Shanghai Lil's back on the scene

By Anna Hart

Auckland's nightlife hasn't been the same without it. Shanghai Lil's has finally reopened in its third incarnation in Parnell

Russel Green, owner of Shanghai Lil. Photo / Babiche Martens
Russel Green, owner of Shanghai Lil. Photo / Babiche Martens

Many hearts were broken when Shanghai Lil's, housed in the iconic Birdcage in Freemans Bay, closed its doors to revellers last year. In a city where you'll find 10 leatherette-clad, R&B-playing cafe-bars for one quirky independent establishment, Lil's managed to be instantly memorable and effortlessly cool.

All hand-carved dragons, Chinese red lanterns and 1930s art prints, entering Shanghai Lil's was like walking on to a film set - all the elegance of In The Mood For Love paired with the battiness of Grey Gardens - but regulars will tell you the most important part of the furniture has always been the double act of delightfully eccentric owner Russel Green and his resident jazz pianist - and partner of 22 years, Billy Farnell.

Clad in Chinese silk and prone to sporadic outbursts of the can-can on the dance floor, they treated regulars, newbies and the occasional Hollywood star with the same degree of warmth and attention.

But all good things must come to an end - in this case it was thanks to a wrecking ball courtesy of the Victoria Park tunnel which means the Birdcage will be dismantled and moved to a new location.

For those who missed out on it, and for those who miss it, there is good news. Shanghai Lil's has found a new home in a colonial-style underground bar in Parnell Village.

"As soon as I peered through the dust-covered window, I knew I'd found something special," says Green, sitting proudly on a plush sofa in the den-like new venue. "In fact, 'remembered' would be a better word than 'found', because I'd worked here back in 1994 when it was Valerio's. It's got a wonderful feel to it, and I love the fact that its underground, like an opium den.

"The courtyard, with its wrought-iron spiral staircase and views of the Sky Tower sealed the deal. Plus we've got a dining room out the back, so we're finally able to include a restaurant."

The shift from bar to restaurant is a new step for Shanghai Lil's, although Green has had stints as a chef in a long hospitality career. "I've always loved the concept of 1930s supper clubs, where people can dine, enjoy post-dinner cocktails and have a turn on the dance floor, all in the same venue."

The all-new Shanghai Lil's has been open just a few weeks and has already hosted several "successful first dates", a "wonderfully celebratory" funeral wake and a dance floor takeover by a visiting dance act.

"Shanghai Lil's is all about escapism. I want to provide an extraordinary setting where people feel free to let dramas unfold in their lives - whether it's kissing in a corner, dancing to the piano or meeting a fabulous new friend over a cocktail."

So what do regulars make of the new venue? "As soon as people walk in, they say, 'Oh, it still feels like Shanghai Lil's'. Some say they prefer the low-ceiling intimacy of this place to The Birdcage."

It's certainly got the same Aladdin's Cave feel to it: no nook or cranny is left devoid of an antique porcelain vase or elaborately-carved rosewood chest.

"It's been fabulous fun delving into our collection to find pieces that fit here," says Green. The couple's art collection is legendary. Between the two of them they have 90 years worth of obsessive collecting of oriental furniture and art, Art Deco pieces and "anything whimsical and different, really". "Shanghai Lil's is essentially an extension of our living room at home. We joke that we opened the bar because we needed somewhere else to put everything."

And what of the move from Ponsonby to Parnell? Is Green worried that the hipsters, musicians and visiting thespians who made Shanghai Lil's so colourful will be lost to other venues along the way?

"Oh no," he says. "You see, we've put a sign up outside."

It's this refreshingly low-key attitude that has made Shanghai Lil's a hit with visiting luminaries including Sir Ian McKellen, Scarlett Johansson and Josh Hartnett; people who wouldn't dare show their faces at Spy Bar.

In fact, the only reason Viva knows about the new opening is because we walked past the building; there were no press releases or vodka-sponsored launch parties here.

Though Green insists he isn't in thrall to fame - "Everybody works hard and needs fun, everybody pays the same for a drink, so no so-called VIP is going to skip the door queue" - he clearly relishes Shanghai Lil's status as an underground celebrity hangout.

"When Kate Bosworth and Geoffrey Rush (filming soon-to-be-released The Warrior's Way) came to the bar last year it was just delightful. Geoffrey got stuck into the red wine and after a couple of cocktails Kate agreed to have a dance with me. She was absolutely lovely - although so skinny I was terrified I'd break her in half - and we gave a great high-kicking floor-show."

"And Scarlett! She was lovely. Although I didn't have a clue who she was, of course. This girl came in here with an American accent and a denim jacket on and mentioned that we'd been full the last time she was here and she'd been turned away at the door. It was only later that that someone told me who she was."

The star stories come thick and fast, from the time Sir Ian McKellen chatted candidly about his Kiwi former beau to the time Anna Hoffman (who scandalised 1960s society by getting caught selling marijuana) counselled Millie Holmes (who scandalised 2008 society with her own brush with drugs) about "experimenting but not getting caught".

"People call me a name-dropper, but everyone's got a name. It just happens that I like people whose names everyone knows. I admire people who've got up to do something different, whether they're a Hollywood actress or a reformed Mongrel Mob member. It's the story, not the name, that attracts me."

Still, the fact that famous faces show up in your bar can hardly hurt business, can it?

"Oh, it's never been about the money," laughs Green, as if this is the greatest joke in the world. "People assume that if you've got A-listers in your venue you're rolling in cash, but they spend the same on a glass of wine as anyone else. They just make our evenings a bit more interesting. Which is much more important anyway."

If you're searching for the secret of Green's success, this is it in a nutshell: he's clearly doing it just for fun.

"We count ourselves lucky to have a lifestyle that has us hosting a Fashion Week wrap party one week and an Aids Awareness initiative the next. The move to Parnell just means we'll have new faces, and new occasions to create. Running Shanghai Lil's keeps Billy and I in the middle of things. And that's exactly where we like to be."

* Shanghai Lil's, 311 Parnell Rd, ph (09) 358 0868, open Wed-Thurs 4.30pm-3am, Friday 12pm-3am, Sat 6pm-3am, Sun 10am-6pm.

- NZ Herald

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