The Mystery of Lê From Hop Sing Laundromat

This much we know: Behind an unmarked door in Chinatown sits what may be America’s greatest cocktail bar, Hop Sing Laundromat. But the truth about the man who created it? That’s where things get trickier.
Photograph by Justin James Muir

Photograph by Justin James Muir

Hey, Buddy …

I can see Lê on Market Street, pulling stuff out of the passenger seat of his BMW convertible. Mail, packages, receipts, a thick FedEx envelope that he holds up to the side of his head and shakes. He has on a long-sleeved sweater and jeans, oversized Gaultier glasses and a little hat — hipster affectation that he wears like he was born with it. I cross the street to join him, and he looks up, grins, Blu e-cigarette clamped in his teeth and the vapor from it trailing out of the corner of his mouth like a cartoon devil.

“Hey, buddy! Let’s go to lunch.”

Another night, I see him on the steps at his Chinatown bar, Hop Sing Laundromat. Bespoke suit in dark blue, cuff links and a tie clip. He’s working the door like he does every night, the heavy gate opening and closing, allowing those chosen — those meeting his strict, strange standards — entry into a dark waiting room where rules are discussed as tables are prepared. I cross Race Street and wave.

He says, “Hey, buddy! You coming in?”

But I can’t. Not tonight. I have other things to do, and Hop Sing isn’t a place you duck into for a quick drink with honest intentions, only to be gone again in 10 minutes. It is, in fact, a place that confounds all intentions, honest or otherwise; that, like a casino or jail cell, seems to operate with its own clocks, unhitched from all external temporal realities; that can maybe be resisted by some teetotalers or abstainers, social drinkers who can sip a single cocktail all night, but not by me.

Hop Sing is a phenomenon. A mystery bar with no sign, no phone. Just rules, and some of the greatest cocktails in the United States. And Lê? He built Hop Sing. Runs it. Which, alone, might be enough to make telling a story about him worthwhile, but the bar isn’t the end of him. And it’s certainly not the beginning.

Lê is one of the most mysterious men in Philadelphia. A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma? Sure, he’s that, but he wears a big, fluffy jacket of fuck-you on the outside, too. He comes without a name, a home, a verifiable past. Everything in this story about him could be a lie. It could all be true. It’s probably somewhere in between.

In Chinatown again, a week or a month later, he texts me. Im block away. I can see you standing. This time, we’re meeting for drinks. Or coffee. Maybe dinner, I dunno. I catch sight of him, walking quick like Groucho Marx in the old films. As though his own private movie camera runs a little faster than everyone else’s.

He’s in a hoodie. Watch cap. Polished shoes and a really nice watch, carrying a half-full iced coffee from Starbucks. He looks tired, because he doesn’t sleep. Or not enough. Because he gets sometimes two hours a night, or three, between the bar closing and the first of the next day’s business. And some nights none at all. He says he hasn’t taken a night off since the place opened three years ago.

But he overlays the tiredness with a varnish of tics and fussing. Rearranging things on tables in front of him, endlessly fucking with his electronic cigarette and the various pieces of it. Leaning forward, leaning back, leaning sideways, talking with his hands — an entire second language made up of taps, swoops, exclamation points and bewildered question marks. He masks the tiredness with an antic energy; burns all his reserves, finds more, burns those, too. It’s a battle. He wins by never acknowledging any other option.

On the street, he sticks out his free hand. “Hey, buddy! How are you, sir? Things good?” We go out, talk shit about our enemies, get something to eat. I’ve known Lê three years now, going on four. We’re friends.

I still don’t know his name.

Lê sticks to the shadows at Hop Sing. Photograph by Justin James Muir

Lê sticks to the shadows at Hop Sing. Photograph by Justin James Muir

Known Unknowns

No, that’s not right. I know his name. He’s Lê the way Madonna is Madonna or Sting is Sting. A nom de travail, as it were, from a man who cultivates mystery (or, alternately, a weird desire for a very public kind of privacy) like it’s some kind of currency.

