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One Night in Bangkok

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.

The other bar in the club is back upstairs at the opposite end from the dining and dance space. There, the mostly older drinkers can watch the live bands, turn and stare down at the Dungeon crowd through a series of windows along the wall, or play a variety of coin-operated computer games. This is where the upstairs waitresses come to fetch their drink orders (occasionally taking a break to indulge in the lam vong), and where the upstairs patrons can retreat if they need a cigarette (the decorous dining and dance area is, naturally, a no-smoking zone).

In short, the Bangkok tries to provide comfortable settings for a wide variety of folks--but especially those who happen to be Hmong. "I had never heard of a Hmong club before, a club that belonged to Hmong, so I was curious," says Pe Lee, nattily attired in a dark suit, occupying a booth very near the live band. "From the first time I came here, it was very impressive. It is kind of formal and I like that. As a culture, I have always wanted a place where we won't lose face. I am a teacher and I don't want my parents to come and see me in a bad place. It is hard to find a place where you can express yourself without being judged. It is like, I am a respected community leader, what am I doing here? But no one will disrespect or judge you for being here."

But while Pe Lee, C.V., and others view the Bangkok City Supper Club as a cultural haven, the nightspot has accumulated a number of detractors since opening for business in early November. After a generally positive article about the club appeared in a December issue of the Hmong Times, the paper's Web site (www.hmongtimes.com) received a spate of angry e-mails from some members of the Hmong community, claiming the place was besmirching and undermining their cultural mores. More significantly, the club--which is located at 733 Pierce Butler Rte., between Lexington Avenue and Dale Street--has been the locus of a series of violent and noisy incidents that have prompted many of its Frogtown neighbors, the police, and some St. Paul city officials to argue that it should either dramatically change its ways or be shut down.

 

By all accounts, opening night was a disaster. According to an incident report filed with the St. Paul police department, two officers entered the club on an ostensibly benign "premise check" at 10:30 p.m. on November 9, just in time to witness the eruption of a fistfight involving some 20 customers in the upstairs bar area. During the melee, which overwhelmed the three or four bouncers, a man on the floor was repeatedly hit on the head with beer bottles. The officers called for a medic and left the building to await backup. Meanwhile, a customer attempted to end the incident by macing the crowd, causing between 50 and 70 individuals to flee outside, where they were left to choke and spit on the ground.

At least 15 squad cars eventually arrived on the scene. After the first fracas was quelled--and while officers were still present--another smaller fight broke out. It was apparent to police that some underage customers were in the upstairs bar area. Some teenagers had slipped in from downstairs during the confusion resulting from the fights; others told police they had entered through an unmanned back door. After catching two underage drinkers (curiously, the only arrests at the Bangkok that evening), officers ordered the club closed for the night.

Similar incidents have plagued the Bangkok operation. On December 22 a bouncer told police that after he broke up a fight, the enmity spilled over into the parking lot, where he witnessed two Hispanic men on opposite sides of the pavement fire a total of seven gunshots into the air before driving off. Three weeks later, on January 13, 2002, a bouncer again called the cops, claiming there had been at least ten fights inside the bar and another two in the parking lot that night. He also reported hearing gunshots, but, unlike at the confrontation in December, no shell casings were found. And on February 23, a neighbor called to complain about lots of yelling and cars drag racing in front of the club on Pierce Butler Route. When the police responded, the scene was much quieter, but they did encounter a customer who claimed he had been assaulted by a bouncer inside the Bangkok. Several bouncers replied that they were merely trying to break up a large fight that involved people being hit by thrown chairs.

 

Inevitably, residents in the Bangkok's working-class Frogtown neighborhood began to complain. For years, the club's large, low-slung cement building had housed Club Metro, a relatively benign gay and lesbian bar. Shortly before its demise, Club Metro remodeled and expanded the space without informing city officials, and the Bangkok has taken advantage of the added capacity. Suddenly, neighbors are feeling the fallout from as many as 600 people coming and going on a busy Friday or Saturday night. The gunshots, fistfights, and the screeching of peeled rubber from drag races are the more dangerous but merely occasional problems; the litter and booming music, neighbors say, are constant irritants.

The opponents of the club are not without leverage. For the past few months, the Bangkok's owners have been operating with the liquor license granted by the City of St. Paul to Club Metro. In light of the negative events at the club, the status of its own liquor-license application--critical to the Bangkok's existence--is still in question. On February 7, representatives from St. Paul's police department and the city's Office of License Inspections and Environmental Protection (LIEP), along with two block-club leaders from the neighborhood, met with two of the Bangkok's three owners to air their concerns. At that time, LIEP proposed that 11 steps be taken to reduce problems at the club, ranging from more secure, fenced-in dumpsters to alcohol-awareness training for employees to the implementation of video surveillance cameras in the parking lot, along with a stricter dress code to discourage gang-oriented attire.

