One Night in Bangkok

A Hmong supper club in St. Paul attracts young hipsters, caters to old-school immigrants, and pisses off the neighbors

Some people are so lonely it can make your heart ache. A middle-aged Hmong gentleman, wearing a tailored gray suit that fit 15 pounds ago, walks with stiff resolve between the dinner tables and on to the dance floor at the Bangkok City Supper Club in St. Paul. A live band has launched into a tinny, buoyant pop song that could be an old Cars number from the new-wave Seventies, but sung in a clipped, spirited Asian dialect. The dancers have spontaneously arrayed themselves into three rows, each about a dozen people long. They begin to sway their hips and mince their feet in unison, like a hula mated with a cha-cha. But what compels attention is an impromptu choreography above the waist: arms floating from side to side; wrists turning gracefully; fingers outstretched.

Pasting a smile on his embarrassment, the middle-aged gentleman tries to fall in sync with this lam vong, an Asian variation of the country line dance. Before too long he is approximating the rhythm, if not the fluidity of the others, and stealing glances at the ladies around him. He is especially drawn to a thirtysomething woman who is consistently being prodded to dance by two female friends. Her elaborate makeup accentuates high, smooth cheekbones. Her demure, doll-like serenity is counterpoised with a tight, shiny silver top, baring a shoulder as it slits diagonally across her chest. She is oblivious to the man's hovering, and misses his one attempt at contact--a curt nod while exiting the dance floor.

In a soft voice, she tells me her name is Ka Xiong. "I like disco better, but sometimes it's fun to come here and dance," she says with a shrug. Between her collarbone and her left breast is a tattoo of a red heart, bearing the inscription Love Tony. The lonely man has retired to the bar area at the end of the room, tapping an unlit cigarette on the counter.

Some people are so suffused with good-natured élan that the space around them seems to glow. So it is at a booth where another middle-aged Hmong man in a cream-colored suit with maroon trim holds court, telling stories and hugging a procession of friends who wander by. When the members of his party go off to dance, he falls back into his seat with a contented sigh, picking at the remnants of a papaya salad. Only once does he deign to dance on this Saturday night. As the melodramatic female vocalist (think Edith Piaf mixed with Betty Boop) begins a treacly ballad and the floor fills with embracing couples, he spins to his partner with a sly smile, puts his upturned palms together and gently bows, both honoring and poking fun at the old-fashioned formality of Hmong culture.

Now let's go downstairs.

Taking a short flight of steps is akin to passing through a socio-cultural time machine. You enter what Bangkok City Supper Club promotions director Tou Lee Yang likes to call the Dungeon, a cavernous room with the high ceilings and sharp acoustics of a high school gymnasium--only this one is painted black. At 1:00 a.m. (which on weekends is an hour before closing), the room is a wall-to-wall throng of spasmodic silhouettes, juiced by the DJ's diet of hip-hop and club anthems, played at top volume. The bassline vibrates your pants, tickling your legs.

The demographic breakdown of the Dungeon patrons looks to be 80 percent Asian, 10 percent black, 10 percent white, and 100 percent American youth culture. Whether it's Jay-Z, Ja Rule, or Mary J. Blige coming through the speakers, many of the dancers manage lyric-perfect lip-syncs of the quicksilver wordplay. When the DJ cues up Ice Cube and exhorts those gathered to "put your ass into it," the crowd is already there, their derrieres in full freak mode inside beltless hip-huggers and baggy shorts.

"You can't believe how much I crave coming to this place as it gets toward the end of the week," says a short, pert woman in her early 20s, who prefers to be known only by her initials. C.V. is wearing tight jeans that are pre-frayed at the waist and ankles and a silky green blouse that leaves her pierced navel exposed. Despite dancing nonstop for nearly an hour, she hardly seems to have broken a sweat.

"I go to a community college in Wisconsin and it's pretty dead and isolated," she continues. "When white people notice me at all, they usually find some way to talk about diversity, how good it is to have diversity. I mean, I was practically born in this country; I came over when I was three. I'm proud of my culture and what my parents have done for me. But when I go to a big family dinner or wedding or to a soccer tournament or something, it's pretty boring there, too. Coming here on a Friday or Saturday night, I'm surrounded by Hmong--the diversity is the non-Asians--and they play the kind of music I listen to."

Approximately two-thirds of the Dungeon patrons are wearing a plastic bracelet given out at the door, indicating they are over 21 and are free to roam throughout the club. The rest are over 18 but not of legal drinking age, their access restricted to the alcohol-free areas downstairs. These include the Dungeon and, down a corridor on the other side of the stairway, a portion of another space optimistically referred to as the V.I.P. Lounge. There are couches, pool tables, and a small dance floor in front of a DJ playing frenetic techno and rave-oriented tunes. If you show your bracelet and make it past the two men standing security, the other side of the lounge is a busy bar with stools and tables, exuding the shaggy ambiance of a basement tavern near a college campus.

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