Except Madonna is really Madonna Louise Ciccone, and Sting is really Gordon Matthew Sumner, but Lê is just Lê (which, once, was “Lee,” until he insisted I start spelling it right) and, God’s honest, after all these years and all the time we’ve spent hanging out and all the stories he’s told, I’m not even 100 percent sure that Lê is Lê’s real name.

There’s this thing out there. A meme or a theory or whatever you’d call it. It says that if you’re watching the movie The Usual Suspects, everything you need to know is shown in the lineup scene — the first time the five main characters meet. That the script is so tight and the story so carefully plotted that all the movie’s many, many mysteries can be solved by a close and careful watching of just those couple minutes of film.

I used to think that way about Lê. I used to think there would be one thing, one moment, one unaware gesture that would somehow make him an explicable character rather than what he is, which is a completely, deliberately, annoyingly, hilariously, maddeningly, charmingly and insulatingly inexplicable one. When I told him I wanted to write a story about him, he asked me why, and my answer was, essentially, because he’s a character. He’s “Lê from Hop Sing” — more recognizable than most of the big-name chefs in town, with his glasses made of forks, his dapper suits, his sharky grin; more than most of the musicians, the artists; more than some of the politicians. A minor celebrity in a town where minor is as big as anyone ever gets.

But really, it was because I’ve known him for years and I don’t really know him at all. He doesn’t talk about his family. He refuses to name any of the restaurants where he’s worked. He has a girlfriend but won’t tell me her name, or where he lives, or when, exactly, he came to Philly. He hates being recognized in public (will tell this, in fact, to anyone who speaks to him for more than 10 minutes) and won’t allow his picture to be taken — or wouldn’t, anyway, until now.

“Where were you born, Lê?”

“Why you wanna know that, man?”

Because I’m curious. Because, you know, that’s the kind of thing a person asks another person. And then the other person answers, maybe with some funny, deprecating detail about his home or his town or his people. I was born in Rochester, New York, and grew up in a small house that, years later, I blame for my and my brother’s shortness. Our roots had too small a pot, and my parents grew themselves a brace of bonsai Sheehans. See how easy that is?

“Where were you born, Lê?”

“I was born in Saigon, Vietnam, okay? Saigon.”

“What year?”

“I’m not telling you that.”

I can guess, because I know a little and, more importantly, I know what I don’t know. What Lê won’t talk about. I know from Lê — or at least I think I know — that he was young during the war. That he came from a well-connected family (his father’s side was well-connected enough to send an unspecified number of Lê’s uncles off to be educated in Paris, he says) that found itself on the losing side of a war and, consequently, refugees. They tried to escape Vietnam in 1978, got caught, and wound up in a communist reeducation camp. Lê tells me his father did three years. That he got three months, separated from his family, thrown into a room with 200 other kids. He explains to me how to get a good shower when you’re being bathed by a man with a bucket on a stick in a room with hundreds of other boys and men (it involves scratching yourself until the welts are visible on your skin, until you bleed if you can), but little else. I figure he was 10 years old. Maybe 12. A kid.

The reeducation didn’t take, because as soon as his father was let go, the family tried to escape again — in a small boat, Lê says. Long and narrow, cruising inches above the water (which he details by holding his hand down by his hip, palm flat to the floor, bobbing it slightly like he’s touching rushing water), with 42 other people aboard. This was 1981, Lê says, and there were two choices: a short route to Thailand that promised high odds of pirates, slavery, rape and/or death, or a longer one that ended in Indonesia.

Lê’s boat (Lê’s second boat) went the long way. Landed in Indonesia. Full stop.

“What happened next?” Me, at a table inside Hop Sing Laundromat, elbows down on a cold afternoon, listening to his stories.

But he’s done talking. There was Indonesia; then, some unknowable amount of time later, there was the United States. I ask him where. He says, “West. Out West,” but that’s it. “You want to go get lunch or something?”

