Seattle's Ragin' Asians

Vodka shots, dancing at Venom, and 3 a.m. noodles in the ID: Welcome to Seattle’s “neon tetra fish” nightlife scene.

"I've converted everyone to the Goose," Sahn "Junior" Pham boasts as he opens a bottle of Grey Goose. It's the only liquor he and his friends are willing to take shots of. He nods along to the Three 6 Mafia song blasting on the stereo as he pours a dozen orange-flavored vodka shots.His loyalty to "the Goose" is evidenced by close to 100 empty fifths of the premium vodka meticulously lined up on various surfaces in the living room. A sign on the wall reads: "I love Grey Goose." Pham sets several glasses of pink lemonade—"for chaser"—and a giant bag of Sour Patch Kids alongside the shots.Quang Nguyen takes one, and then tries strumming a ukulele he's picked up off the floor. "I just wanna get drunk and play this shit!" he exclaims. He fumbles with the instrument for a few minutes, then loses interest and goes outside to smoke a cigarette.It's a Diddy soiree on a tighter budget. The guests are partying in a three-bedroom condo, where Pham lives with a roommate, just a couple miles away from Southcenter Mall, instead of a boat in the Hamptons. And everybody's getting—as he puts it—"ragin' Asian."Pham is Vietnamese. He's invited several friends to his Tukwila townhome that Friday to pre-funk before going out to one of their favorite Seattle clubs: Venom. All the 20-somethings pre-funking at his house are also Asian—most of them Vietnamese or Cambodian. Almost every weekend, they hit up Venom, a Belltown dance club that draws a predominately Asian crowd.At 29, Pham is older than most of his club-going friends, but he looks younger. He was a homebody in a serious relationship during his early 20s who's now making up for lost time—something he has a lot of these days, since getting laid off from his job as an IT consultant earlier this year. Regardless, Pham is in good spirits. He's handsome and charming, and effortlessly plays host to ensure everybody has a good time.The gaggle of girls at his house could easily pass for sisters—sorority sisters, anyway. They're wearing strikingly similar dresses from Forever 21. Two of them—identical twins—look like they're in middle school, but are actually 20. They plan to get into Venom by waiting outside the club for a friend who's already gained entry to return with the IDs of those inside. (It can get so crowded at the rope that the bouncer won't notice an ID is being used twice.)Nightlife photographer Luis Ongpin of streetpaparazzi.com, a local Web site devoted to photos of club-goers, often witnesses the operation go down while shooting at clubs like Venom and the War Room. "One Asian girl brings 10 with her. And to people that don't know them, they look similar enough to pull it off," he says.Of all the girls at Pham's house, an attractive Cambodian girl named Somealear Mom stands out. The 22-year-old, whose cousin is married to the ukulele-strumming Nguyen, dons high heels and a skimpy purple get-up that stretches down to her mid-thighs, which she admits is actually just a long shirt. Mom just graduated from Seattle University, and is putting her job search on hold so she can enjoy one last responsibility-free summer."I have some white friends who won't even go [to Venom]," Mom says, laughing. "It's too Asian for them. For us, it's like family. Everybody knows each other there."That's exactly what club promoters targeting the Asian demographic are going for. The nights that draw the most Asians are the ones that have a crowd within "two to three degrees of separation," according to Tony Truong, managing partner of the Seattle office of Visionshock, the largest Asian-American nightlife company in the country. Its Seattle branch, which throws events at clubs like Ibiza and Heaven, employs 30 promoters who use word of mouth, online social networks, and text-messaging to develop its clientele."Asians are like neon tetra fish—they travel in schools," Truong says. "You always see masses of them together. Once you get the group leader to come, you get the entire group. Then you get the friends of people in that group, and so forth."The trend has become increasingly visible in Seattle's Asian nightlife scene over the past several years. Promoter Nam Ho of Steady Productions organizes weekly parties at Venom, War Room, and Sea Sound Lounge—all notorious hot spots for Asian club-goers. He attributes the rise in popularity of these parties to the fact that Asians have long had to create their own nightlife scene."A lot of Asian-Americans that you see out there don't go to a four-year university or have a scene they really fit into," Ho explains. "They aren't going to frat parties or dive bars or sports bars. But many of them have been born and raised here, so they're incredibly in tune to the city. The club is a good comfort zone for them to go out with other Asian-Americans."It may be familiar territory now, but the club scene is a far cry from the atmosphere in which many of these 20-something Asians were raised. They grew up accustomed to having their strict first-generation parents forbid