Joel Lai

For nearly the past six months, Shanghai has played host to Asia’s most accomplished and influential house disc jockey. Since the opening of The Drop near The Peninsula Hotel, DJ Joel Lai has been holding down Saturday nights with his special brand of quality soulful house.

“I started DJing when I was 15 – over 27 years ago,” Lai says, “after I saw (Shanghai’s own) Andrew Bull playing at Disco Disco in Hong Kong.” Entranced by the musical hedonism that defined the colony’s first proper club, Lai taught himself how to DJ with cassette tapes using a pencil to adjust the speeds of two newly bought cassette decks. He quickly moved on to vinyl by requisitioning his father’s old belt-driven turntable, opening the territory’s first record shop and selling his services as a mobile disco. He also landed his first proper residency at a hotel club called Starlight.

After impressing Hong Kong by turning business around at Starlight, Lan Kwai Fong quickly came calling, with Lai moving to the mighty Club 97 for the next 13 years. Success followed him throughout the 1990s as he was repeatedly voted the city’s best DJ by the local press. On the night of Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997, Lai headlined the Unity Party along with Boy George and Paul Oakenfold, an event carried worldwide on BBC Radio. “It was such a great event on such a special day – almost 12,000 people – I am very proud to have been part of it.”

Lai also developed his hand at promoting large parties throughout Hong Kong. Throughout the decade he exposed the city to such DJ-ing superstars as Carl Cox, Sasha, Paul van Dyk, Pete Tong, Nick Warren, Derrick May, Louie Vega and Tony Humphries, just to name a few. He’s also responsible for arguably Asia’s finest moment in dance music history – John Digweed playing for a packed ballroom at the Regal Hotel – an event captured for posterity through a Global Underground CD release. “We did events wherever we could; that particular location was a bit of a nightmare – mafia,” he quickly says. “But in the end it was a total success.”

With well over a decade of experience working for others, Lai struck out on his own in 2001 opening a small spot in Central known as The Drop. “Club 97 was no longer a crowd I could influence musically, they were set in their ways and I needed something new.” This was the culmination of ten years of planning that only finally became reality after Lai paid a fortune to bring the tiny club up to fire-code standards. The Drop was a risk as the small size and underground music style bucked the city’s trend of KTVs and raves, but very quickly Lai’s dream established itself as the place to party.

By 2003, Lai had already begun to think about the next step – breaking into the Mainland. “Clubs in China are almost always owned by people wanting to make money. That’s not my goal. I just want to show China and the world how we do things in Hong Kong – quality music, premium cocktails, better atmosphere.” Initially Lai looked at Beijing, but quickly settled on Shanghai – “a better business atmosphere and more international,” he says. Seven years of planning came to fruition this past autumn with the opening of The Drop’s near-Bund branch, a slightly larger version of its southern sister club. Already the venue has won accolades from the prestigious Wallpaper magazine for its interior design.

And although Lai says the complexities of the local market have surprised him, he still has high hopes for eventually convincing Shanghai to his style of clubbing. “We are a different type of club than what you’ll find here,” he says. “Not just playing quality house music, we are the whole package, and, importantly, I am not here to take your money and then ignore you. We are trying to build a special community.”

DJ Joel Lai plays every Saturday night at The Drop. 55 Yuan Ming Yuan Lu, near Beijing Lu. Tel: 6329 3718

Syndicate content