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Polynesian Lounge / New Chinatown Restaurant, Albuquerque, NM (bar)

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Name:Polynesian Lounge / New Chinatown Restaurant
Street:5001 Central Avenue NE

This was a Polynesian lounge located inside The New Chinatown Restaurant along old Rt66. Tiki Road Trip states that it opened in the mid 1980's but The Albuquerque Journal states 1990. In either case, it closed along with the New Chinatown Restaurant in July of 2004. The location now hosts Mr. K's Oriental Restaurant, which has a few pieces of the old Polynesian Lounge decor including monkeypod tables and two outrigger canoes.
Much is written of The Polynesian Lounge in Tiki Road Trip, pages 168-169. It was known for the musical performances of its owner, Freddie "Kekaulike" Baker, who was born in Hawaii and was previously a regular musician at the Aku Aku Room in the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas. Baker was also a champion surfer, having appeared in such movies as Road to Bali and Thunder Bay. He still plays occasional gigs in Albuquerque and can be tracked by using google which sometimes catches articles in the Albuquerque newspapers.

[ Edited by: tikijackalope on 2004-07-26 22:33 ]

There is a good story on Freddie Baker at: http://www.abqjournal.com/venue/personalities/personalities05-30-03.htm :

Friday, May 30, 2003

Polynesian Lounge Brings Tropical Hideout to Desert

By Arley Sanchez
Journal Staff Writer
Freddie Kekaulike Baker croons "Tiny Bubbles" from the keyboard while Evalani, a Samoan princess, dances the hula inside the Polynesian Cocktail Lounge on East Central.
Sitting on a customer's lap, Freddie's wife, Jane, winks and urges the man to sing along.
It's hard to say no amid the laughter and bamboo, the fish nets and tiki masks, the suspended dugout canoes and a wall-to-wall mural of a South Pacific sunset.
Freddie and Jane Baker, owners of the little lounge tucked in a corner of the New Chinatown restaurant, get together with their longtime friend, Evalani Galeai, on Thursdays and weekends to create a festive tropical hideout in this desert city.
Married in 1975, the couple has owned the Polynesian Cocktail Lounge since it opened in 1990.
The 82-year-old Baker sits at his keyboard, his mustachioed mouth open wide as he sings in a soft falsetto, gold teeth flashing in the stage lights. His laugh-lined face, thinning black hair, and soft grandfatherly voice give him a soothing presence, while Jane's take-charge persona and high energy make her fit to be manager, bartender, waitress and cheerleader.
Meanwhile, Evalani gracefully moves her hands as she speaks the language of hula to the patrons she brings on stage. The amateur hula dancers' frenetic body movements speak more shake, rattle and roll than pensive Polynesian parable.

Hollywood years
During a break, Baker said he came here from Hawaii in 1949 and later toured the country for years with a Polynesian band. When he first arrived, he went to Hollywood, but couldn't find work because he didn't have a union card. He got a job as a lifeguard and played his ukelele on the beach, where he got noticed by some actors.
"Actors then were really classy, people like Gary Cooper," Baker said. Cooper asked Baker if had ever ridden a horse and if he wanted to be in a movie, and Baker replied that he had worked as a boy on a ranch in Hawaii. Cooper helped Baker get cast as an extra, playing an Indian.
"They put a wig on me and they shot the same scene of me four times falling off a horse," Baker said. "But I was making a lot of money."
Baker worked as an extra in films that featured stars like Mitzi Gaynor, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Betty Grable.
Then, Baker decided to put together his own band and he began touring the country with a show that featured the Polynesian sound that had become popular in post-World War II America, mainly because of returning GIs who had discovered the music. Albuquerque was part of the tour.
Later, in the 1960s, Freddie headlined at the popular Tiki Kai lounge on Central. That's where he first noticed Jane, a member of the Ong family that had owned the Chinatown restaurant on Gold Street in the 1950s. Jane said she already knew who Freddie was, and that her brother-in-law went to Las Vegas, Nev., where Baker was playing, and persuaded him to come to Albuquerque to be part of the Tiki Kai.
"The whole town was alive then," he said with a note of nostalgia.
Of his relationship with Jane, Freddie said, "She's a hard worker, knows the business; I couldn't have done anything without her."
Suddenly, Jane appears at the table. It's time for Freddie to get back on stage.

