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At Last… Bert’s, Hong Kong’s best jazz club, is back in business after refurbishment

The Red Stripes performing at Bert's. Photo: Wyng Chow The Red Stripes performing at Bert’s. Photo: Wyng Chow

Recarpeted, repainted, and for better or worse now adorned with video screens, Hong Kong’s best jazz club is back in business.

There’s nothing like having something unavailable for a while to help you appreciate it properly, and the excellence of the live music in Bert’s is something, perhaps, we sometimes take for granted.

Allen Youngblood, who originally came to Asia in the early 1990s with a band playing at the Grand Hyatt’s now defunct JJ’s nightclub, has been the FCC’s music director since before Bert’s opened. As well as performing there himself, he is responsible for booking everybody else who does.

“My idea was to call it “Round Midnight”, to single it out as a jazz club within a club, but then the suggestion was made to name it after Bert Okuley, and once I knew who he was, that seemed fine. We use the best people in town we can get, and we try to catch the best people coming through town, whatever they play. Sometimes it’s jazz, sometimes it’s R & B and soul. It depends what’s available,” he says.

Bert Okuley was a talented jazz pianist, as well as a distinguished foreign correspondent and former club president, and from the outset the bar named for him has had a jazz and blues theme, fully reflected in its decor.

Like most jazz-oriented venues worldwide, though, Bert’s also accommodates other styles, and although Youngblood and his trio Jazbalaya are comfortably settled back in residence, he chose performers from different genres for some of the reopening gigs.

“Bert’s reopened officially on October 22 with the band Red Stripes, which plays ska,” says Youngblood, “but it actually opened before that. We had a little Oktoberfest thing with an accordion. Full dress.”

In addition to the Tuesday, Thursday and Friday live band performances, Bert’s has developed into a special events venue on otherwise generally quiet Saturday nights, and Youngblood plans to build on that.

“Saturday is a day for special functions, once a month when possible. You have to give people a reason to come back into town” says Youngblood. “Usually they sell out.”

Quite often those evenings are sufficiently popular that Bert’s cannot accommodate the numbers, and the bigger draws migrate upstairs to the Main Dining Room – as was the case in November with British Jazz Singer Ian Shaw, who played the club on November 5.

He was accompanied by Youngblood and bassist Scott Dodd, who then joined him on a tour of China, including gigs at the new Blue Note Club in Beijing and the newly relocated JZ Club in Shanghai.

Shaw, a two-time winner for Best Vocalist in the BBC Jazz Awards, is a good example of the Club getting the best, and for visiting jazz musicians Bert’s is what has put it on the map.

Over the years many notable names have dropped in to play, including, since the reopening, former James Brown drummer, Erik Hargrove. “A really musical drummer – just passing through,” says Youngblood.

The Club is also a favourite gig for such high-profile permanently locally based artists as guitarist Eugene Pao, singer, bassist, bandleader and FCC member Elaine Liu, and blues harmonica virtuoso Henry Chung, for whose appearances Bert’s transforms into a juke joint. In the past six months all have sold out either Bert’s or the Main Dining Room.

Performers who have appeared at Bert’s in recent weeks include the Orlando Bonzi band, the Jason Cheng Trio, Skip Moy and his band, and vocalists Jennifer Palor and Miriam Ma – not forgetting the performers who unobtrusively do so much to create the early evening atmosphere including singer and guitarist Mary Jane, guitarist Moy who also performs solo, and pianist Sizwe Peter among others.

The common factor? Not so much jazz as quality, says Youngblood.

“It’s a music room. We try to make it not just jazz, but that said there aren’t that many groups doing other stuff that I’d hire. It’s not what I think about their music. It’s a question of what’s available that’s good.

“Nothing against places like The Wanch, where you get people who can play and people who can’t play, but that’s not what we are. We want people who are seasoned. Don’t be down here practicing.”

New kitchen, full menu

While Bert’s was closed for music during August and September it still operated as a temporary kitchen and food storage while the FCC’s main kitchen, buried deep in the bowels of the building, underwent a HK$6 million refìt.

