C. Lee of Hysan Development to develop the Garden Hotel (花園酒店) in Guangzhou in the early 1980s. As a result, he was named honorary citizen of Jiangmen and Guangzhou in 1993.
In 2014, a major musical called “Tonnochy” based on Wong’s nightclub and starring actress Carina Lau and actor Tony Leung premiered in HK and the producers interviewed the 90+ year old Wong Kow and other veterans of the club for background information. He died in December 2017 at the People’s Hospital in his native Sun Wui at the age of 96.
Sources (other than those cited above):
This article was first posted on 18th January 2021.
Related Indhhk articles:
- International Restaurant & Nightclub Holdings (國際酒樓夜總會置業)
- Ruby (紅寶石) – Restaurant Empire from the 1950s to 1980s
- Oceania Hawaii Holdings (夏香集團)
- Ip Chung-sang (葉中生) – leading designer and interior decorator for Chinese restaurants in HK and beyond in the 1960s and 1970s
- Three of Hong Kong’s oldest restaurants, Part One – Tai Ping Koon
- Three of Hong Kong’s oldest restaurants, Part Two – Forum
- Three of Hong Kong’s oldest restaurants, Part Three – the Gaylord
- A Slice of Heaven – the story of On Lok Yuen (安樂園), Pioneering Ice Cream, Biscuit and Confectionary Manufacturer and Restaurant Chain
- Lee On (利安) and Ying Kee (英記) – manufacturers of safes and steel furniture