Art

RIP CHINA CHALET

An obituary to New York’s most open-minded dance floor, put together by the people who frequented it.

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Glampaign for China Chalet party. Courtesy of Club Glam. Photograph by Dillon Sachs; art direction by Burke Battelle.

China Chalet opened in 1975, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that the dim sum restaurant began to take on a different, after-hours persona. Home to some of New York’s most popular dance nights, China Chalet became a downtown clubhouse for those who liked to party inclusively. Imagine A-listers like Timothée Chalamet and Baz Luhrmann bumping quite literally into the young artists and designers who run the city, all inside a dark subterranean cavern. It was as close to the energy of Studio 54 as most of us got and now, it has abruptly departed us—another casualty of the pandemic. Here, we keep the enigmatic space’s torch burning with an oral history from a few of those who kept the lights on for its all-too-short run.

Alexander Shulan
All the nights seem to blur together. The first time I went there, I met many of the people I would become good friends with over the next ten years. I threw an after-party for my first art show. A friend and I hired a Frank Sinatra impersonator to sing in the front room, but he was so incensed by all the smoking that he had a meltdown and stormed out. When the lights were turned on, I discovered that, as a kind of Dada exercise, someone had painted the men’s room black. My ex and I had to carry the entire sound system back to my apartment because, in an altered state, I believed that it was going to be held by the owner as a kind of collateral. I could go on like this.

Its widely bemoaned 3AM closing, which would lead to occupy-style dance parties that refused to vacate, was often the launchpad into more and more bizarre and frenetic evenings—once I was even in a taxi that got into a serious crash while leaving, which at the time barely registered. After the party, everyone would congregate outside in a huge mob, seeing who would offer up their apartment as an afters, joyfully forgetting that it would inevitably get completely trashed.

In the last few years, under the stewardship of Glam, it became itself an aesthetic, and a kind of utopian point of rendezvous. As a venue, it always seemed like it existed by accident, that it was somehow illegal or impossible. From the vantage of lockdowns and “social distancing,” it feels even more so.

Club Glam: DeSe Escobar, Fiffany Luu and Kyle Luu
I think the first time I went to China Chalet was for a Sex magazine party around 2013-14, but it wasn’t until May 2016 that we had the first Club Glam party. At the time, there weren’t many parties that were very mixy. They were either catered towards a gay or a straight crow. China Chalet felt like a place where we could bring together the young creatives of New York City and seek out a more post-identity vibe.

Everyone knows that at Club Glam, the door is always open. No one gets turned away. Creating that safe space at China Chalet was a good way to get people out of their house dressed in their best fashion, because they knew they weren’t going to be subjected to some kind of weird door policy or the hierarchy of VIP bottle service. Everyone was on the same level.

A favorite party happened the week Trump got elected. We were nervous that nobody was going to show up, but the door was jam packed. There was a sense of community you could feel on the dance floor—everyone had showed up for one another. It was beautiful.

That being said, every party had its special moments. China Chalet was a space where people could really get intimate. It had a mom and pop restaurant feel that was clear the second you stepped in the door. You could really have a conversation there and feel connected.

We always thought of China Chalet as this alternative, like when Alice falls into the rabbit hole. The hallway that goes from the restaurant to the dark dancefloor becomes this kind of runway, but also this tunnel of transformation. A party at China Chalet always had this fever dream frantasy moment. We will miss it as a venue, but Club Glam will live on after the pandemic. We are even hoping to take pieces of China Chalet with us on our next adventure.

Hugo Mendoza
I remember going to China Chalet for the first time for a Club Glam party. We sneaked in through the back entrance of the TGIFs. We paid the bouncer who was watching the door like 10 bucks each, or something like that. The door we came in through led into the dance floor, so I wasn’t aware of the long hallway-like seating area along with the big dining room. I walked to the dining area and instantly asked my friend, “what the fuck is this?” There were a few topless girls sitting in a booth, smoking cigarettes. A few homies smoking weed. It was like something I’d never seen before in NY nightlife at the time. Living in New York, you never see that kind of freedom anymore, so it was nice to see. China Chalet quickly became one of the spots my friends and I frequented, but only when we were feeling like staying out until 5AM. That shit was a trap; I loved it. We [Stüssy] threw a couple of parties there that turned out amazing, mostly due to the venue. I was always gone off the Henny—I always tried to sneak a bottle in but the bouncer always knew and he would take ’em from me but always gave it back at the end of the night (Shoutouts to him). The owner was mad down to earth too. He would sell me a bottle of Hennessy for like $20 above the regular price, which is not bad considering we’re at a club setting type of thing. I never minded either way, because I knew I was supporting an immigrant-run business. Sad to see it go—China Chalet was a safe place for people of all backgrounds to come dance and have a good fucking time.

