April 2012

The Nation Reviewed

A Romantic B&B

By Paul Ham
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
The Bourbon & Beefsteak in Kings Cross

Outside a dead bar in Sydney’s Kings Cross, a homeless prostitute sags against a wall. A yellow neon light announcing ‘The Bourbon’ is turned off. The smudged window reveals only a damp cave – all that remains of this once glorious Sydney institution.

The sounds have died with it: the howling laughter of soldiers on leave from the Vietnam War; the cackle of old prostitutes in the faces of their powder-blue suited clients; the conversation of shadowy CIA types in dark corners; the raucous bands playing to a dance floor packed with drag queens, celebrities, hen’s nights and bent cops. The Bourbon & Beefsteak Bar and Restaurant, established in 1967, was open 24 hours.

Owner and US Air Force veteran Bernie Houghton, who ran covert air operations for the CIA in Vietnam, personified the spirit of the Bourbon & Beefsteak, and Kings Cross. Unlike so much of Sydney’s recent pop-up culture, Texas-born Houghton knew a bar was as good as its clientele. He learned his trade partly by observing the needs of men on R&R: they had survived another tour of duty, cheated death and wanted somewhere to yell, dance and drink.

The B&B breathed New Orleans into Sydney’s red-light district, creating a hint of the Deep South – a great lure to American GIs far from home. Inside was Addams Family anarchy, crammed with the paraphernalia of 40 years: the detritus of the Vietnam War (monogrammed Zippo lighters, uniformed mannequins, helmets, flags, dixies, at least one battered old M16) amid a clutter of Americana (a Native American chief’s headdress, a fake grizzly, a Fonz-era jukebox). The lot was festooned with the trinkets and baubles and calling cards of young men and women on the hunt, battle-shocked, drunk, or otherwise addled.

Bernie Houghton’s life spanned Sydney’s underbelly. In 1972 his intelligence mates got him a new Australian visa; he cited Leo Carter, then director of the NSW branch of ASIO, as a referee. He was also linked with a criminal organisation, the Nugan Hand Bank; according to South-East Asia expert Alfred McCoy, “The Hand–Houghton partnership led the bank’s international division into new fields – drug finance, arms trading, and support work for CIA covert operations.” Houghton turned his nightclub into the bar of choice for visiting US government and CIA agents.

In 2005, following Houghton’s death, it was announced that the B&B would shut its doors. There were no street protests or beat-ups – and nobody objected, of course, to the $53 million paid for it by ING Real Estate Entertainment Fund. (Was the B&B that good?) Such money silences dissent in Sydney.

The new owners promptly gutted the joint and turned it into another soulless doof hall of mirrors and chrome. Between 2006 and 2010, the Bourbon – the owners dropped the American ‘Beefsteak’ – gradually died. By 2009 it was reduced to a spotlit rectangle of backpackers, trivia nights and $10 steaks; in early 2010, when it closed again, the owners blamed the collapse of the roof during heavy rain. For once it wasn’t a fire that shut a nightclub in the Cross, the locals smirked. Insurers wrote off the drenched interior, and the Bourbon shut its doors “indefinitely”, pending council approval for a second makeover.

Sydney drinkers who loved the old Beefsteak felt vindicated, and hurled spears of schadenfreude at those they held responsible: the former Sydney Mayor Lucy Turnbull and her successor Clover Moore, sundry property developers, the hip empty-nesters who’d moved into the area. But the critics failed to see that local governments and heritage agencies have no power to preserve the contents of private businesses – only the fixtures and buildings.

And so, for 18 months, the grand old dame lay blank and empty. On 19 December 2011, the B&B received a stay of execution: the City of Sydney approved another refit, proposed by the Bourbon’s new owner, the Chinese entrepreneur Christopher Cheung, proprietor of that seaside pile-up, the Coogee Bay Hotel.

Cheung’s company C.inc had bought the Bourbon and the neighbouring Club Swans premises in 2010 for $22 million. So whereas the patrons of the grotty old original rang up receipts that valued it at more than $50 million, the second Bourbon – supposedly a mecca for the Prada set – drew so few that it was valued at less than half its 2004 price tag.

Pledging a “major overhaul”, Cheung may have some good ideas, but most ‘overhaulers’ fail to understand that money can’t buy authenticity. Rather, it is acquired gradually, absorbing local stories, lives and pasts.

Everyone who drank there has a Bourbon & Beefsteak story. The B&B saved Ricky Ponting’s career, by almost destroying it: one rainy night in January 1999, the future Australian captain danced his way through the bar on the arm of a drag queen called Carlotta, staggered onto the pavement and into the fist of a waiting bouncer. The sobering experience helped put the young cricketer back on the path to greatness.

Ponting followed a conga line of revellers. As Detective Malcolm Bigg of Lidcombe puts it: “I was a cop there between ’91 and ’94 … the joint had an atmosphere like no other – something that could only be described as coming right out of the movies. We ate for free (on shift), smoked, drank, danced, and women were running on hot and cold taps – it was heaven on earth, let me tell ya.”

Paul Ham
Paul Ham is an author and journalist. His books include the acclaimed Kokoda and Vietnam: The Australian War. He is currently the Australian correspondent for the London Sunday Times.

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