We managed to bag an exclusive final interview with cult-figure Tommy Fong, the day after Willow shut its doors for the last time.
I knock. No reply. I open the door and make my way up the stairs. “Hello?”
Willow is a building site when I reach the top. It’s barely recognisable as the place I had held a vimto-coke in one hand and an optimistic sense of occhiolism in the other merely 24 hours ago. The same people who served me several shots at the now dismantled bar are busying themselves with tearing up the carpet (there was a carpet!?) and in among them all is Tommy Fong, watching over the scene.
Tommy is a warm and down-to-earth man that most Willow-goers will have interacted or gotten a selfie with at some point over their clubbing careers. His strange Yorkshire adopted hybrid accent is instantly recognisable.
He says he is too busy to think when I ask him how he feels today after last night. “I’ll think properly when everything’s settled and then I’ll probably be bored.” He says he is staying in York and will probably try and keep fit now he’s retired.
“I was going to retire when I was 50 and decided not to every five years since. If I live to 100, I might have still been here if Aviva had let me but obviously they don’t think much of the Willow.”
When I ask about the possibility of another Willow opening in York, he immediately shoots me down: “No, no, no – it wouldn’t have the right atmosphere.
“The setup of the Willow is great because you’ve got two, three floors. I don’t think you could get another central place like this. I don’t think you could have another place and think it’s going to be like the Willow.”
Tommy puts the success of the Willow primarily down to two things. Firstly, he is very careful of who he lets in. Whereas most clubs operate what Tommy describes as a “if they’ve got money, let ‘em in” policy, the Willow has the infamous ‘students and regulars only’ door policy which, according to him, means there is less trouble. He says the police used to be called twice a week and now it’s bad if they’re called more than ten times a year. Although he also says “if you haven’t been thrown out of Willow, you haven’t lived.”
The second secret to success: cheap drinks. Obviously.
Moving on, I ask who his favourite bouncer is: “Erm… Sam is great. You know he’s fantastic.”
Favourite song? “Hey Jude because it’s nice and quiet, I don’t like heavy.” Good thing you work in a nightclub I say. “Yeah that’s why I always complain to the DJs, swear at ‘em.”
Favourite students? “Best group I had was a few years ago. All in amateur theatre and every time they livened up the place.”
Favourite drink? “Boiling water.” I think he’s joking. “It’s very tasty, have you never tried it? Really tasty. Should try it one day. My children won’t try it. They think I’m mad.”
I ask him if he dips prawn crackers into his boiling water: “I don’t eat prawn crackers. No high saturated fat. I get told off by my wife for eating too many chips. Have to keep off them.”
He laughs when I ask him if he would say his wife, Sue, is a pretty important part of Willow too. “If it wasn’t for my wife, there would be no Willow. You know the phrase: a successful man, there’s always a woman behind them. She mainly runs it – you know I act the fool here. Nobody knows that, it’s only a rumour I’m the boss. You can ask the staff who the real boss is.”
He asks his daughter, Becki, who the real boss is. “You’re just a puppet Dad,” she says pointing at Sue.
I tell him students will probably just go home and get to bed by 10.30 now Willow’s gone. “No, I think they’ll stay out, there’s plenty of other places to drink like Vudu, Blue Fly and Mansion.
“I think after a few weeks when things have settled, people will just forget about the Willow.”
I ask if he has any final messages he’d like to share with his loyal student fanbase.
“Thanks for supporting the Willow, it’s been great. Students have created the Willow, not me. If it wasn’t for students, I would have packed up ages ago. You couldn’t do it in a non-student town.
“York University have supported the Willow the most, about 70-80 per cent are Uni of. I think St John’s prefer Kuda. York University are different people, different characters.”
“We are forced to close and that’s the end. Fullstop Willow. Fullstop. Sad, but that’s the real world, where if they don’t want you, they keep you out.”