End of an Icon: Vann Chen

Washington marks the passing of ''Mama Chen,'' nightlife luminary

Aside from Chen’s grace, Miruski also points to a sort of infectious goofiness. She mentions a club anthem from the ’90s, ”Walk for Me,” that she would spin regularly.

”He brought a big old wok out of his kitchen and put it on his head and started going. ‘Walk for me, Walk for me,”’ she says wistfully. ”He was just a joy to know.”

It’s likely no one knew Chen as well as Danny Aviance, with whom Chen shared an apartment at 16th and Q Streets NW for 17 years.

”We met going to different clubs in the city,” says Aviance. ”We’ve known each other for 25 years. We were friends for 23 of those years. We weren’t a couple, but we were domestic partners. We were not romantically involved, but you could say we were an ‘old married couple.’ We were family.”

In that sense, Ludo, their toy poodle Chen could be seen walking about town, may have been their de facto child, ”who misses his mommy very much.”

As his roommate, it was Aviance who found Chen, 52, lying on the sofa as he often would. At first, he says, he did not realize his friend was gone.

”When I found him, he was in a peaceful repose on the sofa,” says Aviance, adding that he’s not yet received a specific cause of death from the medical examiner. ”I’ve seen him like that a thousand times, and that’s the way he went.”

”A lady always knows when to leave,” Aviance adds with more playfulness than grief, detailing Chen’s life as a self-taught seamster, creating clothing, gifts, draperies and all the rest.

Aviance says that a private service was held with Chen’s family April 5, and that his body has been cremated. Chen’s ashes will be returned to family in Vietnam, from where he emigrated around 1980, to be interred in the family mausoleum.

”Vann was kind and generous,” Aviance continues. ”He was flamboyant. He was beautiful. He was very funny, with a very sharp wit. