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1990s: The Golden Decade : NIGHT LIFE : Chinese Nightclub Scene Sizzles as Uptight Businessmen Unwind

January 15, 1990|EDMUND NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In America, the Taiwanese businessman said, you work hard, you pay your bills, you keep the family together and, when Friday night rolls around, you try to find a place to unwind.

Michael Tan, data processing supervisor, was sitting in Dee Yee in South El Monte on a recent Friday. A dark, murky space with twirling lights above the dance floor and small private rooms around the edges that overflow with well-dressed guests like luxury boxes in a stadium, Dee Yee is one of the most popular clubs on the Chinese nightclub circuit.

"The waiters here treat you very kindly," Tan said. "It doesn't matter how much money you spend, there's a kind of warm feeling."

The Chinese nightclub scene in Los Angeles sizzles with activity. More than 30 clubs are listed in the Chinese Community Yellow Pages. It's a varied group, from tiny karaoke clubs on Valley Boulevard in the San Gabriel Valley, where the customers themselves provide the musical entertainment, to glitzy dance palaces in downtown Los Angeles, where patrons talk and dance with hostesses for $20 and up an hour.

But the important thing, customers say, is that "warm feeling," the message of personal welcome extended to the customer even when he's being asked to pay a hefty cover charge.

"We don't like to go where American people don't accept us," says real estate broker Raining C. Chu, as he exchanges toasts with his fiancee, Grace Wu, over a bottle of brandy at Dee Yee.

The club's regular four-piece band, Taiwanese musicians led by singer/guitarist Billy Lee, segues easily from "Solamente Una Vez" to "Diana" to a lilting Taiwanese ballad, and waltzing couples jostle each other on the crowded dance floor.

A few miles away in Rosemead, young Chinese men and women sit at tables in another kind of club, drinking from liter bottles of Japanese beer and applauding each other's singing feats. This is Beef Cellars, a Japanese-style karaoke club, which provides rice dishes, beer and a tape system that furnishes background music for any of about 3,000 pop hits in Mandarin, Cantonese or English.

"It's very healthy to express yourself," explains one patron.

The karaoke club (Japanese for "empty orchestra") is well-lighted, with an exuberantly youthful crowd. Some play a guessing game, with hand signs pitting "scissors" against "stones." The losers must chug-a-lug glasses of beer. Others listen politely as members of the audience march one by one to the front of the room to perform.

The club provides a little bandstand with a stool and two microphones, with a distinct echo box effect to cover up mistakes. As the singer sings--sometimes artfully but often amateurishly--a video unwinds on a large screen at the side, with the words to the song written in subtitles beneath a misty, romantic scene.

Three young men arrive at the stage, jostle each other for position on the little stand and launch bravely into a romantic Cantonese ballad. The audience applauds enthusiastically for a crude but valiant performance. What was the song about? "It's a love story," says one of the trio, Jimmy Diep, 22, a Cal State L.A. student. "Love goes its own way. Let time tell the story."

There are a lot of places like Beef Cellars, Diep adds. "You don't have to sing perfect," he says. "You just have fun. Nobody cares how you sing."

But in some clubs, the warmth of the hospitality seems in direct proportion to the amount of money that the customer spreads around.

Says one club manager matter-of-factly: "Our customers are businessmen, Chinese businessmen. They have the money. In America, it's only money or credit cards that count. We don't take IOUs."

Near the front door of the Starlight Club on Broadway in Los Angeles, about 20 well-dressed young women sit in a well-lighted waiting area. These are the club's hostesses. Most are Anglos. A rate chart at the front desk tells the patron that he can hire one of them for $23 an hour, $14 a half-hour.

The back of the club is dark, with a dance floor lit in multiple colors, like a Christmas tree, and a little fountain in a niche, spurting what looks like liquid mercury. As the sound system dispenses one slow, syrupy song after another, a few couples move around the dance floor. Others huddle closely over tables in the dark.

"They're just men who are bored, with nothing to do," says Kimberly, 18, a hostess and former dental assistant who wants to go to cosmetology school, open her own beauty parlor and travel the world.

There's more to her job than dancing, she says. "A lot of them are really quiet, so I have to ask questions. I ask them about their hobbies, what kind of food they like."

Mr. J's, which has been on Valley Boulevard in El Monte for more than six years, is one of the older nightclubs. Here you can spend time with a Mandarin-speaking hostess ($20 an hour) and dance to live music with a singer who can pound out rock 'n' roll songs in Mandarin or croon country-Western with a Dolly Parton hitch in her throat.

A disco occupies the basement of the building, and between musical numbers, a disco drum bangs insistently through the floor, as if someone were trying to escape from a locked room. Manager Philip Chen, blinking sleepily, says that some of the upstairs patrons like disco. "But only a few numbers," he says, placing a plate of grapes and sliced apples on the table. "Most of the customers up here like different kind of dances." Four or five couples tango around the floor.

The price of unwinding Chinese-style in Los Angeles can be pretty steep. A beer in a karaoke club may cost just $2 or $3. But a few hours' entertainment in a nightclub with hostesses can produce a crushing bill, one customer confessed.

"Once, I took two friends to a club on Valley Boulevard," the man said. "We had drinks, danced with some hostesses. After three hours, they brought the bill. It was more than $400. A shock, yes. There was no more entertainment for me that month."

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