I like to think of myself as a very flexible person. Over-imbibing isn’t exactly on my list of “don’ts.” I’ve learned over the years not to be an ageist, I proudly keep friends nearly twice my age, realizing if I’m lucky I might make it to middle age too. Admittedly partying is a pretty frivolous pursuit, a bourgeois distraction. But if you don’t party at least once in a while what does that make you? A party pooper? All of these things were running through my head when I met Chang Han last week, the restaurateur behind Amancay’s Diner in Bushwick. I had decided to keep an open mind, a general rule but one that was unusually difficult to follow in light of the juicy chatter surrounding this middle-aged party boy with a taste for young ladies. So I wasn’t exactly surprised when Chang asked me a very presumptuous question: “How do you party?”
Last week, Gothamist published a piece titled “My Creepy Night With The Shady Owner of Bushwick’s All Night Spin-The-Bottle Diner,” which pretty much says it all. We were pretty intrigued by the story at B+B and had to find out for ourselves if this guy was as much of a whack job as he was made out to be.
To be fair, when Chang popped that awkward question, I was drinking a beer with him, but it was strictly journalist-source business and my answer to this question would be nowhere near as exciting as Chang’s. Hell, I wish I could party as much as this dude does. Or maybe as much as he used to. Chang tends to contradict himself, sometimes within just a few breaths. “I don’t go out as much anymore, I have to be careful after 30 years of abusing my body with drugs and alcohol,” he told me while we were driving down Wyckoff Avenue in his family minivan, headed to his sprawling industrial loft.
Chang lives with his wife in their Bushwick apartment, complete with a swing, a foosball table, and a collection of what he says includes 12,000 books by his favorite authors including late fantasy writer Terry Pratchett. “Smart ones will start looking at the titles and go, ‘You’re a fucking idiot,’” he laughed.
“I used to have live music shows in my house, we’d have hundreds of people over,” Chang explained. “I have a lot of friends, so people know me from that and from getting really drunk and crazy.”
When we turned onto a different street, he’d changed his tune about partying. “Really? You’re done with partying?” I asked him.
“Oh, no! I’ll party until I drop,” he said. “My dad died at 49 and before that he said he’d done everything he wanted to.”
Chang will turn 50 in May, but for now he’s celebrating what he hopes will be something of a comeback. Amancay’s Diner, which opened a few weeks ago, occupies the triangle of land where Knickerbocker meets Morgan Avenue. A bulbous old tank of an Airstream is plopped in the front parking lot. “I bought it for my wife,” Chang explained. “But they wouldn’t let me put it on the roof.” The restaurant officially went 24-hours on Sunday and offers a massive, if yet underutilized, space for dining, drinking, and live music.
There’s a brightly lit, sprawling dining area, with booths built for football players seeking a light lunch of vegetarian fare or (more to Chang’s taste) gaggles of drunk 21-year olds looking for a hefty meal, say homemade meatloaf or shrimp scampi, at the crack of dawn. The basement is dominated by a stage stocked with a shiny new guitar, bass, and drum kit. “Is there a house band?” I asked Chang when we met up last Friday at the downstairs bar, cringing at my own suggestion. “No, not right now. I don’t even like music,” he admitted with a straight face. I told him I didn’t believe that, but it was something he reminded me of throughout the night, actually.
Gama, Chang’s now defunct East Village restaurant that closed back in 2010 will be remembered less for its Korean home cooking and watermelon soju and more for its raucous after-hours parties, where drunken Jell-O wrestling matches attracted NYU co-eds. “My wife told me to sell it because I party too much, so I sold it,” he explained. But for now, at least Amancay’s Diner appears to be rather subdued.
After a couple of hours of a low-key hangout at Amancay’s, Chang had convinced me to come back to his apartment on the pretense of meeting his wife. She was apparently sleeping when we arrived, but Chang invited me to stay and drink a glass of Nicaraguan rum while he brought me on a tour of his life through Facebook albums. “I want to show you I’m a family man,” he said.
“It’s not that I hang out with young girls, there are only young girls here,” he said. “There’s really no one my age in Bushwick.” He laughed: “I’m trying to think of excuses.”
The restaurant owner was explicit about being on “damage control” duty in light of the Gothamist piece. Chang was clearly going to utilize this night to show me he was not all bad. “Is the D.A. going to come after me?” he chuckled, glancing down at my recording app uncomfortably when we first met at the downstairs bar.
“We’re friends,” Chang claimed, referring to the author Sandra Song. “I do party, but I don’t push drugs, I’ve never sold it in my life, I have two sons who are good citizens,” he said.
Chang seemed a little defeated about the article, but not angry. “We’re best friends,” he said of his wife Chris Han, a third grade teacher. They’ve been married for more than 25 years, having met in college at the University of Michigan and getting hitched immediately after graduation (turns out, Chang and I shared an alma mater). Chris and Chang have two kids together, both boys are in college.
