In the unashamedly louche lounge of legendary Shanghai Lil’s my unashamedly loquacious — and affable — host, Russell Green, unashamedly drops Hollywood names like hot potatoes. “I used to cater for film companies so I did a lot of wrap parties,” he says. “Once I was dancing with this girl in the bar, I didn’t have a clue who she was, but I remember she was very, very thin. I’m very theatrical when I dance — lots of high kicks and bending people back, things like that — and I said to her, ‘Girl, you need to put some weight on, it feels as though I might snap you!’ It was Kate Bosworth. She was wonderful.
“I come from Hamilton and met Richard O’Brien who also grew up there. He told me much of the Rocky Horror Show was inspired by watching residents do pantomimes and performances on the streets. Small towns often make you very driven. Geoffrey Rush is from a small town too. We spoke about it. I told him if it wasn’t for those small towns we couldn’t be the people we are today. He said he’d never looked at it like that before.”
Scarlett Johansson and Sir Ian McKellen are among the other big hitters to have graced this storied Auckland establishment. “People can say I’m name dropping,” Russell says. “But people ask me, and I tell them. Often, I’m just trying to find a common thread. And anyway, everyone has a name! But you know, everyone pays the same price, everyone gets treated the same way. Most are just down-to-earth people who’ve previously washed dishes or been waitresses on their way to the top.”
Shanghai Lil’s now resides on Ponsonby Road, it’s fourth incarnation, having previously been located at the Birdcage, Anzac Avenue and Parnell. It’s certainly lost none of it’s opium-den-like opulence. Russell has been collecting Eastern treasures since the late 1970s, and his partner, renowned jazz musician Billy Farnell, since 1953. “I’ve always had an interest in Eastern antiques and I remember reading an article about Billy in the Woman’s Weekly in about 1973 and thinking, ‘What an interesting person’,” says Russell. “When we first began working together at the restaurant in 1980, he invited me back to his house to look as his collection and I realised it was the same things I’d seen in the magazine. So much of life, I believe, is fate, if you leave yourself open to it.”
The restaurant in question was the high-priced Bonaparte on Victoria St West. Russell joined as a chef while Billy was already the resident pianist. I ask Russell how he fares as a musician. “I had a couple of saxophone lessons and ended up on TV! Grant Chilcott was short of a saxophone player for a show and I was drafted in. Everyone thought it was fantastic and rang Billy to say they’d seen me on television, not realising that I was a miming! Having said that, sometimes it’s harder to pretend than actually do something for real.”
Russell’s known for his matchmaking skills, having set up dozens of couples over the years, some of whom have gone on to get wed. He’s hosted many of their receptions, too. “I’m very nosy,” he jokes. “I love to watch and study people. I’m like a sociologist. I’ve gotten to know so many people so well over the years, and it’s been lovely to go on those journeys. I’ve learnt so much.”
I ask Russell what he’s learnt about himself.
“I once had some pottery lessons with Peter Lange, one of our prime ministers’ brothers,” he says. “And I was trying to force the clay. I’m quite a bossy person, I had my first head chef job at 18, I always wanted to give the orders, never take. Anyway, the clay, if you push it too much, gets too wobbly, goes off balance and collapses. You have to direct it, trust in it to take on its own form. That was a good lesson for me. That if you force things, they can so easily fall apart.”