The Willow: Gone but Not Forgotten

York’s Coney Street has a rich musical heritage; from the cries of eighteenth-century street vendors to the powerful tones of fine church organs, music has been a central part of the street’s soundscape for centuries. If, like me, you were a York student pre-2015 then there is one particularly strong musical association with Coney Street: the chaotic and heady mix of pop, classic rock and electronica which could only be found in one legendary venue - The Willow Disco.

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The exterior of The Willow Restaurant. (Courtesy of York Vision.)

During our work on StreetLife - ‘The Willow', a cantonese restaurant-cum-disco, has been mentioned again and again. The unusual venue clearly elicits strong emotions both in those who loved it and those who didn’t. The Willow Community project had been set up in response - to collect, preserve and share the memories, experiences and feelings people have that relate to this (in)famous disco.

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Advertisement for The Willow Cafe appearing in The Official Guide to the City of York from 1953. Taken from a slide in the Hugh Murray collection held at York Explore archives. Ref: HMU/L/37/6. (At this time we have been unable to establish the copyright holder(s) for this image. Please contact us if you are the copyright holder.)

The venue had been a fixture on Coney Street for longer than you might think. It opened in the 1930s as a respectable cafe, popular amongst young couples who enjoyed tea and refreshments before a visit to a nearby dancehall.

In 1973 The Willow Cafe was taken over by the Fong family who kept the name but turned it into a Cantonese restaurant, a 1974 advert promises a ‘night-club atmosphere of good food, candlelight and the music of the Alan Scot sound - our resident band’. The restaurant soon started offering a late-night disco with tables and chairs being pushed aside to create a dance-floor.

The early days of the restaurant are recalled by some of our contributors:

 

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Advert appearing in the Autumn term issue of Nouse student newspaper in 1984.  (Reproduced with permission from the Borthwick Institute for Archives.)  

The food was lovely, especially compared with previous Chinese restaurants we had tried. We went to a party, I think to celebrate the opening as we had a Chinese postgrad working with us in the Biology department who asked us along. - Contributor who visited The Willow when it opened, in 1973.

I just remember dancing to Wham! with a group of other students, hamming it up. I can't remember what the occasion was, but it was happy and slightly loony and completely innocent fun. - Willow punter recalling a visit in the early 1980s.

Attending a dinner and disco with other York postgraduate students - all of us foreigners. The food was delicious, the disco was silly, and our friends were amazing dancers! - Willow punter recalling a visit in the early 2000s.

 

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Notice appearing in the Willow Restaurant Menu from 2006. (Image Author's own.)

Eventually in 2008 the restaurant closed and it became purely a disco. The venue and its ever-present owner, Tommy Fong, had a cult-following amongst York students who enjoyed handfuls of prawn crackers alongside their tequila shots as they danced the night away.

Our contributors remember the Willow in its heyday:

When everything else had closed, you could always rely on the Willow to still be open! The music was wall-to-wall cheese (which we loved) and when you needed an energy boost the staff would bring out trays of free prawn crackers! - punter who visited in the early 2010s

I will always remember Killing In The Name Of being played at around 3.30 am every time I was in there and that being almost my alarm clock to leave and get a McDonalds. - Willow punter

I used to wake up several times a week with Willow stamps all over my body. I was always confused, not remembering being stamped 15 times, including on my face. It took me a while to realise that it was the ink on my hand being transferred to other parts of my body as I slept. - Willow punter

Many recall the somewhat unique interior of the venue. For many the sticky floors and unspeakable toilets were all part of the experience ... and of course the ceiling tiles that could not be touched under any circumstances.

The club really was the most horrible venue. The toilets (which didn't flush - a worker would periodically come and chuck a bucket of water down to clear the urinal trough and the stalls in the men's) reeked of puke, booze and a musty, bilgy smell which I always assumed was the river. You could see the River Ouse out the back of the toilets through these grimy, partially boarded up windows. - Willow Community Project contributor

Willow was sticky and dim inside. There were tables up the stairs that were nearly always empty, bar one or two who were far too drunk to dance and a pair of people who would be trying to find a quieter place to chat each other up. - contributor who visited in the early 2010s

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View from the DJ booth at The Willow. (Image courtesy of DJ Max.)

The untimely forced closure of The Willow in July 2015 cemented its place in the history of York’s nightlife. The event was live tweeted by Tom Butler-Roberts for York Vision. The huge turnout demonstrated the deep affection and strong sense of community that surrounded the venue.

The last night of the willow was a very sad but special one. I remember Tommy always used to shout "Students or regulars" so the recognition of being a regular on the last night was a proud moment. When everyone started to leave I remember people crying and whooping and taking chairs and other bits of furniture away with them - Willow Community Project contributor

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Image: Interior of The Willow on the last night, 26 July 2015 (courtesy of York Vision; Weblink)

For me, The Willow is a poignant reminder of my university years at York. In a somewhat rocky period of self-discovery The Willow was somewhere I could relax and be totally myself. Many speak of the safety and acceptance they felt at The Willow. Indeed at the height of ‘lad-culture’ in the early twenty-tens, the Willow was one of the few places where gay and lesbian couples could party without a second glance. You were as welcome in Timberlands and jeans as in a cocktail dress and heels. Despite all this, with binge drinking culture on the decrease I wonder if the Willow's appeal would have endured into the 2020s?

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The Willow owner Tommy Fong in 1983, and then on the closing night in 2015. (Left - from an article in Nouse (1983, Summer Issue 3), reproduced with permission from the Borthwick; Right - courtesy of York Vision.)

To be honest with you, a trip to Willow was seldom a good idea! - Willow Community Project contributor

We want to hear your memories of the Willow! We have been collecting stories, images and comments via this Google Form. Please contribute as much or as little as you would like.