The Willow Disco, 37a Coney Street.

If you look above the Clinton Cards shop here you can still see the iconic arched windows of what used to be the Willow.

Originally a café in the 1930s of the same name, the Willow morphed into a Cantonese restaurant run by the Fong family in 1973. Featuring live music and eventually a DJ, the tables of the restaurant used to be pushed aside to make way for the dancefloor at a certain point in the night. In 2007, the Willow received a licence to play music and serve alcohol later in the night, which marked their transformation into a nightclub in 2008. 

This may not be the most obvious spot of LGBTQI+ history in the city, but punters of the Willow whom we interviewed for our Willow Community Project have spoken about the unique aspect of safety and welcome that the disco offered. Oral-History interviews mention the ease with which queer attendees could flirt without feeling as though they were going to be harassed. This is substantiated by two rainbow plaques hung in memory of the Willow calling it a “site of many first same-sex kisses” and the meeting place for queer people in lasting relationships.


It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what made the Willow so perfect - but one could attribute it to a combination of cheesy music (favourites from throughout the decades), the strict door policy put in place by owner Tommy Fong of “students and regulars only”, and the layout of the venue encouraging conversations with music that was never too loud to speak over.

 

"Everyone felt like they were part of a community. And to that extent I think you kind of felt safer being there. Like, God I’ve not been to a conventional club in a long time, but like being queer and being in Willow – just two things that just completely went together, being in this tiny little separate space that's hidden away at the back, and yeah, dancing to like Lady Gaga and Shakira what's not to like?"
Participant in the Oral History Project

 

What did Tommy bring to it that made it special?

“He was friendly. He was open to everyone. Doesn't matter how you look, what your religion is, what you are. He is open to everyone. Willow was like a student Mecca. You can be whoever you want to be. You don't have to hide... like, it was freedom. The only, only thing you are not allowed to do was punching the ceiling. That's it.”

Participant in the Oral History Project