them from engaging in the social activities of their teenage peers."People talk about gaining the freshman 15 from drinking beer in college. Asians don't get that because we weren't even allowed out of our houses," Truong says, laughing. "Traditional Asian culture is very conservative. Our parents teach us to study hard and to work hard. They want us to be doctors or lawyers or to start families. Sometimes, they forget to teach us to live. That's why Asians get extravagant at the bar. We're constantly going out and pounding Grey Goose like there's no tomorrow because we're playing catch-up."Junior Pham claims he's a "late bloomer" in the club scene. He was born and raised in the United States to immigrant parents. He attended Bellevue Community College and transferred to a four-year university he never graduated from because, he says, "work came first." Most of his friends come from similar backgrounds; the closest they've ever gotten to partying at a frat is guzzling Grey Goose and playing beer pong at Pham's.The group of friends empties two to three bottles of the goose before deciding they're ready to hit the club. They divvy up into three separate carloads. Nguyen and his friend Phonan Thit—another one of Mom's cousins—argue over Michael Jackson's death during the ride. Nguyen dubs him a pedophile; Thit is more sympathetic. The debate ends when Jeremih's "Birthday Sex" comes on the radio. Nguyen lets out an excited cheer and turns it up, crooning along to the lyrics, "Girl you know I-I-I, Girl you know I-I-I..."Twenty minutes later, the three cars pull into a pay-to-park lot a block away from Venom. The alcohol has caught up to everybody, and several of the girls relieve themselves behind cars. The guys are less concerned about urinating in public, and simply do it in the center of the lot. The girls throw their purses in the car trunks after emptying their bladders; they don't spend money at the club.Pham and his friends usually pay for drinks, but they also reap benefits by escorting the girls to Venom. "We bring in so much business that the owners know us and hook us up," Pham explains. He and his friends never pay the $15 cover. Not that it's any sweat off the club staff's backs—the group drops, on average, about $500 per visit on booze.When they walk up to Venom's entrance, it's past 11 p.m. Several raven-haired patrons are already in line or taking cigarette breaks and flirting outside. Pham saunters to the front and exchanges a few words with the guy working the door. Suddenly he's holding a fistful of VIP bracelets and handing them out. Everybody—including the underage twins—skips to the front of the line and gets in with ease.Pham and his friends have soon taken over a VIP booth near the bar that's little more than a small space with leather couches and a table. The guys sit down and immediately place an order with the cocktail waitress: 20 shots of Grey Goose with pineapple-juice chasers. The girls begin sucking on Blow-Pops the bartender gave them, and then get up and start dancing with the sticks hanging out of their mouths. It's like a weird fetish-porn video.The shots arrive. "No stopping until you throw up!" Pham screams. Everybody reaches out and grabs a shot. Pham then realizes he's bought five shots too many and glances around. "Here," he says, passing out the remaining drinks to some random people standing near the booth.Venom doesn't look or feel particularly different from any other club in Belltown. It's flashy and just a smidge sleazy. The DJ spins Top-40 music. A few black girls in gold-lamé hot pants and bras dance for the crowd on elevated surfaces. They're the only black girls in the club. White girls are also few and far between.The occasional black or white guy in the crowd stands out. They're almost always accompanying an Asian girlfriend or leering at groups of girls dancing in sequined dresses. The girls aren't interested. Some of them dub the guys "Asiaphiles"—American men obsessed with Asian women.One of the so-called Asiaphiles is a guy wearing a brown leather jacket and a goofy smile. He approaches a petite Taiwanese girl named Sab to dance to a Black Eyed Peas song. She complies, albeit unenthusiastically.Later, Sab goes to the bathroom with an entourage of friends to freshen up. The girls' restroom at Venom looks like a MAC makeup counter, with bright mirrors and shelves stocked with lip gloss, mascara, and eye shadow."He's one of those white guys," she complains as she smoothes a stray eyebrow hair into place. Her friends murmur understandingly. "I guess he's here for his birthday, though. I felt like it'd be mean not to dance with him."Sab, like a majority of the clientele, hits up Venom on weekends because she's seeking the company of other Asians—not the people who fetishize them. Pham's circle arrives at and leaves the club together. It's like the Asian version of No Child Left Behind.By the time Venom closes, a majority of its clientele are drunk. To soak up the alcohol, they hit up the International District, the only neighborhood in Seattle with multiple restaurants that stay open until 3:30 a.m. "Let's go to Purple