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Interview: Team Bar Rouge

By Nov 25, 2009 Nightlife

For the last five years, Shanghai has been synonymous with one club: Bar Rouge.

As a totally unsubtle reminder of Shanghai's hedonistic heritage, but also as a representation of how the city's wealthier classes like to freak in the '00s, no other club anywhere truly encapsulates what Shanghai really is all about like Bar Rouge does.

Whether they incur your fiery self-righteous indignation or your cheerful unabashed praise, for the occasion of their five-year anniversary, this faux journaliste pops his collar in sober salute to the king.

Well, done Bar Rouge, you fabulous bitch. Well done.

SmartShanghai waded through a knee-high tide of Champagne and regrets down at the Bund to meet up with COO of the VOL group, Mathieu Brauer, and resident music director, Damien Kay. We talked about the glory days of BR in 2005, when it felt like Japanese bombs would drop at any second (and probably they should have). We talked about expats being a broke and sad lot these days. And we talked about their next club, GAME * BLING, which sounds nuts town.

Bar Rouge's week-long festivities continue Thursday (SMS), Friday (Benny Benassi, ticket here), and Saturday (Genuine Bar Rouge).


SmSh: So maybe to start, can you guys could introduce yourself -- say who you are, what you do, and when you got involved with Bar Rouge.

Damien Kay: I'm Damien. I'm the music director for VOL Group and the DJ at Bar Rouge. I've been involved since the beginning, five years ago.

Mathieu Brauer: I'm Mathieu Brauer. I'm the COO of VOL Group. I used to be the manager at Bar Rouge, and today I'm not involved directly, but I was on the team that founded Bar Rouge five years ago. Also on that team was Damien, Philippe Ortega... we founded Bar Rouge in November of 2004. The party was the launch of Chivas 18, at Bund 18. It was a very Chinese thing... 18, 18, 18.

SmSh: So, five years is a long time in the Shanghai clubbing industry. To what do you attribute the success of Bar Rouge?

Mathieu: Well, for me, we first came in a very good period of time -- 2004, 2005. It was very good to arrive in Shanghai in that period of time. And we brought something to Shanghai, which I think did not exist, which is the "feminine touch" in the clubbing scene. Before, people, they were going to clubs like Park 97, and drinking whiskey and cognac, and I think we were the first club to bring the Champagne touch. We were the first to focus on Champagne -- Champagne, Champagne, Champagne. We really underlined it. Creating parties to underline the Champagne spirit.

So it was more femininity, glamour, sexy, the chandeliers, and of course the view. The view is like a landmark of the city.

Damien: And at that time it was one of the first on the Bund...

Mathieu: Originally the investors wanted to make a lounge, but after a few months we realized we were dealing with high fixed costs -- rental, and so on -- and a lounge would not break even, so we switched it to something in between. Club, bar, lounge -- something in between. And I think we succeeded in making this, and catering to that niche before all our other competitors came. The size of our market is not too big, but what I think, from what we've done with the past, the location, the building, in this market we're still alright.

Damien: Also, at this time we did not have competitors for something like two and a half years.
"Bar Rouge was working with Moet and Chandon, and we were the third biggest location for them in terms of sales worldwide... like 3,600 bottles of Champagne a year or something."

Mathieu: Yes, we were alone. In those days we had people coming Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday -- every night, every week. [Laughs.] And then it became a kind of an institution. It was one of the few places in Shanghai that was very well-known abroad. I don't know about today, but it was the only place that was known internationally...

Damien: Nowadays, I think there are at least five or six places on the same target. But then we were at the right moment, with the right people, with the right place. And also, of course, we had good support from sponsors to help us bring international DJs...

SmSh: What is it about Shanghai that makes Bar Rouge a good fit for the city?

Mathieu: I think it is Shanghai that makes Bar Rouge. I think five years ago in Paris it never could have happened. I think five years before that, in Shanghai, it would have been too early. Shanghai at that time was the "high life" city, and maybe still is the "high life" city. I think we brought something to Shanghai, to the nightlife scene, but it was the people back then who made it what it was. And Shanghai made Bar Rouge. When Shanghai became an international city, Bar Rouge became an international club. A city needs a landmark -- restaurant, bar, whatever. When you go to Paris, every week there is a magazine speaking about Shanghai. And the same in Italy, Germany, wherever...

Slideshow: 5 Years Bar Rouge

Click here to view the slideshow

SmSh: What were the early days of Bar Rouge like? Who was going?

Damien: Five years ago the company, this company VOL, owned by some Taiwanese people, I think at that time they felt that more and more foreigner companies were coming to Shanghai at that time, and they felt it was good to bring our team and the team of the restaurant downstairs [Sens & Bund]. At that time there were so many foreigners and so many opportunities with this growing market.

Mathieu: In 2005, Shanghai was El Dorado. Wow. It was like everyone who comes here is going to make money. Of course, that was not in fact completely true. A lot of clubs failed. But anyways, people felt it was very easy. And this attitude with everyone, with the expat crowd, was very positive. People were going out every week. Spending their money, because, you know -- their vision of their own future was very positive. They felt, "I'm going to be here five, ten years, and make a lot of money."