All major fittings and appliances were ripped out and replaced with modern equipment without needing to redesign the space. The kitchen is now a fully modern working environment allowing the CIub far more flexibility to add new styles of cuisine.

Since October 11, when it was also free bubbly time to launch the renovated Bert’s, a full menu has been in operation under Chef George and his team.

Chris Patten on Trump, Brexit, Article 23 and India

Chris Patten arrives at the FCC Chris Patten arrives at the FCC

Here’s a round-up of the Q&A with Chris Patten following his talk at the FCC on November 25.

PATTEN ON INDIA

Look, I don’t mean any disrespect to my own country or to France, speaking as a member of the Legion d’honneur, or to China or to Hong Kong, but I happen to think India is the most interesting country in the world. And I don’t just say that because you asked the question. I don’t mean by that that I think that India is poised to become a superpower. Actually I’m not sure it is. I think that’s partly because I think thats partly to India’s benefit and I think it’s partly because Indians don’t want it to be. But India is an extraordinary democracy and democracy and the system of government in India have held together an astonishingly diverse society, ethnicities, religions, languages, in a way that simply wouldn’t have worked without that safety valve. I think other communities could have blown apart or could have seen the development of a bamboo gulag. India hasn’t done that.

India’s constitution had at its heart seculism (sic), socialism, and I’m afraid the socialism wasn’t a great success. It’s joined the world economy, it has very, very effective multinationals which on the whole follow pretty clean internationally recognised corporal governance guidelines. There is now a lot more Indian investment in the UK than there is UK investment in India and I hope that the present government will avoid the temptation we’ve seen in other countries to become more nationalist if the economic climate becomes a bit more difficult. India I think is concerned about its relationship with China but because of that it would be a mistake I think for others in the United States or Europe to try to use India as a sort of democratic pawn in a geo-strategic argument with China, I think that would be a huge huge error.

I think that India’s development is something which matters to the whole world and I think part of India’s success is Indian soft power: Indian literature. The best novels these days are written by – there are some good ones written by Americans – but the best novels are on the whole written by Indians. The Indian cinema which, I know the Chinese cinema has been very good but perhaps more restricted, Bollywood has been a fantastic success, though it may not matter so much to members of the audience who are Chinese, Indian cricket has alas been all too successful as an export of Indian soft power. So I think India is an extraordinary story, it’s not going to simply move up a straight line up the graph paper but by 2040 the largest population in the world will be Indian with the largest economically active population outstripping China which will have, I’m sure, problems it can overcome in moving from having a huge labour surplus to a labour deficit and to having the second largest group of people in the world who will be Chinese pensioners. So India faces some big responsibilities and big challenges, and I think it’s going to be a very exciting story.

ON FREE TRADE AND BREXIT

I totally agree with you that we have to engage in the argument just as we have to engage in the argument with tabloids and social media about whether or not it is important to tell the truth in election campaigns. I think those are issues which really demand international and strong leadership and I think one of the lessons from Brexit in Britain was that political leaders hadn’t been sufficiently bold and vigorous in taking on some of the criticisms of the European Union.

On free trade I just make two very swift points. First of all, we all know, I mean there’s a wealth of statistical evidence that those who do worst from protectionism are the poor. If you’re well off you cope. If you’re poor you find the cost of the everyday items you buy goes up and you don’t find yourself working in a job where productivity is being raised because of greater competitiveness. In Britain we made the terrible mistake… we’re so centralised as an economy that we didn’t do what the Danes have done for example which is to ensure that public spending programmes are adjusted to take much greater account of the areas where there are real difficulties with declining industries and workforces which are undertrained and underprepared for industrial generational change. And I think we’ve also failed with basic education in some parts of Britain.

In America I mentioned earlier that the Americans spend 0.1% of GDP on labour market issues like retraining. The average for the OECD countries as a whole is six times that. So when I said to some of my Republican friends ‘of course the answer to problems in Michigan or Indiana or the Rust Belt is to spend more on retraining, to do more for education, to look at tax and spend policies and the role they can play in reducing social inequity’, they look at me as though I’m a sort of Keynesian communist. But it’s true. There is an important role for those government policies in addressing the problems which free trade can bring to people who work in declining industries.