Dot!" Mom screams. "I want baked spaghetti!"But the only people sober enough to drive aren't interested in escorting everyone to the Purple Dot Cafe, so those craving Chinese food are forced to settle for cream-cheese hot dogs sold by a nearby vendor before climbing back into the three cars and driving away. As Pham notes, "Sometimes we just get too drunk and can't make it [to the ID]."The following Friday, Mom ditches her usual crew to hit the War Room on Capitol Hill."Sometimes I get sick of Venom," she confesses.She and her Filipino friend Jireh Fabelinia have driven their cars to the parking lot across the street from the Harvard Market QFC. They argue for 15 minutes over whether the lot attendees have gone home for the night. Fabelinia is insistent that they have, and doesn't want to pay for parking. Mom, who already has several tickets on her record and doesn't want to risk getting another, is unsure."If you get a ticket, I'll pay for it," Fabelinia says exasperatedly. "That's how confident I am that you're not going to get one."That convinces Mom to relent. She tosses everything but her cell phone and ID into her car and marches past the pay machine. Fabelinia smiles; the two have become fast friends since the beginning of the summer, when one of Mom's girlfriends wandered into the Southcenter Mall shoe store he works at. The 24-year-old Fabelinia has a wicked sense of humor and seems to know everybody he runs into on Capitol Hill.It's almost midnight by the time Fabelinia and Mom get in line at the War Room. Unlike the prior weekend, Mom is dressed casually in a white cotton top and shorts. "This is the same outfit I wore to go shopping at the mall today," she reveals. "I always dress up at clubs like Venom and Ibiza. But I'm not even wearing heels right now."She doesn't have to. The War Room is smaller and more down-to-earth than the clubs in Belltown. During the week, it hosts '80s-music and reggae nights that Mom and her friends have dropped in on, but found "wasn't really their scene." However, on weekends, the War Room plays hip-hop and attracts a large Asian crowd.Here, Mom and her friends have to wait in line and pay a $10 cover. Mom enters easily, but Fabelinia gets frisked by security. Inside, it's stifling. The DJ is spinning a Flo Rida track so loud that it's impossible to hold a coherent conversation. The patrons, most of whom are Filipino or Vietnamese, crowd the understaffed bar or thrash about on the dance floor.Mom and Fabelinia circle the premises, searching for an empty booth and greeting the occasional acquaintance they run into. After finding nowhere to sit, they head to the bar. Fabelinia utters a noise of dismay when he gets in line. "He's wearing the same shirt as me," he shouts over the music as he motions toward a guy standing in front of them in a blue-collared shirt. Mom stifles a giggle. "You look better in it," she assures her friend.Grey Goose isn't going to cut it in this situation. When Fabelinia gets to the bar, he orders a Long Island Iced Tea and its kitchen-sink kin, an Adios Motherfucker (AMF). Both Fabelinia and Mom grimace when they first taste their cocktails—they're ridiculously strong. Fabelinia shrugs and continues to drink his, but Mom tentatively sips her AMF before finally asking the bartender if she can water it down."Does it need to be stronger?" the confused bartender asks, reaching for a bottle of liquor. Mom re-explains her plight and gets an AMF diffused by grapefruit juice. "Now I can't taste any alcohol!" she squeals. "OK, on the count of three—chug as fast you can. One, two, three...go!"Mom only gets halfway through her drink, but Fabelinia polishes off his Long Island. Mom takes a breath and finishes the rest. They've each only consumed one drink, but they were potent ones, and both Mom and Fabelinia are small in stature. In no time, they're giggling harder than usual and singing along to Danity Kane.A guy approaches the pair and attempts to strike up a conversation. He's just moved here from Houston, he says. "Houston? That's where Beyoncé is from!" Fabelinia replies excitedly. He and Mom begin chattering about the pop star, and the guy is unable to get a word in edgewise, eventually walking away. The oblivious friends decide to step out for a cigarette."I didn't know you smoked," says Mom, as Fabelinia pulls out a pack of Marlboro Reds and lights up."Only when I drink," Fabelinia replies."Me too," confesses Mom.Last call fast approaches. Neither of the two friends wants to drink anymore; they plan to drive to Purple Dot so that Mom can finally get her baked spaghetti. They step back in, however, to use the bathrooms.The drab women's restroom at the War Room is a far cry from that of Venom. Empty drink cups sit atop the counters and long trails of wet toilet paper stick to the floor. Girls have to make sure to check their shoes before exiting to make sure they aren't bringing any remnants out with them. "Disgusting," Mom pronounces as she washes her hands.She walks out hurriedly and meets Fabelinia outside. It's almost 2 a.m., and they head toward the parking lot with purpose. "Dear God, please