When I meet Sandy Liang at Congee Village, the first thing I notice while approaching the restaurant are the neon, blow-up palm trees that sit atop the restaurant’s roof. The exterior of the building is coated in a sauna-like wood panelling that continues inside into the entrance area, over which the maître d’ presides. To Liang this is no ordinary restaurant – it’s a second home. Her father first opened Congee Village at 207 Bowery in 1996 and remains in charge of the restaurant today, having moved to Allen Street in July of 2017 (he also recently opened a second location in Flushing, Queens).
Inside, Liang is visibly at ease – and why wouldn’t she be? This restaurant was her pseudo-daycare during her childhood growing up in Queens. She would often come here to hang out after school, as well as for weekly Sunday dinners with her parents and brother (a tradition she still continues to this day). The space itself inspires a surge of nostalgia in her. Downstairs, she tells me, used to be karaōke rooms, where she and her brother first took their childhood pet – a Chihuahua – after purchasing it at a pet store on Essex Street.
And indeed there is something of a homey spirit to the restaurant. The décor feels like a happy accident, each room bearing tangible proof of the restaurant’s 23 years in business. Within the patchwork-tiled walls of the bar area where Sandy and I sit, I notice a glass-encased, under-the-sea themed structure over there; a kitschy figurine of what appears to be a Chinese chef here; and a medley of wooden and neon stools scattered throughout. A towering orange tree stands aloft in one corner; in another, banana leaves appear to sprout from the ceiling and walls. The bar, which is distinctly tiki-like in appearance, rests against the back wall, lit by black lights glowing from below the counter. And then, smack-dab in the middle of all this, sits an eight-step, curved staircase leading to the main dining area. The overall effect is warm, lived-in and most of all, authentic.
Just as the restaurant is adorned with the tangible amalgamation of its 23 years in business, Liang’s namesake fashion line – which she started in 2014, and is now a mainstay on the official NYFW calendar – also bears the traces of her history and identity. Liang seems at home not only at the restaurant but within the entirety of New York City’s Chinatown too. When I ask her about her favourite spots in the neighbourhood, she trails off into nostalgic territory, reminiscing about the now-shuttered shops she relished as a kid – the fish store where she would “buy pet fish and koi fish,” for instance, that’s now “a cute Italian restaurant.” Even Elizabeth Street Center, which is still open today and where fuckboys roam freely, is not what it used to be, according to Liang.
“It’s really different now,” she says. “It used to be very Hong Kong… like, Sanrio, Hello Kitty, gel pens, earrings. I would just effing die when I was a kid and my mom would let me go there and buy, like, a cell phone charm.”
Unsurprisingly, Liang’s line shows traces of all of this. The restaurant, her family, Chinatown and Chinese culture more generally. And so it makes sense, then, that her first-ever collection, as she told South China Morning Post, was inspired by “Chinatown grandmothers,” and that most (if not all) of her look-books are shot in the neighbourhood.
According to The New York Times, her now-celebrated fleece was inspired by “the hand-me-downs of her youth.” She’s printed the Congee Village menu on the backs of t-shirts, and has incorporated elements of aprons into many of her designs – an obsession, she tells me, that she attributes to “being sort of behind the scenes [at the restaurant].” She’s also inspired by “the produce suppliers [who] bring the food in, these Chinese guys with sleeve coverings… Their colour combos and their clothes. It’s fun and it’s not meant to be, like, cool.”
Authenticity has gained mounting importance over the past couple years, rising in defiance of the resounding cry of “fake news” and other lies that Donald Trump continuously spews. It’s evident in everything from Gucci’s unfiltered beauty campaign starring Dani Miller’s crooked teeth, to the TV shows that have currently left everyone rapt – namely Euphoria and Fleabag, which are both bone-chillingly raw portrayals of life today. In New York’s ever-gentrifying streets, this sort of authenticity is increasingly harder to come by. Many consider the last-remaining “real” neighbourhood to be Chinatown, and the restaurants that inhabit it are often proof of that.
