End of an Icon: Vann Chen

Washington marks the passing of ''Mama Chen,'' nightlife luminary

By Will O'Bryan
Published on April 12, 2012, 6:35am | Comments

In various locales, every once in a while there comes a colorful personality that seems to add a splash of color or bit of panache, standing apart from the relative mediocrity. April 1, Washington lost one such character, Vann Chen, perhaps better known around town as ''Mama Vann.''

Nightlife promoter Mark Lee recalls just the sort of memory that helps illustrate the verve that Chen – who could move through a space with a sort of androgynous feline grace, when he wished – brought to Washington.

Vann Chen (1995)

Vann Chen (1995)

(Photo by Todd Franson)

''It was a very pretty morning,'' Lee remembers a mid-1990s early dawn, snow falling and club kids making their way home. Seeing a collection of party boys dressed as Roman centurions, making their way down P Street as they held Chen aloft, Lee says he wondered if he might have been hallucinating. ''They were carrying Vann so she wouldn't have to walk in her pumps in the snow.

''Vann was always extraordinarily thoughtful. Everyone had a great affection for her. You would expect to see her out – and you would hope to see her.''

That's exactly the sort of sentiment that's been flooding Facebook in the days since Chen's death, primarily on a page dedicated to an upcoming reunion event celebrating the nightclub Tracks, long since closed. That's where Michele Miruski, once a blazing D.C. DJ, went. Now in Oklahoma, she recalls Chen's kindness and generosity.

When she would DJ at Tracks, or any other number of gay D.C. venues, Chen would bring her gifts, she remembers.

''He would bring me pieces of fruit that symbolized good luck or good fortune,'' she says, guessing she last saw Chen about three years ago when she spun at a Baltimore event. ''He would make special things. He made me a beautiful heart-sequined box. He was just one of a kind. Vann was just a beautiful human being. Everybody that came in contact with him always felt better. He had a way of making people feel good about themselves.''

Aside from Chen's grace, Miruski also points to a sort of infectious goofiness. She mentions a club anthem from the '90s, ''Walk for Me,'' that she would spin regularly.

''He brought a big old wok out of his kitchen and put it on his head and started going. 'Walk for me, Walk for me,''' she says wistfully. ''He was just a joy to know.''

It's likely no one knew Chen as well as Danny Aviance, with whom Chen shared an apartment at 16th and Q Streets NW for 17 years.

''We met going to different clubs in the city,'' says Aviance. ''We've known each other for 25 years. We were friends for 23 of those years. We weren't a couple, but we were domestic partners. We were not romantically involved, but you could say we were an 'old married couple.' We were family.''

In that sense, Ludo, their toy poodle Chen could be seen walking about town, may have been their de facto child, ''who misses his mommy very much.''

As his roommate, it was Aviance who found Chen, 52, lying on the sofa as he often would. At first, he says, he did not realize his friend was gone.

''When I found him, he was in a peaceful repose on the sofa,'' says Aviance, adding that he's not yet received a specific cause of death from the medical examiner. ''I've seen him like that a thousand times, and that's the way he went.''

''A lady always knows when to leave,'' Aviance adds with more playfulness than grief, detailing Chen's life as a self-taught seamster, creating clothing, gifts, draperies and all the rest.

Aviance says that a private service was held with Chen's family April 5, and that his body has been cremated. Chen's ashes will be returned to family in Vietnam, from where he emigrated around 1980, to be interred in the family mausoleum.

''Vann was kind and generous,'' Aviance continues. ''He was flamboyant. He was beautiful. He was very funny, with a very sharp wit. Vann was the best thing I can think of that came out of the Vietnam War. He became an icon.''

And that is what he wants those who knew Chen to celebrate. To that end, he and others are organizing a celebration of Chen's life for April 28. Chen would have been 53 on April 29.

''We'll have the celebration of his life on the 28th, and toast him at midnight on his birthday,'' says Aviance, adding one strict caution: ''We don't want mourning and sadness.''

As Chen celebrated life in clubs of Washington, says Aviance, it's befitting that this last celebration, too, be filled with the music and gaiety he loved.

The celebration of Vann ''Mama Chen'' Chen's life will be Saturday, April 28, at Townhouse Tavern, 1637 R St. NW, from 9 p.m. till closing. Aviance asks that in lieu of flowers, those wishing to honor Chen make a donation ''in the spirit of Vann's generosity'' to the charity of their choice.