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April 1, 2010

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Judy survives the Tongren turmoil

THE old bar scene is gone from Tongren Road, the short strip of all-nighters opposite the emerging Shangri-La hotel having been boarded up since the start of the year as a new broom sweeps clean.

But there is one survivor, Judy's, which has vstayed in the neighborhood, in fact in the same road and only a dozen or so doors further along the street toward Nanjing Road W.

Owned and operated by Shanghai nightclub veteran Judy Qiu, it has moved into a statelier two-story building at 142 Tongren Road which recently housed City Diner upstairs and a Chinese restaurant at street level.

When the bell tolled for the end of the seedy old strip, Qiu had little time to find new premises to relocate her three-level operation of ground-floor nightclub, Studio 78 on the 2nd floor and Mexican restaurant Taco Popo on the top.

But after an investment of 3 million yuan (US$439,500) and a month gutting and renovating the building, the new Judy's opened on January 8.

"It was a good idea for Tongren Road to change because it was all getting too messy and there were too many girls around," says Qiu, 41.

She's a pioneer of Shanghai nightlife, having been in the business for 16 years and sustaining her Judy's franchise at premises on Fumin Road (three years), Maoming Road (10 years) and now twice on Tongren Road (three years).

Her first job was as a secretary in the Jin Jiang Hotel group, then she held positions at the Equatorial and Hilton hotels. In the mid-1990s she set out on her own.

"My mum helped me find a location for very cheap rent on Fumin Road (near Changle Road) and with a 600,000-yuan investment I started my business," she says.

Qiu opened her first bar in an era when the city's nightlife scene was changing.

"Twenty years ago everybody was going to hotel nightclubs," she recalls. "Since then independent bars emerged and the scene changed a lot from normally being owned by Chinese. Foreigners started opening bars and restaurants so it's more like Hong Kong now, more competitive, and that's a good thing.

"I have seen places like Dee Dee's and others come and go and I think I am the only operator who's survived," she says.

General Manager Paulo Luis says the business has retained 80 percent of its clientele, but many are nostalgic for the frayed, seedy spirit of the old place up the road.

"If you'd been to the old bar and now visit the new one, your first reaction will be 'wow' because it's completely different when it comes to decor and style," he says. "But some people would say of the old one 'the reason I went there is it was trashy and I like it, this one looks too clean.' And that's a fair comparison."

Another challenge is to win new customers who avoided the old strip because of its reputation and never tried businesses like Judy's which seemed "to be the right place in the wrong street," according to Luis.

So Qiu has started opening for lunch, with a menu based on the old Taco Popo's Mexican cuisine.

There's something available to eat all the time, with Judy's traditional barbeque offering food into the early hours.

While Qiu has risen to the challenge to remake her flagship bar in a new location almost overnight, she recently married and has a baby to care for.

But she remains a "night person" and is a hands-on owner.

"If you start not caring after you've become successful, thinking you're a big boss and just wanting to enjoy life, you won't survive," she says.

"I always stay low-key, I like to do everything and have fun with my staff," she adds.


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