don't let me have a ticket," Mom prays aloud. When the moment of truth arrives, Mom lets out a sigh of relief and Fabelinia cheers. "I told you!" he says triumphantly.He gets in the car and starts the ignition. Like the rest of the droves of Asians filtering out of clubs at last call, he's headed to the International District. Restaurants like Purple Dot, Honey Court, Jade Garden, and Sea Garden are all crammed with Asians, many of them possessing that telling red-faced glow as they kneel over family-sized portions of greasy Chinese fare to soak up the booze in their bodies.There's no settling for a cream-cheese hot dog tonight. The streets of the International District are already packed with cars when Fabelinia rolls onto Maynard Avenue South, where Purple Dot is located. The neighborhood is livelier at 2 a.m. than it is at dinnertime.Mom is walking toward her destination with Fabelinia when she sees a car she recognizes. "Phonan!" she yells, running into the street toward what she thinks is her cousin's car. It's not. But it turns out that she knows these guys too, and invites them to Purple Dot.The staff at Purple Dot is prepared for the chaos. Owner Sindy Chan usually requires the restaurant to be staffed with one manager and four to five employees. But on Friday and Saturday nights, she doubles those numbers."Once the clubs stop serving liquor, they all come here," Chan says. "And they bring the club atmosphere with them. It's packed with loud Asians in their 20s and 30s who aren't ready to stop having fun. It's actually kind of crazy. We get more busy at 2 a.m. than we do during dim sum."Purple Dot looks like a cross between Space Mountain and a casino buffet. The walls are bright purple and yellow, the tables iridescent silver, and there are massive mounds of food everywhere. It's packed with Asians still dressed in their Forever 21 dresses and Club Monaco shirts. Some of them look drained from the night's debauchery and slump over their food. But most of the tables are as loud as hell, and the patrons burst out laughing over and over again with their mouths full of noodles.Mom requests a table for four, and for the umpteenth time declares her love of baked spaghetti. "It's so bomb—like regular spaghetti but way sweeter," she says. She doesn't bother looking at the menu, instead sending text messages until the guys she saw earlier, Kik and Wayne, walk in.The two spent their night partying at Ibiza. Wayne is reserved, but Kik, who works as a club promoter and part-time model, is flirtatious and talkative. "Are your sisters hot, too?" he asks Mom with a wide smile when she refers to one of her siblings. She snorts, unimpressed by his attempt at flattery."You can't be in my family and not be hot," she replies.The exchange is interrupted when a harried waitress arrives. Even with eight other servers on duty, she's got her hands full with several tables of drunk and hungry Asians. She scribbles on her notepad as Mom orders for everyone. "Pork fried rice, house special chow mein, honey-walnut prawns, honey-garlic spareribs, and baked spaghetti," she says in one breath.Within 10 minutes, the dishes start arriving one by one. It's way too much food for four people, even if three of them are grown men. There are ridiculous amounts of greasy noodles, fried prawns coated in sticky mayonnaise sauce, and of course Mom's spaghetti casserole dish. Fabelinia helps himself to some fried rice, then passes the dish to his right. The four set to work assembling their plates of food, pausing every once in a while to reach over and scoop another shrimp or piece of chicken onto one another's plates. Conversation dies once they start to eat.In an hour's time, they manage to put an impressive dent in the spread. It's now 3:20 a.m., and the servers have started to stow away dishes and rearrange chairs. Purple Dot closes in 10 minutes. Several patrons are still inside, and the waitress begins dropping off bills at the tables—a not-so-subtle hint that they need to leave.The total for the table comes out to around $50. Kik and Wayne throw down some cash, and Fabelinia charges the rest on his card. Mom asks for a to-go box and scoops the remains of their munchies into it. She hands the leftovers to Kik to take home. Then she makes a face."I feel sick," she announces.At the door, Mom and Fabelinia part ways with Kik and Wayne and head to their respective cars. Around them, countless people are doing the same. Once again, Maynard Avenue South fills with droves of flush-faced Asians, headed home with car keys dangling from one hand and a carton of chow mein in the other.ehobart@seattleweekly.com[Editor's Note: When this story was first posted, our Web site's automatic hyperlinking technology created a hotlink on the name of Quang Nguyen, who is quoted in the third paragraph of this story, and linked to a previous SW story involving Quang Nguyen, Executive Director of the Washington Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce. The two individuals are not the same and we sincerely apologize for any misimpression created.]

 
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