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[Shanghai Famous]: Kathleen Lau, Yes... THAT Kathleen!

Wagas, Blue Frog, Cotton's, That's Shanghai, and yes... Kathleen's... she's had a hand in all of them.
2022-03-18 12:00:00
Shanghai Famous: A SmartShanghai column focusing on people out there in the city making the scene. We asked them to tell us more, more, more about their wonderful selves.

Kathleen Lau, had her hand in many of Shanghai's brands that we all know. She founded That's Shanghai, she sold her first restaurant which became the Blue Frog and from her early teams came the founders of Wagas, and Cottons. She pioneered some of the earliest western fine dining restaurants in the city. Remember Kathleen's 5, the glass-enclosed rooftop restaurant in the middle of People's Square? That was her, and now she has one on the Bund and another in Pudong.

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I was born in the south [of China] but emigrated young and grew up in America. I went to college in New York, got incredibly bored and thought, "Life has got to be more than this." So I put my stuff in storage, and I started travelling. I went to LA to learn hip hop but stumbled on an Aikido dojo. Turns out Aikido is really popular in France, so I moved to Paris to study Aikido.

Then I ran out of money. But I wasn't ready to go back to work. So where can I go in the world that's cheap to live? I thought "I'm Chinese..." so in 1995, I moved to Guangzhou with two suitcases to meet cousins I'd never known and look for my roots. I came at a good time.

I started out teaching oral English because they didn't have foreign teachers back then. There were all these smart college grads hired by the IBMs and General Electrics and the Procter and Gambles, but their managers were saying "You guys need to get some proper English." So, I ran a night school, where I got to know the first new generation of English-speaking Chinese.

They had so many questions about American culture, so I said, "Look, guys, it'd be better if I open a coffeeshop and filled it with American magazines." I found a place with high ceilings and brought in my own coffee from the States.

I gave my students all free coffee and then the next day, not one person came back, because there were no coffee shops in Guangzhou back then. They were like, what is this place? Karaoke? A bar? But a Canadian teacher stumbled upon me, down the back alley, and loved the coffee. After that, it became kind of an expat hang-out.

Kathleen's Guangzhou was more like a backpacker's hangout than a restaurant. One workman tilted the "L" in Kathleen's and so the name looked more like Kathreen's than Kathleen's.

I would like to think that it allowed the foreigners that were in Guangzhou a little bit of familiar life so they could continue to stay in China a bit longer. I think it also helped introduce coffeeshop culture to the young generation of Chinese. That was kind of the first Kathleen's.

The expats had so many questions. It was like, "where do I find an English-speaking piano teacher," and I thought, God, you guys are driving me crazy, let me just write it down. So, we started a magazine. Clueless in Guangzhou.

First issue of Clueless in Guangzhou.

In '97-'98, everybody who came to my restaurant in Guangzhou, all the foreigners at Nike, IBM, started to move to Shanghai. I asked myself, "What's in Shanghai?" So I went to see.

I was blown away. This is where I want to be. They had cappuccinos! It was very cosmopolitan, even back then, it was more comfortable. That same year, in 1998, I decided to move here.

The magazine came with me, but a lot had to change. They didn't need Clueless in Shanghai. They had clues. They needed a city magazine. We looked at the TimeOut format. At first, we called it "In Shanghai", then changed it to "That's Shanghai." There's a big difference between running a magazine in Guangzhou and Shanghai. Once, we had nine people from government bureaus in our office in one afternoon.

The first issue of the magazine with the name "That's" Shanghai.

For foreigners in this city, there weren't a lot of other ways to communicate. No internet back then, you see. For us, it was an early try at niche marketing, which China did not have because everyone is talking about reaching millions. I used to say I don't need a million. I just need 10,000 foreigners. And then Chinese shops realized that's all they need too because next to all the ads for real estate and yachts and schools, the bulk of the readership was still Chinese. Secretaries would see the magazine before it landed on the foreign boss' desk. Back then, we could write a bad review of a restaurant, and they would feel it, or we would write a good review of a carpet place and the guy would come in to say thank you and try to give us a carpet because it really made a difference. Back then it was so powerful because there was no one else.

Around the same time, a very good customer and friend had just moved to Shanghai, and he said, "Kathleen, why don't you do a restaurant up here?" And I said, "I'll do a restaurant if you run it." He quit his job and started running the restaurant with me. A year later, I sold it to him. That was Bob Boyce. He took it from Kathleen's to Blue Frog.

Kathleen's on Mao Ming Lu opened in 1999

At one point, we had a woman, Jackie Yun, come and say, "My parents, they have their own business in Australia. I'm Chinese. I'm in Shanghai. I want to learn the ropes. Let me work for you for a year so I can get the lay of the land." We said okay. She left after a year and opened Wagas.