He did show me photos of his sons, and a video of his eldest skillfully folding origami with his toes, another of his son skateboarding around the apartment while juggling, all of which made the Han family seem more like the Korean Royal Tenenbaums than victims of a pervy misogynist. But what struck me more, and what Chang was most excited to show me were his party photos. “I hang out with a lot of skateboarders,” he said. “You know why? Because I ask young girls what they like and they say skateboarding boys.”
At least the man listens. Chang laughed at his own pervy comment, brushing aside the reservations he never had about coming off as creepy, and proudly showed me a photo of skaters gliding over a hefty ramp. “Wait, that’s indoors?” I asked.
“Yep,” he beamed. “That was inside Gama. I would throw these crazy parties at 3am and nobody had any idea.”
Amancay’s is definitely big enough to fit at least a dozen similar skate ramps inside, and plenty of room to squeeze in those kiddy pools for Chang’s notorious Jell-O wrestling matches, which it’s confirmed actually existed. “I had a Mini Me follow me around,” Chang giggled. I watched as he clicked through Facebook reminiscing about the ragers where bikini-clad girls with Jell-O stuck to every inch of their body clung to Chang and one another. He explained the little person he recruited to be his sidekick “is actually an accountant.”
“He was my tag-team partner for Jell-O wrestling, and the girls just loved him,” he recalled. “I called him Mini Chang.” The videos played on — in one clip Chang clearly grabs onto a girl’s crotch in the heat of a match.
I asked Chang if Bushwick should expect to see all night parties like the ones at Gama. I’m not going to lie, as reprehensible as they sound and as opposed as I am to being groped by strange men, I’d probably end up at one. But don’t get too excited, these won’t be happening right away. “I’m hiring a party promoter to come up with some wacky events,” Chang said. “But that will only happen after we establish ourselves as tame.”
For now, things are pretty quiet at Amancay’s. Chang was gracious enough to give me a menu tasting on Friday. “I try to hire locally,” he explained when the server, a woman in her late 30s came by the table. “Where do you live?” he quizzed her.
“Right off Broadway and Myrtle,” she replied.
My all vegetarian dinner arrived promptly — the tomato soup was smooth and rich, with just a touch of spice; a quinoa salad proved to be a solid serving of grains and greens if a little boring; and a mushroom appetizer with sweet vinegar dipping sauce was a perfect healthy snack. Though the homemade ice cream was the true slam dunk. The menu ranges from just above affordable ($7 to $11 for snack-size starters and meal-sized salads) to pricey (a $12 sloppy joe, a $14 burger w/o cheese and $16 w/ cheese, on up to a $26 ribeye steak).
Chang brings his distaste for refinery to the menu as well – see the unironic addition of meatloaf and shrimp scampi. “I’m not a foodie at all,” he admitted, which is sort of surprising given Chang’s full-throttle devotion to other hedonistic pleasures. “I never even boiled water until five years ago.” Yet he’s aimed to create a healthy diner menu. “It’s not real diner food, I wouldn’t feed that to my kids,” he said.
At Amancay’s, this old-fashioned sensibility mixes with hints of forward thinking– muzak played in the background while hip looking Bushwickians dined apathetically. Chang pointed at one of his servers, a striking dark-haired young woman. “She’s a Brazilian rap star,” he said. “I swear– look her up, her name’s Zuzuka Poderosa.” (Confirmed. She’s a trappier, sexier M.I.A.)
When Chang brought me back to the kitchen– the head chef, a smiley guy, told me, “The local movement is starting here.” Back-of-house also confirmed they lived in Bushwick or nearby, but Chang explained that his chef team was pushing to get a farm-to-table menu off the ground. Though Chang implied he was reluctant to do this, dismissing it as too expensive. But as anti-foodie as Chang made himself out to be, he was still careful to emphasize how everything at the restaurant was homemade and was hyper-attentive to my reactions to each bite.
I half expected Chang to flirt with me. But he didn’t, always maintaining a certain level of professional distance. Until, of course, he offered me drugs — he’s certainly not the first person to ever do that, just the first person to offer me during an interview. And that was only after he admitted to something that was “starting to kick in,” though he declined to specify what exactly he’d consumed. He assured me that he’d been fine when we were driving, however.
Sure, Chang proved himself to be a perv at every chance he had to make a dirty joke, each opportunity to point out a phallic symbol he’d hidden somewhere in the decor (there are plenty, believe me -– my favorite being the image of girl fellating a disembodied penis hidden inside the poppy painting). But he said these things with the glee and awkward shyness of a little boy.