“What’s your full name, Lê?”

“Fuck you.”

A Short List of Geniuses Who Were Also Complete Assholes

Hemingway got in fistfights and attempted to kill virtually every animal he saw. Einstein, in lieu of getting a divorce, wrote out a list of rules for his wife to follow that included (but wasn’t limited to) keeping his room clean, never touching his stuff, and expecting “no intimacy” from him, nor reproaching him in any way, publicly or privately. And contrary to the song by the Modern Lovers, Pablo Picasso, too, was an asshole who beat more than one of his wives (when he wasn’t busy beating his mistresses), slept around, and generally comported himself in a thoroughly dickish manner, particularly where women were concerned.

On a gray day full of pissing-down rain and freezing wind, Lê and I get together to drink whiskey and eat shabu shabu. The whiskey, actually, is just me. Lê doesn’t drink — or, anyway, not much, which is one of those things that are so bizarrely counterintuitive about him. A barman who doesn’t drink. We meet at Hop Sing, he hands me down a bottle of Stranahan’s corn whiskey and a glass, we talk a bit, then we move on to Hippot Shabu Shabu in Chinatown.

At a certain point I ask him if he understands that he has a tendency to rub people the wrong way. That the rules he put in place before opening Hop Sing (no sneakers, no talking on cell phones, no pictures, no hats, no douche-y behavior), the way he holds grudges (there are several big names in town who will never make it past his gated door), how he taunts people on Twitter and insists on working the door every night and regularly refuses entrance to people not accustomed to being refused service anywhere have given him a certain reputation. I try to put it gently. Decorously. I approach the subject with the delicacy born from years of friendship.

“Lê, you know you’re kind of an asshole, right?”

“What?”

“Seriously. This can’t come as a surprise to you.”

“Who says that?”

Everyone, I think. Well, not EVERYONE everyone, but a lot of people. He once had a BBC film crew come in from London to tape a segment at the bar and met them at the door with a 20-page release prepared by him and his lawyer. It didn’t allow them to shoot him except from behind, at a distance. Wouldn’t let them shoot anyone making drinks. They filmed for three hours and ended up with something like 30 seconds of usable footage. Lê thought that was hilarious.

I explain diplomatically that there are people out there who find his rules offensive and his mysteriousness just a cheap ploy for publicity; that everyone he has ever refused service to has shouted about it to anyone who’ll listen. He screws his face up like he’s been hit with a lemon wrapped around a bat and starts stabbing a finger down onto the table, swearing and demanding names.

I laugh because it’s fun to wind him up like this and watch him go, but also because I know, really, that he doesn’t care. That parts of his public act have become so ingrained and reflexive that they’re automatic now (Lê does outrage like most of us breathe), but that Lê is, in his way, a completely self-possessed man. Anyone who keeps as many secrets as he does has to be. He’s polite to those who approach him with politeness, vicious with those who don’t. He has a mouth like a kid who just discovered curse words and needs to say them all, all the time, but is also kind in the strangest ways. One day when I told him I was trying to quit smoking and doing it badly, he bought me my first e-cigarette, and forever after, he has offered me fresh ones out of his own pocket whenever he’s noticed me getting squirmy. Another night, I caught a ride with him to the train station after a party that ran late. As he dropped me off, he told me to text him when I got home, just so he’d know I made my train and that everything was okay.

So the asshole thing? I don’t know. That might be overselling a bit. There is this notion (commonly held, likely about as true as it is false) that with a wicked and surpassing talent for something comes a commensurate dickishness — a function partly of ego and partly of the kind of focus generally required by any efforts of genius. Personally, I think this is a false affiliation. Having known more than my fair share of assholes with nothing even approaching wit, let alone genius, I think it’s just the law of large numbers in action. Among any population, a spread of personalities will develop, and showing remarkable aptitude in one endeavor does not, by nature, make one a jerk. Genius does not create assholes, but it does, to a certain extent, excuse them. Or buy them more than their share of grace.

