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Dancing Is on the Menu at Chinese Eatery : Up to 80 older Chinese Americans gather at New Won Kok restaurant three times a week to eat, drink, sing and do the cha-cha.

October 09, 1994|DIANE SEO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The crowd gathered on the second floor of the New Won Kok Restaurant in Lincoln Heights can't help but go a little wild when they hear the lively rhythm of cha-cha music.

Almost immediately after the music starts, women wearing floral dresses and men with slicked-back hair strut toward the dance floor and start grooving to the one-two, cha-cha-cha beat.

The mood is distinctively upbeat as this crowd of older Chinese Americans swivel their hips to popular Chinese songs blaring through the restaurant's karaoke sound system. That's the scene every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night, when up to 80 Chinese American senior citizens come to party.

After dining on Cantonese specialties, some of the senior citizens sing Chinese songs with a karaoke machine accompaniment, while the rest of the group dances the tango, the twist, fox trot, and, of course, the cha-cha.

"My favorite dance is the cha-cha, but I like disco music too," said Hsu Mong, 59, a retiree who is a regular dancer at the restaurant at 2411 N. Broadway. "I come because it's good for my health and I can make some new friends. I look forward to it."

The festivities began more than a year ago when owner Sylvia Hom invited her friends to make use of the restaurant's spacious dance floor and karaoke machine. Before long, her friends invited their friends. Then their friends brought their friends. Now, dozens of regulars and newcomers attend--all of whom are charged only for the food they eat.

"Chinese people now know how to enjoy life," said Hom. "In the old days, even if we hit 60, we still worried about saving money. All we did was stay at home and buy property. Now, we're taking care of ourselves. We realize life is too valuable not to enjoy."

Part of the reason Hom is so adamant about people enjoying themselves is she knows what it's like to lose the will to live. In 1984, her husband, Vincent, died--leaving her with three children to care for on her own. The family's restaurant was also destroyed by arson two months after it opened.

"I was depressed for two years, but then I decided that my life had to go on," she said. "I don't make much money doing this, but I don't care because I'm happy on these three nights because I'm dancing and singing."

On most weeknights, the festivities begin at 6:30, when the older people, along with some in their 30s and 40s, sit at large round tables sharing plates of Chinese broccoli, chow mein and the restaurant's seafood specialties.

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While dinner is served, a few karaoke singers stand in front of a video monitor and belt out lyrics of their favorite Chinese opera songs. Although people politely applaud after the singers wrap up their high-pitched, slow-paced and lengthy opera selections, it's clear that some in the audience are eager to dance.

When an older gentleman--whom many in the room consider to be the group's best singer--takes the stage, people begin to stir. The man's smooth and strong voice instantly draws people to the dance floor, seducing them to shake their hips and shuffle their feet.

Among those waltzing across the room are Norman and Lily Yee of Pasadena, who have been dancing together since they were married 48 years ago.

"I dance to keep young," said Norman Yee, 70, a youthful-looking regular. "Before, Chinese people just stayed home. Now, we know that health is the most important thing. We want to eat well, exercise and spend our money."

Lily Yee, in a sleeveless blouse and flowing skirt, said she and her husband go dancing twice a week. Lily Yee, who is 65 and has six grandchildren, said she favors the New Won Kok dance floor because there's a lot of room to move around. "It's not crammed like the other places," she said.

When Hom started the dance nights, she hired two dance instructors to teach the group the basics of ballroom dancing.

At first, a lot of people "were not so good," said Anna Kwong, one of the instructors. But now, most people have no trouble with the complicated steps of the tango or fox trot, she said.

Although women usually outnumber men at the restaurant, it rarely poses a problem because women have no qualms about dancing with each other.

"We're so happy when we dance," Hom said. "We don't worry about anything else."

Ronald Wong, a 58-year-old businessman from Silver Lake, comes to dance twice a week with his wife. Sometimes, he also brings his 90-year-old brother-in-law.

"He loves to swing dance," Wong said. "He's pretty good too."

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