Another reason back then was that when you're in Shanghai, you're stuck in Shanghai. If on the weekend you're in Paris or wherever, you can walk, take the bus, take the train and leave the city -- countryside, beautiful landscapes, whatever. Here, you take the car one hour and a half and you're like "what the fuck, there's skyscrapers everywhere." [Laughs.]

And so, people who need to breathe and to relieve the pressure would go out.

SmSh: And what about consumer attitudes now?

Mathieu: The same. People are still here not for the lifestyle but for the cash, but they are more uncertain of their future: "I can't go out, I have to save money." The people who spend now are Chinese. It's still new for Chinese people: "Wow. I'm rich. It's new." And they are more secure in their future. They think it will last five, ten, twenty years.

That is not the case of the expat people, who are now the opposite. They are here for a short period of time and concerned about their future -- they need to save the cash. It's the complete opposite of what expat people were thinking five years ago.

And that's why everything and everyone is changing and re-focusing on the domestic market right now. Everyone is looking at the local market now. And it's the same with the clubbing scene: Muse, M2, Richy -- they've tapped very well into the local market.

SmSh: So in the last year or so -- and I think you're referring to it a bit -- everyone was making predictions on the impact of the global economic crisis on high-end F&B business, mostly saying that it would result in large-scale revenue deficits -- what was your thinking at the time?

Damien: Yes of course, and also on top of that the troubles with visas and so on. For the first three years [of Bar Rouge], anyone could get a visa very easily. No problems for anybody, but in the last year it's been difficult.

But yes with the economic situation and so many other factors -- more competition -- we've had to adapt and change ourselves, appealing to more Chinese clubbers. Chinese clubbers also feel the economic crisis less than the foreigners.

Mathieu: In 2005, 2006 Bar Rouge was working with Moet and Chandon, and we were the third biggest location for them in terms of sales worldwide. Not Shanghai the city, but Bar Rouge alone. Bar Rouge alone was the third. It was huge figures -- something like 3,600 bottles of Champagne a year or something. So people know Bar Rouge from those parties in those years. It was completely crazy. I've traveled all over the world and I've never seen anything like it. All weekend long, every weekend for a year and a half.

And now it's true, revenues have dropped a little bit, but we've always been so high that we've never lost money. Even when the crisis came, we still made money and were happy. But it's true, when you reach the top you can only go down a bit...

Damien: But at the same time it's okay. And it's the same worldwide. No one lives the same as in 2004, 2005. And we're custumers in Shanghai too, we go out and go to clubs, and we change as well... things change.

Mathieu: Yes, and we're still here and strong. And the name is still famous. But, you know, we are still happy. We're still successful in this market.

SmSh: And how are your current feelings towards the market today, "post" economic crisis. If it is in fact the "post" stage...

Damien: It's getting better again. People are more and more confident. And Shanghai is getting energized by the Shanghai Expo. More and more stuff is happening again. And people are getting excited again.

"Expats coming here five years ago they felt like the kings... Today, the power has shifted and Chinese people are taking the lead."

Mathieu: This is true. This is true. It's getting better, but at the same time it's becoming something new. Five years ago we brought something to China. And at that time it was very much... "you come here and show us how to do this." Expats coming here five years ago they felt like the kings. That is not true today. Today, the power has shifted and Chinese people are taking the lead. And now expats know they should be more Chinese. They are not coming in anymore saying, "I am the expat. I know everything." They know now they have to speak Chinese and that is the way it is going to be. They cannot behave like a... you know... they need to show more respect, eat like a local, which is good. Of course, this is good. When you go into a foreign country you have to adapt yourself. So that's I think what it is like now.

Damien: Yes, that is a good point. Foreigners' attitude is getting better. Now they shut their mouth more. [Laughs.] And I know this because I am French and we're the worst... [Laughs.]

Mathieu: Yes, we see this because we've been with foreigners for five years.

Damien: And now the clientele is more Chinese as well. It was like 80-20, foreigners to Chinese [in 2004], but now it's more like 60-40 -- something like this.

You were talking before about the earlier day of crazy expats, bottles of Champagne everywhere, the Shanghai "high life" -- Bar Rouge sort of became a symbol of excess and indulgence in Shanghai. How do you respond the criticisms of the bar? The reputation of the bar?

Mathieu: Of course, its high profile, the success, the fame -- that brings the critics. And it's normal. It's the game. In those days, of course, it's expat, expat, expat. And for many people living here in China, they didn't want that kind of thing. They want it local. But I would say we were trying to bring something more international... more global in China. But also now it's not so much, with the changes in the market and the changes in the people going there -- more Chinese people, and also people have calmed down, after the Olympics, after the economic crisis. Of course, we will always have enemies, but of course, I hope we will have people who like us for what we have done...