Telling stories
Evalani, during an interview, explains that her father was a king in Samoa, a group of islands in the South Pacific.
As a young woman, she says, she fell in love with a Navy man stationed in Hawaii. They married and had six children, three boys and three girls, who all grew up to be entertainers. One son won the title of Mr. Universe, she said. She lost two sons in a car accident.
The Bakers several years ago invited Evalani to teach hula and perform at the lounge.
"In Hawaii, the people tell stories with their hands," Evalani said. "It takes a long time to learn to tell stories that way."
Evalani said her most popular dance is performed with "bola balls," a set of cords with balls at the end that she swings in circular arcs to the throbbing beat of drums.
"Most people tell me that when I teach them to dance, I bring happiness into their lives," she said.
Later, during her performance, dancers recruited from the audience don sarongs and ceremonial headdresses. The group includes a tall, lanky man in a black suit, skinny black tie, and long blond hair tucked under a black "Blues Brothers" hat. He professes a personal acquaintance with Evalani.
"I'm an old ham, what can I say," the "Blues Brothers"-suited Mark Youtsy says, producing a business card that touts his secretarial, marketing and management services with the slogan "Your Faithful Servant."
To the staccato beat of energizing island drums, the hula dancers breathlessly sway, bump and shake.
"Hands on hips, bend your knees and around the island," Baker says, succinctly describing the basic dance movements.
"Looking good back here, brother, looking good," Baker comments, flashing his ever-present wide smile to the jiggling dancers, occasional whoops and yells punctuating the thrumming of the drums.
"Pretty wild," comments Jane, who presides over the frenzy, dashing from the bar to deliver large drinks with names like Pineapple Passion, Suffering Bastard and Fog Cutter, served in traditional tiki mugs.
On the wall are smudged Polaroids of past sarong- and headdress-wearing members of the "Hula Wall of Fame." Pictured among the dancers are University of New Mexico football coach Rocky Long, UNM women's basketball coach Don Flanagan and boxing champ Danny Romero.
Tonight's crowd includes a cross section of young and old folks, including a band of college students in the corner, who say they're regulars.
"It's an instant party," Erik Frederickson said.
What makes it a party?
"Freddie," he says without hesitation. "He's in his 80s and still a powerhouse."

What follows is a story on the demise of the Polynesian Lounge and the New Chinatown Restaurant from The Albuquerque Tribune, September 29, 2003
http://www.abqtrib.com/archives/business03/092903_business_chnatown.shtml :

'It was the new thing'
But it's time to move on, say the now former owners of the New Chinatown restaurant. After 52 years of egg rolls and fish ponds, the family-owned restaurant is changing hands.

By Dan Mayfield
Tribune Reporter

The koi ponds are empty.

The once bustling dining rooms at the New Chinatown restaurant are vacant. The kitchen, once swarming with chefs making the famous green chile egg rolls, butterfly shrimp and thick chop suey, is ghostly quiet.

But the ponds are likely to be re-filled, and the kitchen will soon be bustling again - under new ownership.

After 52 years, the family that has run the standard-bearer of Albuquerque Chinese cuisine, is getting out of the restaurant business.

The New Chinatown was sold Thursday to Shia and Elsa Fong of Albuquerque. The Fongs previously owned The Imperial Lion, which was near Eubank Boulevard and I-25.

"We're going to do some remodeling. Some updating of the decor," Elsa Fong said Thursday.

"It's time for retirement," said Kitty Ong, one of the owners and the general manager of the New Chinatown for nearly 50 years. "I'm going to be 70, and I think it's time."

The New Chinatown was started by Kitty's father, Wing Ong, and her brother-in-law, Harry Cho Wee Jew, in a then-bustling Downtown Albuquerque - a far cry from where the restaurant ended up on a run-down strip on East Central Avenue.

Ong and Jew had met years before at a University of New Mexico graduation party and ran several restaurants together Downtown before starting the New Chinatown.

Locals will remember the U and I CafÇ, the Chunking CafÇ and the Chinese Village in Nob Hill - all were owned by the pair.

The blue-plate special, the "China Boy" hamburger, was a favorite at the cafes.

"Wing Ong learned to cook at the Liberty Cafe, and he learned to bake at Crystal Gardens," said Kim Jew, the noted Albuquerque photographer and son of Harry Jew. Kim Jew also spent time in the restaurant, learning the family business.

