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New Old Energy: A Conversation with Kenny from YY’s

The proprietor of one of Shanghai’s oldest bars looks back on 15 years
2021-09-29 19:00:00
Photos: Angela Leung

About two weeks ago, we had the first bit of news from YY, aka Ying Yang (sic), since it lost its upstairs in 2012. The dark red Nanchang Lu basement bar – Shanghai's hottest club back in the Triassic and then mostly a haunt for woozy expats with long memories – has moved back up to its original streetside digs. There are some new, younger partners involved, who are totally rehashing the basement. Look for that to open in October.

This, we thought, was our first real excuse to interview YY's ethereal owner, Kenny. Originally from Hong Kong, he's spent nearly every night of the last 25 years at the bar. As you can guess, he's got kind of an otherworldly feel to him. A little spacy. Not-quite-here. Conversation veers almost immediately into philosophy, history, politics, Hong Kong, Donald Trump, Confucius, Shanghaineseness. It's like talking to Dumbledore.

If we printed it all, it would run to like twelve pages. So we refined it down to a couple bits from his kaleidoscopic perspective on the last quarter century, sitting in a bar.


SmSh: Why'd you decide to open YY?

Kenny: When I came to Shanghai in the early 90s, they just had the local discos for drinking, music, dance. Some foreigners, including myself, also had the five-star hotels that didn't accept RMB. After two or three years, I was bored. I'd already seen everything.

Luckily for me, I had the conditions to open my own place. It was all about the underground music, house, techno, that sort of stuff. Most people in Shanghai had never heard that kind of music before.

SmSh: Yeah, according to a dusty event flyer we found in our archives, you were one of the first places to bring in DJs from overseas. What made YY popular back then?

Kenny: I set up for my own needs. Luckily enough, there were enough people who shared my same vibe and taste, and the right moment was happening in the city. I opened up and six months later, I had 600 members.

When I opened up, the people enjoyed living in the city, because most of them were willing to stay. No one was planning to leave, until they had no chance but to leave. That's why they participated in the city, the culture, what sort of events, what sort of history. But since five or six years ago, when the regulations changed, the people have a totally different perspective.

Smsh: What do you mean?

Kenny: Before, it was a casino. China, Shanghai, it was a casino. They didn't have a cover charge, everyone could easily get a visa. Now on the first day they arrive, people already know when they're going to leave. You have one year visa, you have no idea if you can get another one, you don't really participate in this city's culture and history. You just take as much as you can take and leave. It's totally different.

SmSh: Haven't people always come and gone in Shanghai?

Kenny: Every night I sit here, I talk to the people, what sort of different people are there. Before, most foreigners spoke Chinese to me. But now, I mean... how many speak Chinese? Those kind of people have left and the newcomer is a totally different club. They know they're leaving.

If I was one of them, I'd do the same thing. That's why the cloud is different.

SmSh: What else has changed since then?

Kenny: When I opened, it was 80% foreigner, 20% local Chinese. Now it's 80% new generation from all over China. Definitely it's great to see this kind of new energy. The new generation, born after 90s, they study overseas, photography, art, fashion. What do you expect when they come back, expect them to go to Guizhou, Tianjin, Shenyang?

No way! They all end up in Shanghai. For them, in the last five years they're starting to find their own club. This generation, they're looking for something on their own, because they're living in this city, they're participating in this city.

SmSh: So things have changed completely but it sounds like you're planning to take YY back to the way it was when it first opened, right?

Kenny: Yes. Upstairs is Yang, downstairs is Yin. Upstairs was always old train seats, like going past a window, but the basement been changed quite a few times, maybe every few years to match the new trends. After I lost my upstairs in 2012, I changed my basement to be the same theme as the upstairs, the forever theme.

Now we have the upstairs again, it's the same as the classic, and we'll change the downstairs to make it more multifunctional.

SmSh: Do you think it'll still appeal?

Kenny: The young generation, they're still looking for something like what I enjoyed, that sort of a space for them to hang out, something unique.

SmSh: 25 years. That's a long time.

Kenny: 25 years, I'm the only who's stayed in the same venue.

SmSh: Are you sick of it all?

Kenny: I still enjoy talking to the people. But as the whole vibe is totally different. This generation, I mean, it's hard to have a conversation for them because in five minutes *mimes taking out a phone* and the whole topic or subject is gone. So it's hard to have that sort of conversation that I used to have.

Those foreigners from before, they still come once in a while. If they still live in Shanghai, they're getting married, divorced, babies. Before COVID, almost every month, I'd have some friends, when they came back to Shanghai, they come and they go 'oh man I can't believe it's still here.' Because I'm the only one still here.

SmSh: It sounds like you're handing the steering wheel over to your new, younger partners. How come?

Kenny: I feel like I'm getting old. If you think about it, 25 years, I've been staying here every night. My wife is also retired, we want to spend more time to travel around China together.

The city movement is now on the local. The ones after the 90s, they're the one making the culture, the art, the music. My new partners, they know how to maintain a vibe and an image. Before I was on my own, but now I have a new partner, and my new team takes time to build up. So far so good, so far so good. They understand the balance, they understand the mindset. I'm looking forward to seeing what they do with it.