New Shanghai Barber Shop, where I’ve been getting my hair cut, is only a block away, but when I asked if they knew about Tommy Chong (of Cheech & Chong) and the Chinatown night club he used to run, I drew only blanks. Like me, my barber hadn’t even known that the Chong in Cheech & Chong was half-ethnic Chinese from Vancouver. I hadn’t been in the midst of a Cheech & Chong binge or anything—I’ve only ever watched the first film—but I had Tommy Chong on my mind because I’d just discovered that in the 1960s there had existed in Vancouver a soul band, signed by Berry Gordy to his own personal “Gordy” label, a subsidiary of Motown. Not only that, but the guitarist in the band, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, was Tommy Chong. Not only that, but it was Chong’s band, relocated from Calgary (Chong having moved to Edmonton, as a young boy, and then to Calgary where he grew up). Over on the Calgary Cassette Preservation Society, a thread wonders if any Calgary band has ever made the move to Toronto/Vancouver/Montreal and had it work out well for them. The thread concludes that no Calgary band has pulled off a full band-relocation that hasn’t signalled the beginning of the end.
I fully concurred. But not now. The Calgary Shades, the original name of Chong’s band, did it and how. There is winning, and then there is really winning: the Vancouvers toured with The Supremes, discovered Michael Jackson, and were joined on stage for an impromptu jam by Jimi Hendrix (he played bass). In the 1960s, Chong opened Vancouver’s first-ever topless cabaret (but fourth overall nightclub) on East Pender and Main in Chinatown. The Shanghai Junk was both swank and rough. It was built to rival modern Hong Kong nightclubs, the lines between east and west blurred. Ike and Tina Turner hung out there. Chong, having pretty much seen and done it all in the music business, decided to switch it up. He transformed the Shanghai Junk into a comedy club, himself into a comic and then one day Cheech Marin, working as a carpet layer in Vancouver—he was a draft evader from Los Angeles--walked in and then Chong became so famous a second time that his first fame came to seem foot-notish by comparison.
I went to see another band, originally from Calgary now relocated to Vancouver, play at The Commodore Ballroom a few months ago. The Matchstick Skeletons were opening for The Headstones. (As a side note, The Matchstick Skeletons sound like they could be a compelling alternative answer to the question CCPS raises—has a Calgary band’s relocation to a bigger city ever worked?). The Headstones were doing a tour commemorating the 25th anniversary of their debut album release, Picture of Health. In 1993, I did not listen to The Headstones. I never cared much about that band either way. But, undeniably, Hugh Dillon has emerged as such a distinctively Canadian celebrity that I couldn’t help but stick around for awhile anyway and see what I’d been missing. Dillon presents himself as a hard lad, one tough cookie, the only Alpha male in the auditorium, and so when he reminisced about Hastings & Main, one of several “Back when I was junkie…” tales told, the only surprise was that it had taken him so long. Still, Dillon’s observation was astute, “Hastings & Main,” he said. “That place is still exactly the fucking same.”
The East Pender corridor that passes from New Shanghai Barbershop to The Shanghai Junk building is a block from the infamous corridor, Hastings & Main. To get from Gastown into Chinatown puts you up against the Downtown Eastside, and if you don’t thread that needle just right, that’s where you end up. The DTES isn’t unsafe. But goodwill volunteers sometimes operate there to help panicked tourists. Their fear is not rational. But some people experience real panic at the sight of such concentrated collective destitution.
Chong support’s Dillon’s observation. Hastings & Main had become home to a nation’s addicts and desperate already by the 1960s. Totally like that in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Like that today. I was on my way to take pictures of the Shanghai Junk building when I ran into Marie-Thérèse who didn’t exactly introduce herself first thing, she was asking if I could help her out with a little change. I knew that accent right away and so I asked her if she was from Montreal. She said she was, from Lachine. We were talking about that as we walked down the block a bit and when we reached the right building, I said I could pay her to take a quick few photos of me in front of it. MT said she was happy to oblige so I passed her my phone. My hands were stuck firmly in my pockets at first and MT lowered the phone and chided me to take them out. She told me to stop grimacing. This photo captures the precise moment my right hand first ventured out and I attempted to smile. Big moment for sure.
Yes, The Shanghai Junk is now a TD bank.