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Remembering China Chalet, Downtown’s Polarizing Party Epicenter

If you went to a China Chalet party any Friday (or Monday) night since 2016, chances are you saw Tyrell Hampton dancing, camera in hand, among a scrum of questionably-of-age models, skaters, artists, and students. “I never missed a party,” says the 21-year-old photographer, who started going in 2016 to the infamous (and now, sadly, closed) Chinese restaurant on Broadway that turned into a nightclub after the last plate of lo mein was cleared from the banquettes. Hampton’s new book of photographs, China Chalet: Memories, doesn’t seek to represent an exhaustive history of the place that served as a port of call for a few generations of downtown party people. (Hampton couldn’t have become a regular much earlier than he did.) Rather, it captures the energy, sexiness, sloppiness, and recklessness of the crew that always flocked to his flashbulb, and serves as a record of a young photographer discovering his eye in a place that’s now gone—though in a scene that abides to this day.

On a recent call, Tyrell shared some of his China Chalet memories.

“I wanted to memorialize the place that gave me my photographic identity. I owe everything to China Chalet. It’s where I got my photographic style: chaotic, in your face. I mimic that energy in every photo I take. I need that energy, I need people to be in their own element—that’s what I look for in every image I take now.

The book is all about my own personal memories. I wasn’t even formally allowed to go till this past year, when I turned 21. My first experience at the club was sneaking in through the back. I had to be friends with the security guards, I had to make friends with the people in the China Chalet community. I had to earn my stripes basically. I owe a lot to the Club Glam people because they put me on the list and wanted me to come and made me feel welcome, even though legally I wasn’t welcome.

I started taking photos the very first night I went. It was a Monday night. I was a college freshman coming from outside of NYC, and up to that point I experienced NYC through television and TV. And then when I went to the club I was like, this is everything I ever wanted. It was Gossip Girl, it was Sex And The City. I saw Paloma Elssesser, Cardi B, people I follow on Instagram. Seeing them in real life made me remember why I wanted to live here so bad. And I saw them living their own lives, doing their own things, being themselves.

I never missed a party. No matter what the party was: Club Glam, Vogue, Stüssy, a skater thing. However many Fridays there are in the year, that’s how many Fridays I went to China Chalet. Even when I was a freshman in college I would go by myself to just feel the energy.

The majority of my photographic muses I’ve found outside of the club, but then I would always bring them there. I would literally pay for them to get in because I wanted them to run around the space and feel free. What history was I capturing? Just the history of kids having fun in a very specific time and place in New York.

It’s going to be impossible to replicate China Chalet. I measure it as Studio 54. But even in quarantine I’ve seen my peers and the China Chalet community still make things happen, make it possible to still meet and be free, and that’s one of the things that made China Chalet what it is—the sense of community.

As for the food, I only had it once, when I was shooting a campaign and the restaurant catered. It was pretty good. I give it an 8 out of 10.”

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