On (And Off) The Record At Hop Sing Laundromat

There have been a lot of stories told about Hop Sing Laundromat and its owner/operator/inventor/driving force, the singularly-named Lêe. Some of them are true (yeah, free shoe shines) and some of them are not (no, it’s not going to be open in April, or probably May either, and no, there is not going to be a secret entrance), but all of them have been bouncing around the interweb for months now as Philly’s food writers, cocktail fiends, real estate speculators, Chinatown watchers and lovers of modern mysteries have traded them like bubblegum cards–hoping that the strangest of them will be true, worrying that none of us will ever know for sure as potential opening dates have whistled by seemingly unnoticed by Lêe himself.

My favorite of all the rumors? The thing about the bar–that a month or so ago, with his 40-foot, custom-designed bar already roughed out, wired and piped, he dropped by the space late one night and decided that it was all wrong. The whole thing needed to be moved to the other side of the room, completely torn out and rebuilt. That one turned out to be true.

But, of course, I didn’t know the whole story.

“I came in one night,” Lêe tells me. “I brought a chair from home and I sat right here–” not just gesturing, but actually jumping across the rough concrete floor to show me the spot where he sat “–and I thought about what the customers would be doing, how the servers would be moving. Wait, wait. Come here…”

We step out through the door which will, at some indistinct point in the future, serve as the main entrance to Hop Sing Laundromat. “Imagine everything finished,” he says. “It’s a Friday night.” And then we walk through together, into a completely imaginary bar that exists right now only in Lêe’s head (he has no blueprints for the space, nothing written down on paper. “I wish I did,” he says, “but I don’t. It’s all up here.”), and he waves an arm at the plywood, the dust, the bare fixtures and walls. “What do you see?”

Had the bar been where he’d originally had it built, what a customer would’ve seen would’ve mostly been the backs of the people waiting at it–would’ve been crowds lounging on couches and in chairs, their parties already in full swing, and the distant doors to a kitchen that will never be used as a kitchen. There is something undeniably wrong about it. An imbalance. Then we turn a little. We look at the bar in its new position and the room (this empty room, with no tables, no chairs, no bar but for some framing and plywood) all falls into focus. It is better where it is now, absolutely.

“So I decide,” Lêe says. And on that night, he gets up from his chair, goes over to the opposite wall and (this is my favorite part), with a marker, writes in big letters: GUYS, MOVE BAR TO HERE. And then he goes home. Come morning, the phone calls from the contractors start.

“They say, ‘Lêe, you’re crazy! We already have the pipes run up from the basement! The electric!’ But who cares?”

Lee doesn’t disagree with the opinion of the contractors. He knows he’s a little bit crazy. But he also knows that he’s right.

A couple weeks back, I talked with Lêe briefly about the space which will someday become Hop Sing and his plans for it, and the two of us made plans to meet shortly after so he could give me a quick tour. At that point, we began a dance–I would call and he wouldn’t be available (off on mysterious errands, I imagined, or personally overseeing the hand-crafting some tiny architectural flourish), he would text me and I would be up to my eyeballs in pizza or salami sandwiches. Or two hours away eating water ice. Or drunk. This went on for quite some time. He’s a busy guy. I’m a busy guy. It wasn’t until yesterday that our schedules finally crossed, which was how I ended up standing in front of the papered-over windows at 1029 Race Street, reading the license paperwork posted there and knocking on the dusty door.

No one answered, of course. Lee wasn’t there. Something had gone sideways with the floor polishers early in the day and, because it couldn’t be done the way he wanted it to be done, he had sent everyone home. When I call him to ask where he is, he asks if that’s me standing on the steps, standing in front of the place, and I say yeah, and look over my shoulder, wondering how he knows. Where he’s watching from.

He hangs up. A minute later, I hear someone calling my name and it’s Lêe–coming out of Pho 75 across the street, dodging through the Race Street traffic with half an iced Vietnamese coffee in his hand. He’s wearing an Australian rugby shirt, artistic glasses that look to have been made of two forks. He shakes my hand and in we go.

Folks have talked a lot about the penny floor at Hop Sing: about the lounge/foyer/waiting area/shoe shine zone which he had covered completely in pennies–all of them face-down save one. One of the reasons Hop Sing has taken so long to get ready (over a year at this point, by most estimates)? Lêe’s obsessive attention to detail. Every single one of the pennies that make up the floor was laid by hand, individually super-glued in place, laid out in careful, straight lines, by one guy. He could only work a half-hour at a time before his eyes got so tired he couldn’t distinguish heads from tails and had to take a break. It took him two weeks. I ask Lêe about the one heads-up penny and he says, “You won’t find it. Even if I told you, you wouldn’t find it.” He says that he knows exactly where it is (this many inches from one wall, this many from the other) but it still takes him a minute or so to pinpoint it.

When it opens, no one will be made to stand around outside Hop Sing. Or, more accurately, no one will be allowed to. There will be a gate, an intercom. The room with the pennies will be home to the much-talked-about shoe shine stand (an antique, originally made by Papa Bros.) which will operate in the early evening hours, then close during prime drinking time and the room will be used to hold waiting parties. There’ll be fold-down seats that Lêe rescued from an old theatre at some point during an epic pre-Hop-Sing research trip (70 days, 48 states, more cocktail bars than he can count, and a sticker on the car he drove from every single place he visited), and when the waiting area is full, that’ll be it. No one else gets in until the crowds have cleared out a bit. He has a hat stand from 1882 that will be a part of the decor, antique candelabras, Danish light fixtures, an old wooden door–remnant of the print-shop history of the building–that had been plastered up inside a wall and was found by electricians wiring new light switches. When he found out that he wouldn’t be able to use the original wood ceiling in the space (fire code violation), he spent a small fortune on installing an up-to-code ceiling, then covering it over with a recreation of the original wood ceiling. And the support pillars that hold that ceiling up? It took three guys two weeks (and 200 polishing wheels) to grind all the paint and crap off them and bring them up to a rough, industrial shine.

As we walk in circles through the space, he points out details: the thick wood beam that runs down the center of the ceiling hasn’t seen the light of day in 80 years. The far wall (the one where the bar originally lay) took weeks of work and many hands and countless coats of paint to bring it to the point where it looked like it’d been there, untouched, for almost a century. Lêe is very proud of that wall. We talk about it for a half-hour. When all is said and done, it’ll be almost completely covered by mirrors and framed pictures and photographs. “But I’ll know it’s there,” he tells me.

Back at the bar–the skeleton of a bar–we talk about liquor. Hop Sing, it is said, will have the largest collection of bottles in the city. I ask Lêe if he’ll really have 1,000 labels behind his bar and he frowns, looks at the partially-completed back wall. “You want to do the math?” he asks.

We do the math. A 40-foot bar, holding three sets of shelves stacked six high and two bottles deep equals 840 bottles, he says. Then there are the wells. Then the bottles stacked on top of the coolers he’s bringing in. Lêe knows exactly how many bottles there will eventually be, but he won’t say the precise number. 1,000 is close.

There are a lot of things that Lêe won’t talk about. Or will talk about, but only once I put my pen down and promise not to say anything. Mostly the latter. He has something special planned for the bar-top, something he says has never been done before, but won’t say what it is  (I’m guessing it’ll be made of solid gold, or be invisible, or made completely of iPads or live squirrels). The bar itself–its staff and arrangement and disbursement of supplies–is all a secret. The cocktail list is going to be huge, but he doesn’t know yet exactly what’s going to be on it. And the food? Yes, it will all be coming from surrounding Chinatown restaurants: the five best things from the menus of a variety of different kitchens, which was Lêe’s way of having a restaurant without really having a restaurant; of having food without the complications of running a kitchen. It’s a pure genius move–the kind of thing that should’ve been thought of ages ago–but Lêe just waves that off. “It’s so simple,” he says. There are great kitchens surrounding him. He gets to use them without the hassle of running his own. They get a great, regular customer in Hop Sing. The kitchen he does have in the back? That’ll be used primarily for making ice. Lots of different kinds of ice. He has plans. They’re secret, too.

He shows me some lamps (off the record) that he just got which are part of an elaborate inside joke that only he understands. We walk out the back door and he talks about his idea for VIP service, but that’s off the record, too. I ask him where he came from, what he did before doing this–before taking off in his car to drink cocktails and research bars–and discover that Lêe really does have a history. He’s not just some kind of mystery man who arrived, fully-formed, on the Philly bar scene with a sack full of money and a vision 12 months ago. But he doesn’t want me to tell anyone about it. He doesn’t really want anyone to know anything and, if things had worked out the way he wanted, no one would’ve ever known about Hop Sing Laundromat until the day it opened. He imagined it as a complete word-of-mouth thing. He was ready to lose money for a good long time while people discovered the place accidentally. There is an air of the theatrical to him and his ideas that is infectious, and as we both head out the door and across the street to Pho 75 where we will drink more Vietnamese coffee and argue about cocktails, the history of tequila, about time and motion and the energy that lives in carefully controlled spaces, I wonder what it would’ve been like had everything gone according to Lêe’s plan. If I had just stumbled across Hop Sing one night, unknowingly, and stepped into Lêe’s fully-formed dream.

It would’ve been amazing, I think. One of those experiences that come along once in a lifetime–remembered for decades after, talked about as one of those moments that feels like something special, something extra. And that’s why I don’t begrudge Lêe the secrets he still wants to keep. Why I’m cool with keeping his confidences for the time being. Because, like him, I want at least a piece of that magic to be preserved on opening night.

If it ever comes.