One of the reasons Lê and I became friends in the first place is because he’s nuts. Totally bonkers, in the best possible way. Another reason is because the world is already too full of polite people, and I like a guy who speaks his mind regardless of the consequences. There is a kind of Zen aspect to our friendship, a sense that everything that happens happens in that moment solely, because how otherwise can one be friends with a man about whom nothing is certain and so little is known? How else can I claim a friendship with a guy whose name I’m not even sure of?

But regardless of all that, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing about him if not for the fact that he’s one of the best in the country at what he does. And the genius part? I’m sticking by that. Lê is the Hemingway of barmen. He has served me, on varying occasions, several of the best, simplest, most American (named for the Bay of Pigs, for Edgar Allan Poe and for Henry “Box” Brown), most purely brilliant cocktails I’ve ever had in my life. He mixes with a sense of balance unlike anyone I’ve ever known, with a comprehensive knowledge of (and an absolute disregard for) the standards and practices of most modern bars, and with a sly sense of humor. His drinks are strong. They don’t rely on the crutch of bitters (generally employed to add depth to cheap, pubescent spirits without enough muscle to stand on their own). I’m no dilettante when it comes to bars. My CV as a boozer is solid. And there’s still no place I’d rather drink than at Hop Sing — which has a little to do with the space and a lot to do with Lê.

But in order to talk about that, we have to delve again into legend and mythology. Into the world of origin stories and known unknowns. We have to talk about Hop Sing.

Because Hop Sing Always Wanted a Laundromat

First there was Saigon, then Indonesia, then the American West, then a blank space, then Philly. It is, of course, the blank space that interests me (not primarily, but still), and it is, of course, the blank space that Lê won’t talk about.

I know he worked in restaurants. He’s told me so, on different occasions, mentioning, obliquely, stints as a dishwasher. Occasional cook. Front of house.

He told me once about his first job, gotten while the family was still out West. How, walking home from school one day, he saw a pair of red-and-white high-top sneakers in a shop window and wanted them badly (oh, irony … ); that he went to his father and asked for the money; that his father opened the newspaper and handed his youngest son the help-wanted section; that Lê found employment at a KFC and lasted four hours before walking out; that his reasons were simple and universal and, weirdly, very Lê.

“They make a slave out of me!” he shouts while telling me the story one afternoon, throwing his hands wide as if to encompass all the injustice of it. His biggest complaint? Poor management. “I shouldn’t be frying chicken, motherfucker! I’ve only been here two hours!”

And yet, it stuck. He would spend years toiling in restaurants, would go to New York City where he would find work, sure, and a taste for alcohol and drugs (as one does), and then, after waking up one too many times on the sidewalk (still in his suit, natch), he would retreat back to the West, to California, to dry out, walk on the beach — and still manage restaurants. He would do his wilderness time under the palm trees of Orange County, but his eye remained focused on Manhattan, because the way he saw it (the way he explains it), the city and its temptations had beaten him, and he didn’t like how that felt.

Ever since those first moments at KFC (or, maybe, in the war zone, in the reeducation camp, or as an immigrant kid whose brothers’ reputations as high-school “rumblers,” in Lê’s word, made him the target of every bully who remembered them), Lê had learned that he didn’t like to be ruled. That the fight mattered. That nothing worthwhile came without a battle, and the only thing worse than losing the battle was running away from it.

So he went back. Slept on a couch in Jersey City. Found more work. Made connections. When he wasn’t managing restaurants and bars, he found his way into day-trading (such a very oughts thing to do), which suited his obsessive and detail-oriented mind. And every day that he was there was a victory. Every night he could look out at the city that had once driven him off and say: Fuck you, I won.

I ask him about his partner — the money behind Hop Sing. Lê tells me they were friends a long time, that he met him in New York, and asks me not to name him, says I’m dead to him if I do. Pauses. Grins. Says that anyone who’s curious can find him easy. His name is right on the liquor license behind the bar. Lê’s isn’t, but the partner’s is — James Barclay Knapp.

