The 80 Club

The 80 Club, former glories partly returned to Colombo

It’s been about twenty years since I’ve been to the notorious 80 Club. Now I’m returning with good friends, with one whose gran was a long-standing president of the club.

Located in the prime location of Independence Avenue and founded in 1939, this was one of the most prestigious clubs in Colombo at its peak. Initially and ironically, it was first founded in Kandy during British Colonial rule. The story goes that a group of people met in the Queens hotel in room 80, so they called their newfound club the 80.

The Whinging Pome Random Rule No. 258:

“Sometimes a new brand name could come out of a simple situation.”

Some of my own experiences with branding have stuck with me. While working with Lord Forte, his son wanted to change the name of the group ‘Trusthouse Forte’, which was perceived in some countries to be a banking company and not a chain of hotels. He commissioned a top branding company to do a detailed survey of the business, its staff and its customers. On completion of the survey, the branding company presented their findings to the board. Their proposal was to call the business ‘Forte’. The charge for all this work, 34 years ago was 360k pounds. Some years later the son of Lord Forte sold the business but one condition made by the purchaser was that Mr Forte could not use the Forte brand, even though it was his name. Within about a year he opened his first new luxury hotel and called it 4ORTE.

So, the grand 80 Club building is on two floors of about a total of 14,200 sq feet. (One can’t use meters when talking about this place or era) It had tennis courts and a massive lawn in front and was the club to be in and to be seen at. It had many glorious decades. At some point the club started to get into debt with also falling active members. The appeal was wavering and debts mounted after the lease expired in 1978. The club carried on as the land was on a short lease from the government but they were not dealing with the drifting situation.

In 2020, the Urban Development Authority took over and had a vision of recreating the old club. Some years ago the navy started restoring many colonial properties in Colombo, the 80 Club was also added to the list. The old lady got more than a lick of paint. The exterior of the club is still sitting at the back of a massive lawn and certainly looks to be in good shape from the outside. There is the classic oversupply of lighting on the exterior of the building which is quite badly positioned, it’s impossible to take a good photo at night.

Six of us meet at 7.30 and get a great welcome from the staff and a friendly manager. He and I talk about South Africa both having lived there. One in our group has brought his large music box with a loudspeaker system. There is not a single other customer in the place so we pump up the volume on the lawn…bizarre to be the only ones there and have all the staff looking after us. So the old club gets back to its glory days as we sing and dance. The excellent “bites” arrive and we sit around the table on the lawn.

The Whinging Pome Random Rule No. 259:

“Always pick a few words used by the locals when you travel, always nice to refer to them with others.”

I’d never heard of “bites” till I came to Sri Lanka and neither had I heard of “shape” (Which means “it’s okay”.) or even the word “thrice”. The famous song was not “your once, twice and thrice times a lady”.

In New Zealand, if you read my first book which included a story on the wine experience, a man said to us ‘if you all sit on my dick (deck) we will have some wine”. Another phrase I heard in India, “I know where your house lives”.

My opening line on this story of the 80 Club is that my last visit was about twenty years ago. I had arrived from the UK having represented my UK PLC company in the purchase of Orient Lanka, a local duty-free company with a small domestic liquor distribution arm. This company sponsored the new bar in the 80 Club. Mohan, our local manager asked me to come with him to the club. As we arrive he says to me, “Boss, you will need to make a speech at this bar opening.”

“Good way of testing a new boss” – I’m thinking.

When you are the son of a preacher man these opportunities are quite enjoyable, this was one of my many speeches in Sri Lanka.

The new interior of the club has sadly killed the old club look and the colours and the furniture is what Jezzabel calls “new rich”. The bar is still in the same place which has poor access and limited seating. The newness takes away the colonial look and feel e.g. there is a tv in the dining room, if essential hide it behind a sliding panel.

I hear there is also a chance that the UDA is considering putting in a pool and some bedrooms and converting the place into a hotel. Before they do that let’s hope they look at the current interior decor and dining experience. They could also look at some changes and additions e.g. Better location for the bar, putting an old car outside as a photo opportunity, reducing exterior lighting, conducting small weddings there, putting some old photos of the location, etc.

They may also consider how many hotels the government currently owns, one of which has not yet opened after ten years, two that need refits and the fact that governments should not own or operate such establishments. Their job is to govern the country well.

The night rolls on and I’m sure it will be in the memories of the six of us as a bizarre event in an amazing setting. Sadly, what we all want to forget is the main food courses, the meat was stringy at best and nobody enjoyed the main meal. Perhaps it’s one of those places you have drinks and ‘bites’ and then move out to a restaurant somewhere else. On that basis only would I go back.

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