China Chalet is but one case in point. A barely-three-star dim-sum restaurant by day, China Chalet by night transforms into a smoke-filled parlour, where today’s young 20-somethings can drink vodka-crans, dance among influencers and thots, rub elbows with fashion’s big-wigs, and attend concerts for King Krule, Slowthai, and Megan Thee Stallion between fashion afterparties and invite-only soirées. Among the Chalet’s regular parties are Glam (hosted by artist DeSe Escobar, stylist Kyle Luu and model/actress Fiffany Luu) and Ty Sutherland’s Heaven On Earth. And in a way, these parties are helping to preserve China Chalet in its original form. For now at least, while the Chalet remains in demand, the restaurant (and the little pocket it inhabits) can bypass gentrification. The threat, however, always lingers.
Put into the wrong hands, China Chalet could easily become an artificial breeding ground for the 20-something artists-on-a-budget who take refuge there today. Such was the fate of Madame Wong’s when Travis Bass got his hands on it. A club promoter and regular fixture in New York’s early-aughts nightlife, Bass was responsible for making over Chinese restaurants Madame Wong’s and Red Egg into New York’s trendy clubs. Speaking about the initial appeal of the former, he told Thrillist in 2017 that “it was so real and so cool… it had this ‘found object’ vibe.”
When I ask Sandy Liang about fashion’s apparent infatuation with Chinese restaurants, she says, “It does look cool. And I get that people get fascinated with things, especially things that they aren’t a part of, but I just feel like everybody can be respectful.” And while it is possible for designers and club promoters to capitalise on the “authentic” appeal of Chinese restaurants and Chinatown in a respectful way, more times than not they don’t.
Take Vetements’ show for their SS16 collection. Prior to the show, Vetements sent out invites in the form of red envelopes – those customarily sent out to friends and family for the Lunar New Year. The show itself took place in the recesses of Le Président, a multi-story Chinese Restaurant located in what The New York Times dubbed Paris’s “scruffy” Chinatown Belleville. And apparently, it was a revolutionary feat. Not the clothes, but rather the venue itself, coupled with, as The Times put it, the attending “high-ranking fashion editors” who were forced to sit in “cramped rows” – “a clear sign,” he said, “that the high had descended to tour the low.” An ingenious demonstration of the “post-luxury ethos,” according to SSENSE, the show was lauded as one of the highlights of that fashion season.
Never mind the fact that Vetements was using the apparent authenticity of Paris’ Chinatown to appear cool, or the fact that Vetements in no way gave back to the neighbourhood where they held their show; from the vantage point of those cramped up editors, the show epitomised all that was real and authentic in culture at that moment. It captured the normcore-tinged idea of “anti-fashion,” which Rob Horning declared in his essay for Vestoj’s eighth issue, “The Co-Conspirators: Authenticity And Agency Panic,” to be the new cool. He described anti-fashion as a “sincere effort to reject the glamour and artifice of fashion in favour of ordinariness, which putatively stands in for the ‘real.’”
Horning went on, “Anti-fashion caters to the fantasy of having ‘authenticity,’ which comprises a variety of subsidiary paradoxes: conspicuous inconspicuousness, planned spontaneity, studied indifference, strenuous nonchalance, ostentatious banality.” And it was this fantasy that Vetements’ show guests were invited to indulge in.
The year before Sandy Liang held her SS15 presentation at Congee Village – like the Vetements’ show a year later – her invite was a red envelope, “a lucky red Chinese envelope,” she says, “like the ones you get money in.” Unlike Vetements, though, Liang’s show did not spark endless praise by fashion’s elite. It also didn’t cater to a fantasy.
Liang admits she was “a bit, like, ugh” when she witnessed the Vetements SS16 show. “I [had my presentation at a Chinese restaurant] because my dad owns a Chinese restaurant and it makes sense,” she says. “But when a French Margiela-esque brand does it, all of a sudden it’s to be written about.”
Speaking on the ostensibly cool appeal of these restaurants, she said, “It makes me sad when [stuff like that] becomes trendy because that means they matter less in a way, or that their coolness is ephemeral. But for me, it’s just who I am. Like, it can’t go out of trend for me.”
Then again, she says, “I guess it’s the same as anything else being trendy. Like if McDonald’s was cute all of a sudden, everyone would do photo shoots in front of McDonald’s.” And right on cue, a couple of weeks after my interview with Liang, Vetements showed their SS20 men’s collection at where else but McDonald’s.