SmSh: Is this Shanghai Music Society with the tag line "No Mainstream, No Underground, Only Music" a response to criticism? [Ed's Note: The Shanghai Music Society is a Thursday party at Bar Rouge featuring Damien Kay, along with several Shanghai DJs -- Ben Huang, Dave K, Acid Pony Club, Paul Cayrol, and more]

Damien: Yes, two Thursdays of the month we have the SMS party, where the best DJs in Shanghai, the residents, come to play the latest electro stuff, so it's for electro music lovers to come and hear the new stuff. DJs play stuff that came out the week before.

Mathieu: It's not only a party, it's a label as well. And it's because Shanghai is a mature market now, in comparison with five years ago, and will be even more mature five years from now. And sponsors are not spending as much money as they were when they were first coming here -- they used to have a big party, big DJ, whatever. But now, it is harder to change the consumption habits of people, so even if you have a big vodka party with a big DJ, it's not going to make them drink vodka.

In the future, it will be harder for clubs to book big, big DJs, because it's not going to be sponsored and it's not going to be profitable. That's why we have the solution provided by Damien, which is the SMS concept. It's Shanghai Music Society, a music label with our own DJs, our own DJs/producers.

Damien: And that's what every city in the world has done. DJs get together to promote their city and their music.

Mathieu: And we'll need our DJs here to play. And we need to be represented by our DJs to become something on the music scene world wide.

SmSh: So to finish with... What's GAME * BLING?

Mathieu: [Laughs.] Yeah, it's a good question at the end because it summarizes what we've been saying. And it's not "gambling" -- it's "GAME", "STAR", "BLING". Five years ago it was expat time and now it's not. I think we brought something to Shanghai five years ago -- but we are humble -- we brought something to Shanghai nightlife, maybe some did it better, but we did what we did. But now, we are thinking "well, what is it that Chinese people want." What can we do to have something for Chinese clubbers. Well, we go out and we see games. So we're trying to provide something unique in terms of design, performance, and games. We have tailor-made drinking games which are new at this club GAME * BLING. Dice, balls, cards, bows and arrows...

SmSh: You made up some drinking games?

Mathieu: Yeah, each table has a lot of different games, and also in the club there's lots of interactive performances. You shall have a boxing ring, you shall have dancers, and girls in chandeliers. Focus on hip hop and funky music. But it's something new on the table, and people entertain themselves. You want dice. Here are dice, and one, two, three, four more games. We're trying to do something for Chinese people.

But anyways that's the concept -- it's not a casino, but yeah it's "GAME" for the games and "BLING" for the hip hop thing.

SmSh: Sounds awesome. When are you planning on opening?

Mathieu: Should be January.

Congratulations on the five-year anniversary. Anything else to add?

Mathieu: I just want to say thank you to Shanghai. The people who have been here supporting us the last five years. And thank you to all the people who have helped create Bar Rouge with us. Thank you and we hope to see you on Saturday...

And of course every night...



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  • einzweidrei

    Bar rouge attracts a certain kind of people. It\'s good they are all kept in one spot ... ;-)

  • Louloute69


  • tommyb7

    I love...the controversy it causes. I love the fact that people in the \"alternative, underground scene\", people who are as pretentious in their own right, always feel the need to bash Bar Rouge.

    I don\'t particularly like the place or the crowd, but well done Bar Rouge...

  • Umberto C.

    Bar Rouge: where the white puffy losers and the prostitutes hang

  • Llyrian


    Bar Rouge has a fabulous view, that\'s about it. The rest is whether so so, whether it sucks hard. And staff is terribly scornful, managers should do something about it.

  • shanghai_ultra

    Bar Rogue does what it does very well, so congratulations to them. Five years is indeed a long time.

    However, its efforts to promote itself as a venue to go and hear quality electronic music are a joke. You can\'t have your cake and eat it - Bar Rogue is a venue slaved to commercial interests and wouldn\'t host the Shanghai Music Society if there was an alternative on offer which would make more profit.

    Anyway, hats off to Shanghai\'s number one zhuang bi bar.

  • loveSH

    Bar Rouge is what it is. Be there for 5 years is a big thing for Shanghai nightlife. Don\'t understand why people use so much energy to write such things. I am Chinese and it is not about loving Bar Rouge or not, I think it depends on taste and anyway there are a lot of clubs in Shanghai to please everyone...

  • djsexypaul

    been there once, hated every moment of it, If someone could drop a bomb on the place it would do us all the world of good

  • Wael

    think that Bar rouge is a landmark, whether we hate it or love it it is what it is...very few are the places in Shanghai and China that can make it that far. Whether its full of prostitutes or fake expats high rollers on some is Bar Rouge...I tip my hat to that

  • johnotoole

    BR is what it is, fair play boys.

    Should take a cue from L18 and M1NT (and even velvet) though, if you\'re going to charge an insane amount for drinks, which, at that rent, you really have to, you should really know how to make better cocktails. M1NT kills my wallet every time, but if I ask for a sidecar I get a darned good one. BR isn\'t the only game in town any more, I feel it would get more respect if it went back to its roots a little bit. Either way, it\'s some view.

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