Later, I would reach out and talk to Lê’s friends, his regulars, some of his former employees. I’d ask each of them the same question: What do you know about this guy? And, invariably, the answer would be the same: Nothing.

Jose Garces has spent a fair amount of time at Lê’s bar, and Lê spends a fair amount of time talking with Jose. I asked Jose if he knew anything about Lê, and Jose said, “No, not really. I wish I did.”

Kevin Sbraga has known Lê since Hop Sing opened. Since before, even. I put the question to him, and he said, “I don’t know a fucking thing about the guy.” Nothing except that he has a story about the first time he met Lê that he loves, that he’s happy to tell.

It was in Chinatown, at some restaurant, but he can’t remember which one. He was there with Michael Solomonov, David Katz, Jen Carroll — all of them out for Chinese food and to meet Lê, who’d invited them all. Sbraga said that it had to be like midnight, maybe later, and Lê comes rolling in carrying a box of lobsters. Ten pounds each, easy.

“And he’s in his suit, right?” Sbraga explained. “And I’m thinking, guy’s a fucking pimp. Who is this guy?”

Lê takes the lobsters in the back like he owns the place, passes some instructions to the chefs, comes back out, and everybody spends the next two hours eating last-call lobsters, the dishes brought out one after another by the servers.

Then it’s 3 a.m. Lê invites them all back to Hop Sing. “It’s 3 a.m.,” Sbraga says, laughing, incredulous, “and he has someone in there painting.”

And not just painting. Not just putting a fresh coat on the walls. But working on the wheeled ladder behind the bar, focused, with a tiny detail brush, picking out fillips that no one in the dimness of a night at Hop Sing would even be able to see.

At the end, I ask Sbraga if he knows Lê’s name. He laughs. Lê’s just Lê. “We think we know what his name is, but we don’t really know, do we?”

We don’t. We think we do, but we don’t. I do my due diligence as a reporter and spend an afternoon hunting until I find a name that might be his name, but isn’t. It doesn’t feel right, even as I write it down on a yellow Post-It note stuck to my desk and then peel it up. Crumple it. Throw it away, because finding a name isn’t the same as finding his name, and anyway, when I call Lê and ask him, he tells me I’m wrong. It was just a fake name. One of many he’s used.

Later, I tell Lê that early on, everyone in town figured he was a drug dealer. A human trafficker. Something unsavory, mostly because no one knew where his money was coming from, but partly because of the mystery with which he surrounded himself. This makes him laugh.

“Really? Who said that?” Again, he wants names. Specifics. “Who was the first person who said that?”

“Probably me,” I tell him, which is probably true because even before I really knew Lê, I loved telling stories about him. That he slept on the floor of the unfinished bar at night (not explicitly true). That he slept, like a bat, hanging upside down from the rafters of the second story (not true). That as research before opening the bar, he traveled all around the country in a black Audi TT convertible, covering 35,000 miles and hitting something like 100 bars in 48 states in 70 days (true, though the numbers may wiggle a little), and hated every one of them (not entirely true, but he certainly had some voluminous criticisms). That at one point during the construction of Hop Sing, with the plumbing and electric already laid and the framing of the bar in place, he decided he didn’t like the bar’s location, and so called his contractors in the middle of the night and told them they had to move it to the other side of the room (true).

I also may have told people that I thought he was a drug dealer, but only because Occam’s razor actually made that the simplest, most sensible conclusion to draw. Everything else was just too strange to believe.

A known truth: Lê signed the lease for the space at 1029 Race Street on August 1, 2010. His stated intent? To open the best cocktail bar in the country, and nothing less.

Word started leaking out about some new project happening in Chinatown by about mid-2011, and the food press, sensing something unusual, became interested, then quickly obsessed with this bar that was going to be named for the Cartwrights’ cook on Bonanza who was always threatening to go back East and open a laundry. So we stalked, we cajoled, we speculated. A floor covered in pennies? (True.) A thousand bottles behind the bar? (True, though more like 1,200 these days, I believe.) A secret door and membership cards? (Both true in the moment, less so today.)

