Why Willow still matters

York Vision journalist and student Abbie Llewelyn mourns the loss of a York institution

Most of York’s student population are still mourning the loss of our favourite Chinese-restaurant-cum-nightclub. The fact that people came in their hundreds on the closing night of Willow, queuing for up to three to four hours to get in shows that it held a special place in our hearts! Its closing reached national news and York alumni travelled back just to see out the Willow in style. More recently The Willow Society page on Facebook that I set up with my housemate for our new unofficial society (subtle plug there I know!) got upwards of 300 likes in just a couple of weeks. People care.

The closing of my favourite place in York is a subject I feel very emotional about. A lot of blood sweat and tears went into this article, especially tears. I feel like I cannot do it justice with the number of words I have, but I will do my best. Willow wasn’t just £1 shots, cheesy music and a 4am close (although that certainly added to the appeal), it was a seemingly stable part of York culture, a community of like-minded people and a break from the monotony of “ordinary” nightlife.

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Unlike almost every other club I have been to, Willow had a unique character. From the free prawn crackers at the bar to the grumpy but legendary owner, Tommy Fong, who still came to every single night up until its closure, at which time the man was 70 years old.

I know many people who would only go out if there was a possibility of Willow and now they no longer have anywhere to go. Yes you did have to wade through the toilets somewhat and yes the stairs at the entrance were fairly lethal and floor coated in a mysterious slimy paste, but we accepted these things without question, because it was Willow!

For those of you who didn’t get to experience the unique venue, it had been in existence since 1936 and under the ownership of Mr Tommy Fong since 1973. The original Chinese restaurant was closed down for “health and safety reasons” and thus The Willow Disco as we knew it was born and was the place to go for generations. So many people’s favourite memories of their time at York have been Willow-related. Some talk of not being allowed in and having to sneak up the fire escape round the back that led into the men’s toilets. Others have told me about “The Willow Dash” where the aim of the game is to run into Willow past the bouncers and try and stay upstairs for a whole song (before the inevitable catch by the bouncer).

One of my personal favourites is being chucked out for the weirdest things like just touching the ceiling (they really hated that for some reason). Or having numerous stamps so massive all over your body. And of course the last night, featuring DJ Max taking off his shirt and crowd-surfing, the whole place sitting on the floor and swaying to Hey Jude, prawn crackers being put in the bubble machine so that bits of prawn cracker were flying everywhere, Tommy’s incredible speech and at the end, a scramble for Willow merchandise and chairs.

My point is that there is nothing out there like Willow and it was an entrenched part of life here for many people. We would go there two or three times a week, sometimes every day. Is it really that surprising that we still mourn its loss? We must band together in these tough times and celebrate what was. As Tommy Fong once said: “We’re not the Willow, you are!”