Three weeks later, at a meeting of the District 7 Social Concerns Committee, frustrated residents tacked on five more conditions to LIEP's initial proposal, including the barring of patrons under 21, a lowering of the music volume, two or more off-duty police officers on the premises on Fridays and Saturdays, and a closing time no later than 1:30 a.m. More to the point, the committee essentially wanted to make all these conditions moot and unanimously recommended that the city reject all of the Bangkok's many license applications. (These include licenses for Liquor--On Sale; Liquor--On Sale, Sunday; Restaurant; Entertainment; Liquor Extension of Service Hours; Liquor Outdoor Service Area; Cigarette/Tobacco; and Dance Hall.)

The battle moved forward to an informal legislative hearing at St. Paul City Hall on March 19, moderated by Gerry Strathman, a member of the city council's research staff. Employees from LIEP and the police department were also present, along with two of the Bangkok's owners and a sizable contingent of neighborhood opponents of the club. Thirteen residents took their turns striding to the front table to testify against granting the licenses, and they brought a petition signed by 52 people to reinforce their position. Many spoke eloquently about fearing for the safety of their children, and about the disruptions the club has caused in their nightly routines and daily peace of mind. All of them were white.

When asked for their input by the hearing officer, two members of LIEP recommended that the license applications be rejected. Tyrone Strickland, the west district patrol commander for the St. Paul police and an African American, recounted the events of opening night and some other serious incidents. In a letter read aloud at the meeting, the head of the Minnehaha Community Center across the street said he had noticed an increase in drug dealing since the Bangkok had opened.

It was left to Bangkok owners Mai Her and Chao Lee to rebut this impressively united front. As they took their place at the table where the testimony was to be presented, it was already clear that they had no steadfast supporters in the room. Along with her duties as president and CEO, the 30-year-old Her toils as the primary bartender in the alcohol-oriented portion of the downstairs V.I.P. Lounge. Lee, a generation older at 47, and with a less adroit command of English, supplements his responsibilities as accountant by serving as the sound man and public-address announcer for the dining and dance area upstairs. The cultural duality that enables the Bangkok to fulfill the needs of both young hipsters and old-school immigrants was neatly reflected in the testimony from the two owners.

 

Her was brief and casually blunt: "If it was a white person [applying for the liquor license], I don't think this would be happening. I don't know; that's just the way I feel. I just think they don't want Asians in the neighborhood. Every time we go to the meetings, they say we are promoting gangs. They think all the Asian people are gangsters and troublemakers."

Lee began by turning around in his chair and facing all the people trying to put him out of business. "We are glad to see our friends, our neighbors. We are residents, too. I live about two blocks from the club. I just want everybody happy, want everybody feel safe. I have spent 20 years of my life since I came to this country as a production manager for a company. I have saved all my money thinking that someday I can do something. But I never feel I would do anything to bring trouble to our friends and our neighbors."

Hampered by his imperfect English, Lee forged ahead in a firm but conciliatory tone, explaining that the Club Metro owners had gone out of business precisely because they couldn't attract the large number of people that the Bangkok was bringing in. Claiming that the club was willing to agree to all of the conditions set forth, he cited attempts to comply only with those proposed by LIEP and none asked for by the neighborhood, specifically mentioning the implementation of surveillance cameras, the improvements to the parking lot, and the securing of the dumpsters. A strict dress code, banning items such as sweatshirts and baseball caps, is also in effect.

"I don't want my neighbors, my friends, just think about this being bad business, unsafe for them. They scared to pass by business in that area? No. I apologize. Also, the first opening night, I apologize. We had the wrong security supervisor. After that night we fire him. We want all our friends and our neighbors saying they feel happy, so they see me outside and go to raise their hand and say, 'Hi, Chao.' I want to say that we do the business the right way. That's what I say to my children and my family."

 

During the 20 hours I spent inside the Bangkok in March (including four Friday and Saturday nights), conflicts between customers never amounted to more than a few glares; the most disturbing thing I witnessed was a passed-out patron being escorted out over his friend's shoulder. This incident-free experience could be the result of good luck, the improved security measures cited by Chao Lee, or my never being near a hot spot in the huge, multifaceted club.

Indeed, on one Saturday night I attended, the incident files at the St. Paul police department indicate that two groups got in an argument at the upstairs bar, ran into each other again at a private party, and finally went at each other with a machete and other weapons at the corner of Blair and Dale (less than a mile from the Bangkok), putting some in the hospital and others in jail. Opponents of the Bangkok cite this as further evidence that the place is a breeding ground for violence. To be fair, it's also an inevitable product of the club's popularity and the law of averages. (Nobody is pointing fingers at house parties, for instance, which also played a role in that Saturday-night conflict; such parties are too diffuse and therefore less accountable.)

The two other predominantly Asian nightspots in the metro area are Club 2000, on the East Side of St. Paul, and the Palace in Columbia Heights. These establishments have also had their share of problems with fights and underage drinking, but neither one is nearly as large as the Bangkok.