Sadaf H Nava
China Chalet has gone and has taken with it my pivotal party girl memories, my agro-idealistic DJ sets, and my New York. I will mourn the cigarette smoke trapped forever in its carpets, there since the ’80s, the wilted roses on each table, and the pink light that coloured our Blasé expressions (our la vie en rose). I will miss the desolate calm concrete of the financial district outside, while, like a snow globe, inside its red décor; we were the movement of the snowflakes, life, and fashion. Amen.

An all too prescient meme. Courtesy of @juulpuppy.

Alexandra Marzella
I was never a true Chaleter. I was never truly dedicated to any party scene. I’ve always felt an outsider. A voyeur. A poser. Luckily, China Chalet seemed to accept all of us: the bottom feeders, the star brights, the entrepreneurs and so on. I last attended a party with my now 2-month-old baby, Earth, still in utero. I smoked a few cigarettes and some judged me. Some didn’t. Some bummed me those cigarettes. Little fire sticks. Littering every other 2 fingers. If I was going to attend a party at China Chalet while pregnant, I didn’t see the point in NOT smoking. SMOKING IN A CHINESE RESTAURANT WITH 100 OTHER PEOPLE, ages, what, 17 and up? 40 something being the oldest? Maybe older. There were no rules. I skipped paying at the door, to DeSe’s disapproval, feeling OG enough to do so considering I am a rare guest. A single, pregnant, broke, failed-icon attending a party of mostly friends and acquaintances much younger than me. This place was very much a lost horizon. A home for all the best misfits, whether the coolest cool or the downright dirtiest bitch. A fantastical queer cosplay of myths. I do not go out much. I prefer my bed. This place, however, consistently pulls on our little fashion heart strings. Thank god for such establishments. Keeping that perfect magic alive. It is both tragic and stunning that this more-than-a-club has to close its doors due to a pandemic-induced shortage in funds. Someone should write a book about it, if no one has yet. A tiny little dot on a world map that has brightened so many people’s lives, and aided in the downfall of plenty, too, I’m sure. My ex doing heroin in the bathroom, not knowing what it was. Innocence tossed. I don’t really condone drug use, smoking while pregnant, or under-age drinking. But I do appreciate the anarchism of such spectacles. I’ve only been in New York 8 years and this place has been a consistent reminder that anything is possible. Enamored with the perseverance of its owners, staff, and partygoers. A big seedy family. Enemies and frenemies coexisting in smoke-choked harmony. God Bless China Chalet.

Jesse Hudnutt
My favorite memory of China Chalet was the night of October 31, 2010, when my best friends Haley Wollens, Kalena Yiaueki, Julia Burlingham and I staged THE THING. We were active participants in the New York nightlife of the time (Beatrice, Sway, Pyramid Club, Lit Lounge, etc) but felt like we needed a party and place of our own: thus, THE THING at China Chalet was born. We scraped together a modest budget from sponsors Manic Panic hair dye and Native Shoes to bring in DJ Emynd from Philly as our headliner (he’d recently released a remix of Enya’s “Sail Away” in Bmore Club style that we were obsessed with). At midnight, we cut the lights and Marie Karlberg performed a truly spooky drag lipsync reenactment of a famous Filipino YouTube video (search “I Will Always Love You – A Freaky, Creepy, Scary, Weird And Disturbing Performance” to see the source material). After hours of dancing in the China Chalet ballroom, the night ended when the lights came on and our friend Charles Damga DJed “Stand on the Word” while someone exploded a pillow (likely a pregnant belly costume) and feathers flew everywhere. So many great memories at China Chalet!!! We’ll miss Keith, Philip, and the whole lovely team who put up with us for all those years 🥀

Patrik Sandberg
China Chalet—the venue, not the restaurant—possessed the quintessential characteristic that defines everything legendary: it was polarizing. You could never mention wanting to go there without people mimicking vomiting, as if it was the most abhorrent thought, beneath taste, indecent. But once you dragged your entourage of haters along, everyone had only the greatest time. I can’t remember a bad night at China Chalet. I think some people resented it as often the only place to go on a Friday night, but that also compounded its charm because you’d run into so many people: old friends, ex-friends, new friends, Internet friends…and occasional celebrities. I remember one night, a slew of Oscar nominees came through during award season and everyone congratulated them like the belles of the ball—it was so embarrassing! Having the ability to ignore or chastise a famous person with a certain nonchalance is always a fantastic ego-boost and China Chalet provided the stage and audience for it. I like the way people dressed up to go to DeSe Escobar’s Club Glam because it was casually over-the-top, almost like making fun of getting dressed up to go out, as opposed to the more try-hard, tourist-baiting clubland events elsewhere in the city. There was something so fun about the dining room set up, where you could go from table to table and socialize with so many different people.