The moving-the-bar story came out during this time. The cross-country research trip. There are those who’ll say that Lê masterfully manipulated the press for the better part of 18 months. His focus on the tiniest details seemed to split the difference between tinker-y brilliance and OCD madness, but then you would sit in one of his handpicked antique chairs and see the way he’d shaved down the height of each table to ideally match the height of the arm of each chair so that while you sat, reclining, with a drink in hand, that hand would rest levelly on the table without your elbow being bent by one unnecessary degree, and you would understand that it all had a purpose. That all the craziness, all the fixations, was aimed in the direction of something pure.

He didn’t allow the first customers in until February 29, 2012 — Leap Day, of course — and even then, it was all press. One night only. A menu tasting that went on for hours and left almost everyone — doubters, haters, all those who’d told him he was crazy and that anticipation was so high he couldn’t help but fail — saying he’d done it. He’d pulled it off and had opened, if not the best cocktail bar ever, then certainly one of them. The main room, with its wine-stained cement floors, its polished fixtures, its artfully built, broken and rebuilt brickwork and candlelight and framed Prohibition-era alcohol prescriptions, felt a hundred years old on opening night. The back bar towered with bottles — every label you could imagine and 900 you’d never heard of.

And the drinks? That was the real genius part. For 18 months, Lê had been fencing with the press. He’d been threatening openings and then taking them back. Whether because they’d been deliberately stage-managed or as a function of our insatiable hunger for weird news about weird men doing weird things, expectations for Hop Sing Laundromat were through the roof. And then, with just about every member of the press in attendance as his captive audience, he served us screwdrivers as our first drink.

Seriously, screwdrivers. Vodka and orange juice. Which would have been the stupidest thing ever had it not, instead, been the ballsiest, because it was the best screwdriver I’ve ever had — the juice still frothed from the squeezer and the shaker, the high-end vodka just a sting at the back of the throat, masked by citrus sweetness. He knew that had it been anything less than that, in that moment and in that place, we would have torn him to pieces.

And he was right. We absolutely would have.

The Battle of Greasy Grass

After one night of pouring drinks down the necks of the press, Lê closed Hop Sing. He wouldn’t open it again for three months.

“Wanted to fine-tune,” he says to me. To tinker and learn from the experience of his first night in order to make the next one better. He set his actual opening night for Memorial Day weekend, 2012. Why?

“Because no one would be here,” he shrugs. “I was hoping no one would come.”

Which is absolutely true. Even if nothing else here is, that is a totally true statement.

Years ago, when I was first getting to know him, Lê told me that in a perfect world, no one would’ve known about Hop Sing until it opened. No press. No lines at the door. No pre-opening frenzy of blog posts and tweets and stalkers and haters. Hop Sing would have existed like some sort of time traveler’s artifact, dropped down whole on Race Street, just waiting to be discovered by the first person curious enough to press the unmarked button beside the gated door. If it took a week, a month? He was fine with that.

But that’s not how it happened, obviously. We ruined it. We (meaning me, Foobooz, all the rest of us) fucked it up before we even understood the fantasy we were destroying.

And Lê hates us all a little for that, even today. He claims he wanted that anonymity — that chance at something perfect and protected — but understands that now, with the way things have turned out, he’s become a public figure. And he gets that things have to be this way — that Hop Sing wouldn’t be Hop Sing without him, and that with Hop Sing as much about him as about the bricks or the bottles, anonymity is no longer an option.

But in this age of disposable celebrity, this absolutely Warholian moment, at what point on the psychic sliding scale does an honest desire for privacy shade over into an affectation of that desire, in service to publicity?

One afternoon, Lê and I go out for lunch at Barclay Prime. I ask him if he remembers telling me about his original plans for Hop Sing. Sure, he says. Of course. Then he tells me a story about Montana.