Her and Lee both say that the enormous size and segmented layout of their newly acquired space was compatible with their desire to create a social center for a broad cross-section of the Hmong and Asian community. In that aspect they are succeeding: Patrons are flocking from near and far for wedding receptions or a one-night hookup; papaya salad or pitchers of beer; rump-shakin' or lam vong.

As is often the case with dreams-come-true, however, there are unintended consequences. The intimate fabric of a neighborhood is being disrupted and the life savings of the club's owners are at risk. At the informal legislative hearing last month, the presiding officer ruled that the Bangkok's license applications would be decided at a formal proceeding before an administrative law judge. The pivotal meeting will take place back at city hall at 9:00 a.m. on May 15, when detractors and supporters of the club will again have a chance to make their case. Having spent nearly $700,000 since November to pay their lease and satisfy the conditions set forth by LIEP, the owners concede that bankruptcy is a distinct possibility if their license requests are denied.

 

To those without a direct stake in the fate of the club, the Bangkok is a fascinating work in progress, its trials and triumphs emblematic of a community in manic transition, spread-eagled between the conflicting desires to retain its traditions and sample the fruits--some of them decayed--of Western freedoms. It's revealing that many of the more passionate posts to the Hmong Times Web site criticized the Bangkok and other predominantly Asian nightclubs less for the violent incidents than for the prospect of middle-aged men preying on underage girls for affairs or even to acquire a second or third wife. Informed of this, Chao Lee can only shake his head sadly and say, "Don't they realize that we have been in this country 25 years now?"

"To young people, the clubs are a place to hang out with your buddies, but older people see them as a place where older people go to cheat on their marriage," says Phoua Yang, a 23-year-old assistant program manager in the youth and families department at Lao Family Community of Minnesota Inc. in St. Paul. "Part of that is because of a difference in our culture. I'm sure most of those older people are divorced, but because the culture sees divorce as really bad, they don't admit it or publicize it; they would probably be disrespected."

Yang, who says she occasionally enjoys the Asian clubs in the area, also insightfully traces the rise in fighting and underage drinking to the growing pains of a culture in flux. "I am not saying teenagers in other ethnicities aren't rebelling too, but with the Hmong there's a tendency to want to grow up faster--we really don't have teenage years. Back in Laos, parents considered that you should be married and having children when you are 17, so if you are raised in a Hmong family, it is still in the back of your head that you are an adult at 17."

Because traditional Hmong parenting amounts to preparing children for early adulthood, it's not surprising that the methods are often strict and highly disciplined. The propensity for corporeal punishment and unyielding ultimatums caught the attention of the media and social-service agencies shortly after the first influx of Hmong immigrants arrived in the early Eighties, and parents were subjected to a gentle but firm campaign for greater leniency.

"A lot of Hmong parents are confused about what they can do and what American culture says they should do," Yang says. "Their unmarried teenaged children are hanging around the house and it is hard for them to set rules and limits. As a person who works with a lot of teens, I don't think that's good. A lot of these kids have a lot of freedom and not as much discipline. Most of them are just normal kids. But the Hmong population has definitely grown in the Twin Cities and we are a closed people; even in the schools we tend to stay with our own ethnicity. I know that a lot of teenagers I work with have problems with other races; there's tension in the school system. Besides, sometimes you just feel like being with your own kind. When that happens, you go to Club 2000 or Bangkok City."

 

Downstairs in the Bangkok's V.I.P. Lounge, a diminutive, short-haired woman in a flowered blouse has her arm around her female friend at the bar. She slams down two pairs of whiskey shots inside 15 minutes. "How is this different than a non-Asian club?" she says, repeating my question. "Well, here you feel you are at home. You can relax. You get the chance to find out who you really are. Sometimes you find out good things. Sometimes you find out things that are really fucked up. But you find out."

"This isn't just a Hmong place; this is for everybody," says Ryan Madland, milling around the V.I.P. Lounge with three Hmong friends. "I am Caucasian. I don't feel out of place at all. I am 22 and I have been dating Asian girls since my high school years. At first I was scared to join in, but everyone has treated me so well that it's fun to come here. And I think it's important that the older people have a place where they can come too. That's something the white clubs don't do, they don't respect that."

 

"We just hope that we are given this opportunity to do our business," says Mai Her, sitting at a table with her two partners hours before the Bangkok will open for another Saturday night. Referring to the club's detractors in the neighborhood, she adds, "Whether they like it or not, we're going to do everything we can to get our liquor license. Because there is an opportunity here. There has been a lot of Hmong who have moved into this area and pretty soon there will be more Asian and Hmong peoples moving to this area. There is going to be more businesses built up and we are going to provide more jobs for our community. This area, you could say that it is going to be a Hmong town."

But you don't have to say that. Out on the upstairs dance floor, a white woman and her Hmong partner have just finished an elegant waltz. As he goes back to their table, she remains, and falls in for lam vong, exchanging smiles with one of the lonely men in the row behind her. Her partner returns to the edge of the floor with her shawl and purse in his hands, and stands there beaming, watching her dance. When the song is over, they come together in the aisle between the tables and casually walk out the door.


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