But sometimes Chang surprised me. He claims he has no money and that he distrusts people with too much of it. “You’ll see when you get older,” he said. “It changes people.” I asked him again about money — it’s hard to believe a restaurateur and business owner in New York City could be broke. But he was adamant. “I kept prices very low at St. Mark’s Market” — another business owned by Chang until he sold it recently — “I made barely any money there, I spent all the money I had.”
And instead of teaching his sons to value money, he taught them to survive. “I sent them to clown school,” he said. To, excuse me, what did you say? Yes, clown school. “Well, a performing arts school,” he clarified. “I wanted my kids to learn survival skills. If they’re ever out of a job, they can be street performers.”
Things like that made Chang seem almost endearing. But of course there were glaringly unsavory things about him. Despite this positive PR campaign Chang was waging, he didn’t clean up or clam up entirely. I eventually realized a lot of what Chang does is calculated, even if it seems like he’s just floating through life, having a chill time.
In the Gothamist piece, Song calls Chang a “misogynistic asshole,” something he was clearly offended by. Chang’s attempts to redress the claim misfired repeatedly. And though his statements weren’t malicious, they were certainly clueless. “I take my girlfriends on vacation,” he admitted. “But then I’ll take my wife somewhere better.” He’d then qualify a statement like that with: “I guess I’m a misogynist,” apparently as a means of showing that – look, he wasn’t a misogynist at all. What a nice thing to do for your wife! he probably imagined me thinking. Chang genuinely believes actions like this make him a good person. But who knows what the women around him think? Admittedly, we didn’t have a chance to speak with Chang’s wife or his girlfriends.
But I was pretty weirded out when he recounted the story behind the name of his restaurant. While Gama was still in business, Chang took his kids out of school and moved his family down to Costa Rica. There he lived out a very much off-the-record hedonist fantasy amongst other hippie families. “You can live like a king over there,” he said.
“I wanted to call it Kaiky’s,” he said. “But there’s the Jewish slur. But Kaiky is this girl I know. I met her when she was two and we became friends, I was 41.” I laughed, but he shook his head, no don’t laugh, it’s not a joke.
This immediately struck me as a bizarre way to describe an encounter with an infant. “I said she is going to grow up to be a star,” he remembered. “I became friends with the parents and they ate in my house every day.” But Chang also warned me that I would misunderstand because “Americans don’t know what the word romantic means.”
“I told Amancay and her parents when she’s old enough to drink, I’m going to take her on a romantic getaway to Paris when I’m 61 and she’s 21,” quickly adding: “with my wife, of course.” She’s older now, but Chang said he’s stayed in touch with the little girl and her parents and sees her every time he returns to Costa Rica. On Facebook, he refers to her as “a beach and jungle princess.”
“She loves me,” he said. “I told her parents you can’t have Kaiky forget me.”
At a certain point, Chang started to seem a little panicky and even more uncomfortable than he’d been all night, something he repeatedly accused me of being. Apparently he’d misplaced his weed, but something else seemed amiss. “Would you like to meet my wife?” he blurted out. I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to learn more about Chang, and maybe his wife would be able to explain everything away, I hoped.
That’s how I ended up at his apartment, sitting next to Chang as he scrolled through his Facebook existence. The Jello-O-filled kiddie pools were there, the young girls, everything I’d read about and he’d spoken to. He wasn’t trying to hide anything, and to a certain extent why should he? Chang lets his freak flag fly, but he was concerned about my comfort level and intermittently apologized as if to emphasize that his pervisms are harmless jokes — a curious social tick, considering his lifestyle certainly qualifies as unapologetic.
I’m not one to defend badly behaving dudes, but when it comes down to it, Chang behaves like countless other Bushwick dudes I’ve encountered. The world is his oyster, he’s just attempting to eat it with a spoon along with an entire cake, both of which he (purposely) spills on the lap of a random young woman. If someone’s biggest achievement in life is being able to maintain the lifestyle of a 22-year-old libertine at nearly half a century old, then let them have it. Just don’t expect that lifestyle to come without some serious consequences, like a disturbing lack of self-awareness and seeming disregard for the gains women have made in the past hundred years or so.
Plus, the guy’s in the restaurant biz, home to some of the (self-proclaimed) scummiest people on earth — for better or worse. Should we really be judging this guy by his taste for partying? Probably not. He doesn’t claim to represent any higher ideals or purport to be a moral beacon of any sort. Chang is no priest. So in the end, he should be judged by how he treats his employees and his contribution to the Bushwick community. His staff appear to like him, despite the dirty old man persona, and he claims to pay his locally sourced crew a “fair wage.” But if he’s going to be of any use to the community, he better start having his nasty parties again — the boys of Bushwick could surely use a window into their future.
“Please just write about the food,” Chang asked as he walked me out of his apartment.