Look, I go occasionally to Indiana to Notre Dame University, as the French would call it, a very very good Catholic university in the middle of Indiana, and you go through a lot of Rust Belt to get there. Could you have saved those industries? Maybe. Could we have saved the horse and cart as the principle means of getting from A to B. I suppose so. But we’d have all been much poorer had we done so. I think that unfortunately the people who are most likely to suffer from Trumpian protectionism if it happens are the people who voted for Mr Trump, just as in Britain the people who are most likely to suffer from the consequences of Brexit are the people in some of the disadvantaged parts of the country which voted for it. I think that’s a real tragedy and will actually put our democracies under some pressure in the future.

ON ARTICLE 23 AND ARTICLE 158

Well, maybe it was a good thing that I wasn’t around when they (articles 23 and 158) were accepted, though they weren’t a matter for negotiation between the then colonial power and China. But we did have strong views about Article 23 and we managed to avoid any suggestion that Article 23 should lead to legislation while I was governor and one reason why I didn’t think we needed to do anything about Article 23 was that I thought that subversion was something which I was unlikely to encounter as governor of Hong kong. It has a sort of rather quaint Leninist tone to it and pretty well since the 17th century – Guy Fawkes and all that – subversion hasn’t been a big issue in British politics.

More seriously, I think there is a different sort of relationship which if I was in government in Hong Kong would concern me, and that is the relationship between social and economic issues and political issues. I think that there are some serious issues which young people and other people raise about their futures, about the competitiveness of Hong Kong in the future, about the extent to which their employment opportunities are more narrowed than would have been the case with their parents. So I think there are some social issues – housing another one, and competition from the north for jobs. I think there are some serious issues there and perhaps play into the debate about political issues and those need to be addressed.

And it won’t be to Hong Kong’s benefit if over the next few years there is a sort of traffic jam in the relationship between the Legislative Council and the Executive, if things can’t get done because of an argument or a log jam there. Hong Kong has a reputation for getting things done rather more rapidly than other places and I would hate to see that ended.

ON WHAT HE WOULD PRIORITISE IF HE WERE HONG KONG’S CHIEF EXECUTIVE

The first election campaign that I took part in was in New York in 19 – I’m very old now – 1965 and one of the candidates, when he was asked what the first thing he would do if he won the election was, replied ‘demand a recount’. The first thing I would do is go to mass and say a prayer, and after that I would try I think, whoever I was, to establish a dialogue with people on whichever side of the argument didn’t agree with me. I think it’s corrosive of government when disagreements turn into quarrels.

ON DONALD TRUMP AND THE RIGHT WING

I think that it’s not just America that this is an issue, that a greater emphasis on nationalism and national identity, on nativism, can easily turn into an effort to define oneself against the other. It can easily seem to be ungenerous, it can easily seem to want to lock out minorities, it can easily seem racist. I think the most wonderful words in America are the ones on the seal: E pluribus unum, which has been a fantastic message to the rest of humanity, bringing together people from every conceivable language and background and shaping a great country. City on a hill.

You sit as I did recently in a deli on Maddison Avenue and you watch every sort of identity and humanity walking past the window. And how do those people define themselves? Are they Afro-American New Yorkers? Are they Catholic Polish Americans? Are they Vietnamese Americans? Are they Chinese Americans? The one thing they all are is Americans. And I think that it would be a terrible error if Mr Trump was seen to be celebrating the whiteness of American society without recognising all the other colours which go to make up that extraordinary American flag.

So that’s what I think I would want to say to Mr Trump and since that was what I would say to him, I think I’d probably cancel the appointment of the chairman of Breitbart as his main strategic adviser. Anybody whose appointment is so enthusiastically welcomed by the great Wizard of whatever he is of the Ku Klux Klan is not somebody I’d like to spend an evening with.

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