If you’ve gone to a China Chalet party every Friday (or Monday) night since 2016, you’ve probably seen Tyrell Hampton dancing, camera in hand, among a crush of questionable models, skaters, artists, and students. “I’ve never missed a party,” says the 21-year-old photographer who went to the infamous (and now unfortunately closed) Chinese restaurant on Broadway in 2016, which after the last plate of lo mein turned into a nightclub, freed from the banquets . Hampton’s new photo book, China Chalet: Memories, is not meant to be an exhaustive story of the place that served as a focal point for several generations of downtown party people. (Hampton couldn’t have become a regular much sooner than he did.) Rather, it captures the energy, sexuality, sloppiness, and ruthlessness of the crew that always flocked to his lightbulb, and serves as the record of a young photographer discovering his eye in one place who is now gone – although in a scene that continues to this day.
On a recent call, Tyrell shared some of his memories of the China Chalet.
“I wanted to remember the place where I had my photographic identity. I owe everything to China Chalet. Here I have my photographic style: chaotic, in your face. I imitate this energy in every photo I take. I need this energy, I need people who are in their own element – that’s what I look for in every picture I take now.
The book is about my personal memories. I wasn’t officially allowed to go until last year when I turned 21. My first experience at the club was sneaking through my back. I had to be friends with the security guards, I had to make friends with the people in the China Chalet Community. I basically had to earn my stripes. I owe a lot to the Club Glam people for putting me on the list and wanting me to come and feel welcome even though I wasn’t legally welcome.
I started taking photos the first night. It was Monday evening. I was a college freshman coming from outside NYC, and up until that point I was experiencing NYC through television and television. And then when I went to the club, that was all I ever wanted. It was Gossip Girl, it was Sex And The City. I’ve seen Paloma Elssesser, Cardi B, people I follow on Instagram. When I saw her in real life, I remembered why I wanted so badly to live here. And I saw them live their own lives, do their own things, be themselves.
I never missed a party. No matter what the party was: Club Glam, Vogue, Stüssy, a skater thing. As many Fridays there are in the year, I have spent as many Fridays in the China Chalet. Even when I was a freshman, I went alone just to feel the energy.
I found most of my photographic muses outside 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 room and feel free. What story did I capture? Just the story of kids having fun at a specific time and place in New York.
It will be impossible to replicate China Chalet. I measure it as Studio 54. But even in quarantine, I’ve seen my colleagues 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 who have made China Chalet what it is – the sense of community.
I only had the meal once when I was shooting a campaign and the restaurant was taking care of itself. It was pretty good. I give 8 out of 10 points. “