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The allure of the speakeasy

Much-anticipated barroom is a prohibitive favorite

At a time when branding is paramount and every wannabe celebrity hopes to be photographed for online viewing, why would a new bar open without signs, advertising, or PR? And who would have the audacity - in this Facebook/Foursquare society - to forbid cellphone use or cameras inside?

Welcome to Hop Sing Laundromat at 10th and Race Streets, Philadelphia's most-anticipated secluded barroom, with 12 months of buzz behind it.

If blogging is any sign of sizzle, Hop Sing Laundromat has been aflame for a whole year - and that's before it opened, garnering more than 50 combined mentions on local blogs "Foobooz," "Meal Ticket," "Grub Street," "The Insider," and "Eater Philly."

Named for the family cook who often threatened to open a laundry on TV's long-running Bonanza, the Chinatown boite with the blank glass facade and gated entrance is filled with detailed design elements and personable pleasures - that is, if you can find it beyond the glittering lights of Vine Street.

There's a handsome room for free shoe shines. If you need to use your phone, you'll be escorted to a private room to do so. The bar top and flooring are inlaid with meticulously arranged coins. There are shapely vintage light fixtures from a closed-down church, hundreds of candles reflected into antique mirrors, old cinema posters, etchings of Hollywood stars, vintage fire extinguishers, and a ceiling that's more than 20 feet high. The liquor selection is pretty deep, with a thousand bottles featuring rarities such as El Dorado 15-year rum (at $50 a bottle) and Johnny Drum Private Stock bourbon ($49).

It's almost a shame you can't snap photos. But that's Hop Sing's charm: You can only experience in person what Lee - the single-named, spike-haired owner - has spent two years creating.

"Hop Sing Laundromat is my love letter to this city," says Lee, an admitted perfectionist who has redecorated the space several times with the obsession of a diamond cutter.

He's just as fastidious about keeping his efforts secret. After months of behind-the-scenes activity, he finally held an open house last week for bloggers and Twitter followers.

"I might be the Woody Allen of the bar scene," says Lee about his neurotic need for privacy; he won't be photographed.

Certainly, secrecy often begets buzz. What, after all, are they hiding? But the Hop Sing interest might have more to do with what thrilled decadent saloon enthusiasts in the Roaring '20s, and keeps HBO's Boardwalk Empire a hit - the allure of the speakeasy.

"We're always drawn to the mythology of Prohibition and speakeasies, of gangster culture, and women in short flapper dresses," says Ken Burns, who directed the PBS documentary Prohibition. "There's a power and sexuality, even violence, that people are drawn to - one hopes only in fiction."

Speakeasy-like spaces (actual speakeasies have no liquor license and therefore don't exist for long) have been part of New York City's nightlife for decades. From Arthur's Continental in the '80s to today's Death and Co. and Rye House, Manhattan owned the whispered-entry bar scene.

Philadelphia started to catch up to New York City with the 2010 opening of the Ranstead Room (the private-entrance bar in back of Stephen Starr's El Rey), and the 2009 opening of Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company's basement bar. But Lee's place stands out. You can't be photographed there. Even though you're sitting at Hop Sing, you can order from restaurants throughout Chinatown. And it's larger than any of Philly's other secret rooms by at least half. Lee's tableside cocktail-making cabinet fits next to customers with ease.

But Lee likes to distance himself from any trend or other barkeep. "Mine is not a New York City bar, nor a themed speakeasy or Prohibition bar," says Lee, a transplanted New Yorker.

Plainly, it's a bar for people who respect privacy, an old-school charm that existed before technology created a culture of narcissism.

"We are living in a time where privacy is almost no longer a right, but a privilege, which I find quite strange," says Lee. He designed Hop Sing so that each table can have its own private space.

Christine Sismondo is a fan of hidden joints, old and new, and writes about them with boozy aplomb in the recent America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops.

"I think speakeasy style appeals to people, what with the romance associated with it," says Sismondo. "People respond to the rules and the nostalgia, since it's a retreat from the abundance of technology, which seems to invade every public space. It's nice to see people trying to make that space about really having a conversation again - not just staring into a TV." Sismondo is a fan as well of the pre-Prohibition-style drinks, such as the Sidecar, that these spaces are pouring.

Lee likes the drinks but loathes bartenders who fuss about them, claiming to be "mixologists" ("We're bartenders, not rocket scientists").

When it comes to the real deal, Nick Sanfratello, the former owner of two of Philly's wildest bars, Café Limbo and the Bongo Room, has firsthand experience: His grandfather's house at 10th & Federal Streets was a speakeasy in the '50s. But today's iteration can't compare, he said.

"That was an entirely different era," says Sanfratello, who can recall locations throughout West and South Philadelphia, all without names.

Perhaps that's why Hop Sing Laundromat is so anticipated. It's an antidote to today's bells and whistles. But the buzz buildup remains deafening, something Lee will be nostalgic about.

"I think I'll miss this whole renovation and redesigning process dearly," he says. " . . . I hate to think of the day when I wake up and realize that all these challenges and headaches are no longer part of my daily life."

Woody Allen, indeed.