A couple of years ago, Haley Wollens and I asked the photographer Hugo Scott to go and document a Club Glam night for our special issue of Out Of Order magazine. We felt that it was an important moment in nightlife that was not being appreciated properly (or, archived for posterity) and I’m so happy we were able to capture that one amazing night. If I had to pick a favorite memory from China Chalet, I couldn’t. There are too many that will stay with me forever, and, come to think of it, they’re none of your business.

Jamian Juliano-Villani
I threw myself a huge birthday party there for a few years. You could break shit, expose yourself, smoke cigarettes, do drugs, etc. Not that all of those are actually cool, but you could probably get away with murder; like international water law level. Shitloads of people would show up. It was the last bastion of an actual shithole you could decorate with balloons and candles. It may be a blessing it’s closed. China Chalet has the potential to make people rage too hard—someone once told me nothing good happens after midnight. Also, if you’re over 30 (I am), you feel like a dinosaur there.

Whitney Mallett
Because of the fresh flowers, China Chalet felt like prom. Roses and baby’s breath in the vases at the center of each table. Red petals leaving a trail to the bathroom, to the dance floor, and down the stairs at the end of the night, traces of bodies circulating throughout the evening. Crushes, frenemies, friends, and lovers all passed between three main rooms. The key to a good party is having somewhere to go. A purpose, a destination when you squeeze through the crowd and wave hi to someone you do or don’t want to talk to. China Chalet had three rooms with three soundtracks: one for dancing to Pop Smoke or Persian trap or Jersey Club, whatever the art kid DJs brought on their USBs; one for talking at tables, squished into booths, limbs tangled with people known and unknown; and one for ordering drinks, looking at the city lights, listening to the light rock the bartenders played. There was also a bathroom for whispering secrets and relining your lips, plus a mirrored hallway with a few little tables where you could camp out and be seen by everyone who walked by. The nostalgic permissibility of smoking inside. The ad hoc nature of a white-tablecloth restaurant becoming an after-hours discoteque. And in the more recent Club Glam years, lush late nights defined by DeSe’s fun-loving spirit. These made China Chalet somewhere to dress up for and something to look forward to.

Juul Puppy
I think a lot of my followers thought I was joking when I called the closing of China Chalet “devastating news.” I wasn’t. I cried in my bed at 3AM. China Chalet was a special display of the sickness that is contemporary New York, in the best way. Cliché photos of models with cigarettes and stylists with their clients: I regularly looked forward to getting my body checked by someone high-profile under the red lights of China Chalet. What was great about China Chalet wasn’t the “clouted” people who went there—it was the comfort I felt when I was there, the comfort so many felt going there. It was 1000% okay to chain-smoke an entire pack of cigarettes and walk up to the table next to you slurring your words asking, “does anyone have a cig,” only to realize the person sitting there was Alexander Wang. I actually reached a point where I would bring two packs of cigarettes and my juul to China Chalet, but that’s beside the point. I think what truly differentiated China Chalet from other clubs was that it wasn’t a mean place. Other clubs want to make you feel small,—*cough cough* LOLA, Cabin—but China Chalet allowed people to be big, to take up space, to be loud, to be smokers, to be messy, to be in love, to be gay, to be sexy, to be drunk. You could have sex in a bathroom stall if you wanted to, or you could spend hours talking to someone you just met and walk out of the night lifetime friends. You could do lines in plain sight. China Chalet filled a gap in New York nightlife because despite the often exorbitant cover charges, 1) you could usually find a way to get around paying and, 2) it was almost always worth it, and definitely worth it on Club Glam nights. Maybe I am just unaware of other venues, but I truly feel there is no other place in New York right now that can fill the space China Chalet occupied. It is a true loss to see China Chalet’s doors close after the wonderful years I and so many others spent going there. Long live China Chalet :’)

You can show up for NYC nightlife when you buy into this Wolfgang Tillmans-backed fundraiser, aimed at providing local spaces and night-life personalities  grants to keep the lights on until we can all be together again.