Paul Shoul photo
At the Hu Ke Lau in Chicopee, the show is king. Polynesian music and dancing have their home here in New England thanks to this night spot, where people flock to the Polynesian and Hawaiian shows. The Polynesian Show Room accommodates up to 500 guests.
The Hu Ke Lau is also a destination for comedians on national tours; within the last year or so, those have included Tracy Morgan and Adam Sandler. Early in 2014, Rosie O’Donnell returns.
Local comedienne Pam Victor went to the Hu Ke Lau to see Paula Poundstone. “We now call Chicopee ‘Chaicopay,’ a la Paula,” she says. “One other table was full of middle and high school guidance counselors celebrating a retirement… lots of fancy umbrella drinks there.” That’s a typical group, and scene, at the Hu Ke Lau.
Run for nearly fifty years by the Yee family, the Hu Ke Lau boasts as its major attraction this live entertainment. It’s been noted that, other than the Polynesian Show at Las Vegas’ Tropicana Hotel, there’s probably not another such show in the entire forty-eight states that’s as long-running as the one in Chicopee.
What’s more, the Hu Ke Lau has a reputation as a premier spot for karaoke. Susan Daniels recalls that she once received two separate fortune cookies that read: “You will be invited to a karaoke contest.” So she went to the Hu Ke Lau. “I went to the Hu ke Lau to see a friend compete in the big annual karaoke final sing-off,” she says. “He won! Thank God for all the booze in those shrunken head mugs they give you. Quite an experience... and to think it’s in Chicopee!”
Sporting décor that’s “over the top” tropical (think bold Island colors, lots of fish tanks, and bamboo), the Hu Ke Lau seeks to transport guests far from Chicopee. To help set an island mood, there is the Hu Ke Lau’s signature item: very large drinks. Take the Scorpion Bowl in its wild ceramic vessel. The Scorpion Bowl mixes fruit juices around a central well of rum, and tops the concoction off with umbrellas. Before it was deemed a safety hazard, this was a flaming drink experience. Sometimes light-up plastic ice cubes accompany the drinks.
The Hu Ke Lau draws bus tours and people passing through the area. It also hosts private parties of any size, including very large ones: its new Windjammer Room takes 150.
The restaurant’s Chicopee location was chosen for its proximity to Westover Air Force Base. Johnny Yee, a Chinese immigrant, had big dreams and a keen interest in hospitality. His children, Andy, Anita, Edison (named after the inventor) and Matthew, continue to run it. Yee’s wife Linda and his brother and sister-in-law worked together to build the business.
The next generation has also walked in its father’s footsteps with the addition of new restaurants, including Iya Sushi and Noodle Kitchen in South Hadley. The family has six restaurants in the area and is building two more. Johnny Yee’s grandchildren have begun to make their way into the family business, too. Andy Yee, who began to cut onions in the kitchen at age five, finds the multigenerational aspect of it very natural and comfortable.
Initially focused on Chinese food, the kitchen has widened its repertoire, and the menu continues to adapt to reflect changing food trends. One example is sushi, something the Hu Ke Lau has served for years now. Along with the usual sushi suspects, there’s a bowl offering—the spicy tuna bowl—and special rolls that include the golden California Roll, a California Roll battered and fried, and the Hu Ke Lau Delight Roll, with albacore, crabmeat, spicy tuna, avocado and chef’s special sauce, as well as the Sexy Roll, which features salmon, tuna, albacore, yellowtail, spicy tuna, masago, asparagus, gobo root and ginger, wrapped with English cucumber.
The hardworking Yee family has seen its business expand to other locations and refocus—due to the challenging economic landscape these past years—on this and one other venue. Across all those decades, and with all those family members, a diligent work ethic and a sense of community engagement have remained steady. Support for education has always been especially strong. The Johnny Yee Scholarship Golf Tournament was established to award scholarships to area students interested in the hospitality industry.
All you have to do is mention the Hu Ke Lau and you begin to hear stories, impressions and memories. Author Sally Bellerose grew up in Chicopee. “I worked in a laundry,” she recalls. “I washed the fire dancers’ clothes. The shows were fun.”
Lanette Fisher-Hertz is a fan. She doesn’t go for the food, although she deems the sushi “quite good.” Nor does she really go for the drinks, although she enjoys the fun of tiki glasses and light-up ice cubes. It’s the shows—the dance shows with grass skirts, fire and engagement with the audience—that draw Fisher-Hertz (and others who pack the house every Friday and Saturday evening) “because it’s fun and festive.” Fisher-Hertz says the Hu Ke Lau shows bubble over with “kitschy delight,” “like a lower-budget Vegas show.” And after living it up for a night of kitschy delight, those in the Valley can go home rather than be stuck in Vegas.•