You know, it was China in the 90's. You think things are going fast now? Try back then. Things were rocket speed. It was almost a monthly thing, like, what are the new regulations now? So much excitement! Within a few years, Shanghai went from selling to distributors to every brand opening its own store. We went from five western restaurants to 100.

In those early days, it wasn't easy. When I decided to expand my Guangzhou restaurant, the government landlord cut the gas and electricity on the very first day we were late on rent. We hadn't even built the place yet. I sued them because they kept all my stuff. I lost and then appealed, like the good American that I am. In between the first and the second suit, China changed its law, which meant that the government landlord couldn't run a private enterprise. I won the second suit.

I could write a book called I Won the Second Suit.

Eventually, I just got burnt out. I exited China in 2001. Sold the magazine, sold the restaurant. I moved to France. But everyone kept asking, what do you do? For lack of a better explanation, I said, "I'm a writer." Then I thought to myself, you know, I have all this information from That's Shanghai in my brain. I just dumped it into a book, called "Riding the Dragon, the Practical Guide to Living in Shanghai."

It was a lot of the same anxieties we addressed in Clueless and That's. It was so good because back then it was just Lonely Planet China but there was nothing specific to a city.

I had this book! And I wanted a Chinese publisher. I came back in 2002, just to talk to the Foreign Language Bookstore. Right at that time, someone said, the Shanghai Art Museum in People's Square is looking for you. They'd heard of Kathleen's and needed someone to take over their rooftop. At first, I thought, no, I love China, but I'm out. Then I saw the space. I moved back soon after and that's how I opened K5.

Kathleen's 5 Rooftop Restaurant

I went from a 60-person restaurant on Maoming Lu to a 400-person restaurant. I had no idea what I was doing. The food was inconsistent, it leaked everywhere. In ‘06- ‘07, brands started opening their own shops. Along comes LV, Prada, Gucci, Yves Saint-Laurent, and they all want to host events at my space, because it was a rooftop, in the center of town. It didn't matter that the food was inconsistent, some of them brought their own chefs! It became like the place to go.

The original team from the museum who invited us eventually left, and the new team was completely different. Finally, I opted to leave when the contract finished in 2013. I thought I was done with China (again) and someone said, "You've got to come see this space on Waitan." I was like, "Everyone's been to Waitan. Where are you going to find a new view?" But when I went, I knew I had to open a restaurant there.

Most of our customers were becoming Chinese. In 2009, a lot of the CEOs had to leave or were let go because of the economic crisis.

The old Kathleen's Waitan on Huangpu Lu (North Bund)

It took me a while to notice. When we went to Bei Waitan, I was still under this impression that I needed foreigners. I hired a French chef. Within a year he was gone and suddenly the food became so good. One of the general managers of Porsche asked about the chef, and we were a little embarrassed. We said, "Oh we're in between foreigners right now, it's a Chinese chef," and he said, "I don't care. Where's he from? I just want to shake the hands of a man who made this meal. He was so impressed, and he told the incoming General Manager he had to go there for his events.

Then, four years into a ten-year contract, our lease was audited, and we got closed. So that was the end of Kathleen's Bei Waitan, and again, I was ready to leave but my managers went looking. We had a super steady core of people, so it was a sad occasion when we closed, because suddenly we would have had to let 80 people go who had been with us for a long time.

Then a space with a 360 view came up, on what used to be the Cool Docks. I thought the views weren't that nice, but it turns out most people liked this view better. Plus, unbeknownst to us, there was a complex of apartments directly behind us where there were lots of celebrities, government officials and CEOs.

The terrace of Kathleen's Waitan in 2022

We opened Kathleen's Waitan in 2018, but of course, shortly after, COVID hit and I was stuck outside for 2020. This team with Tony, who started with me at 19 and is turning 40, made it work.

You can ask me all sorts of details about my life, but I think that it's not about me, it's about Shanghai.

I just can't even tell you how amazing it is. How rapidly these things change. I'm still overwhelmed and still don't know how it happened. It's like you're one little person marching in this massive, well-planned parade, and you couldn't see the big picture, and now you look back and go "I can't even say how we got here." SARS got rid of spitting in the street and how about fireworks? China changed 5,000 years of history in one night. I don't think people understand what it takes to move so many people in one direction.

Every single year I say it's my last. I'm still saying it! But is there something to go back to in the US? It's not just China that has changed, it's the world.

I think my claim to fame, is that my team is Chinese. In those days, and still, to this day, a lot of these big restaurants have a Western team. My teams are looking at new spaces to do more restaurants. I watched my staff grow up. One came to me as a 19-year-old from Hunan and she didn't know how to say hello, and now she owns Cotton's. It's a new generation coming, but this time, it's really theirs. They've taken 20 years of this and now they can make their own vision.

And me? I'm the Godmother. I'm Marlon Brando. Just wait till you see what comes next.

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