But the New Chinatown, as it was known then, was the restaurant that took off, Kitty Ong remembers.

After a five-year stint on Gold Avenue Downtown, the New Chinatown moved to a little pink-stucco building at the east end of Albuquerque - Central Avenue and Jackson Street, just west of San Mateo Boulevard.

It was old Route 66. The Wayside Motel, a Fitzgerald's Ice Cream Shop, Margot's La Mode and a JC Penney store dotted the remote end of East Central Avenue where the restaurant stood.

"(Friends) thought we were crazy," to move to East Central, Jew said.

The little out-of-the-way restaurant brought a touch of class to the neighborhood. Jackets were required. A maitre'd would seat guests.

Newspaper society columns reported on local big shots seen eating at the restaurant.

Most credit Harry Jew for creating the congenial yet upscale atmosphere the restaurant was known for.

"My father was the ultimate host," Kim Jew said.

And the food - created by Wing Ong - was just as special.

"Daddy, when he cooked Chinese food - because he was handicapped by not having the supplies - improvised," Kitty Ong remembers.

For example, her father would substitute green chile for Chinese peppers. What he couldn't buy here, he would grow.

But by the mid-1970s the restaurant trend was toward bars, and the New Chinatown was food-only, Ong said.

"That's why we built this new building," she said. "It was the new thing."

Harry Jew spent $750,000 to build the current five-room, 450-seat restaurant at 5001 Central Ave. in 1976. He brought in Yum Kee Fu, a famous architect from Hong Kong, to design it.

For its time, the features were totally new to Albuquerque: Deep koi fish ponds, a pagoda dining room, an animatronic panda bear built by a former designer of attractions for Disneyland.

The Polynesian Lounge - complete with sunken bar and live hula entertainment - attracted hipsters until the restaurant closed in July.

Celebrities again flocked to the restaurant. Actors Patrick Swayze, Anthony Quinn and every governor since Bruce King was first in Santa Fe have all eaten at the restaurant.

The Chinese New Year celebrations held at the restaurant were the annual party to be seen at. Dancers would parade in dragon costumes through a capacity crowd as customers waited in long lines to eat.

But in recent years the neighborhood has declined, dragging business down with it.

New Chinese buffets, the family says, ate into the business, as did casinos and plenty of newer Asian restaurants offering a wider variety of flavors.

And new Jew family members just aren't hot on the idea of running the business, Kim Jew said.

"The success has been that it was a family business," Kim Jew said. "We just want to thank all of our customers over the years for making it a success."

According to Jane Baker, the decor pieces which were not sold to Mr. K's will remain in the Baker family. This includes some tikis and glass floats which Mrs. Baker says will be used in an upcoming sports bar to be opened by a family member in a newly constructed building in Albuquerque. She says a sports bar won't be the same as the old lounge, but at least it's relics will be in the family. She mentioned that the most prominant tiki they have is known as "tikibird", which she describes as a huge (over 7 foot) "bird-man-tiki." Would any TCers have pics of the Polynesian Lounge in its prime which they could add to this thread?


Gung Hay Fat Choi!
Pics from our final Chinese New Year at New Chinatown in 1998 and some vintage stuff as well.

"Home of the famous Kung-Pei Room..." Designed in 1976 by Yum Kee Fu, a famous architect from Hong Kong. NC was actually a large complex of rambling attached buildings and outdoor spaces, built to feel like a Chinese "Villige". It had deep koi ponds, a pagoda dining room, an once even an animatronic panda built by a former Disneyland imagineer.

Beyond this gate was a bridge over a koi pond and a moai. A door to the dining areas straight ahead and a fdoor directly into the lounge on the right.

The "Tiki Bird" was a PNG carving

Evalani Galeai dancing to Freddie "Kekaulike" Baker. Baker and his Kama'ainas used to perform at the Aku Aku in Las Vegas' old Stardust Casino, and he and his wife Jane Ong-Baker owned Albuquerques' famous Tiki Kai Supper Club.

Any time was hula time...

Lion dancers on Chinese New Year. You can barely make out the thatch and fish floats above the sunken bar in the background.

Progress?? New Chinatown closed in 2003, reopened in 2004 as a remodeled Chinese buffet, then closed and reopened as a sushi bar, then closed and was demolished...

The original sign left standing as they build...what? A Walgreens? WTF?

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