“You know the Battle of Greasy Grass?” he asks.

I do, but by its more common name: the Battle of Little Bighorn.

He tells me that during his epic road trip (the one with the 100 bars in 70 days), while searching for cocktails in the flatlands of Big Sky Country, he’d found himself close by the famous battlefield and decided to pay a visit. Standing there, in Montana, he imagined a simplified version of the scene. Custer, all fancy in his white suit and flowing blond locks, and the Seventh Cavalry, less so, gathered at the crest of the hill. The Lakota, Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne warriors arrayed, howling, below.

“The Indians, you know? The American Indians. I identify with them. I understand them,” he tells me, at our table at Barclay Prime. In Montana, he merely took in the scene, got back in his car, drove on.

But years later, he was sitting at Hop Sing. The build-out was done. The press night was over. And he was worried. He’d been talking with his partner, and they were considering bringing in a manager. A straw man, more or less, to run the place and take Lê out of the spotlight a little bit. Subtext: someone to take the blame if the whole thing fell apart the minute they opened the doors to the public. “Because I’m thinking to myself, no matter what I do, they’re going to crucify me,” he says. “All you fucking motherfuckers.” Meaning, of course, the press. Meaning me.

He was alone in that darkened barroom, and it was late. After midnight, he thinks. And as was his habit back then, he decided to go for a drive. Just get in the car and go — fast and with the top down, his music blaring (Led Zeppelin, his ideal soundtrack), just to clear his head.

So that was what he did, and while he was driving, a memory of standing at the base of that hill at Little Bighorn came back to him.

“All those Indians at the bottom of the hill,” he says. “They’re sitting there, and they know they’re going to take a hit, right? They know some of them, they’re gonna die. But they go. They’re gonna take that hill. Take that fucking hill no matter what. And I was thinking about that while I was driving.”

On that drive, he made the choice to run Hop Sing himself. To be the name (such as it is) and the very public face of the place. “Because I was going to take that hill, motherfucker. Take that fucking hill.”

The story rolled on, from table to sidewalk to car, and I wondered to myself if this was the thing — that story or cinematic moment previously alluded to that would snap everything about Lê into sharp focus and draw together all the disparate and contradictory pieces of him into one jangling whole.

“You think about them there, at the bottom of the hill? The bump? And they know. They fucking know.”

Was this who Lê was? Just the man who couldn’t walk away? An adopted Lakota-ness in his heart, an understanding with himself that some risks (really, all risks) are better taken, despite the cost, than suffering the knowledge that you shied away instead?

“Sometimes, buddy, you just gotta take that motherfucking hill.”

God, that would be such an easy conclusion, wouldn’t it? So neat and tidy.

But it would also be untrue, because the Greasy Grass story was just another piece. Another small mystery among the complexities of a Chinatown barman, neither more nor less important than the KFC sneakers, the taste of vodka and orange juice, the pressed suits, or the man with the bucket on a stick. No more or less important than his fake names and the real one that he still keeps hidden.

I don’t understand why he does it. Maybe he’s keeping clear of the law. Maybe it’s nothing. He says it’s all about protecting the privacy of his true self from the half-famous glare of his invented one. I can’t suss out a true motive (if there is one), but I’m fine with that. There’s something in his stories, his secrets and his rigid refusal to be named that makes his tale as American as Gatsby’s. He’s Lê from Hop Sing — truly a self-made man.

Also, I re-watched that scene from The Usual Suspects while I was putting this piece together, and that whole theory is bullshit. A brilliant movie, absolutely, but you can’t tell anything from the lineup. There are no tells, no secrets revealed.

And you wanna know something else? The whole thing was ad-libbed. Benicio Del Toro kept farting and the other actors were all trying to get Gabriel Byrne to laugh and no matter how much director Bryan Singer screamed at them to get their shit together and say their lines, they just couldn’t. Everything in that scene is an accident. It’s just one of those things that happened.

Originally published as “Lê and Me” in the March 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.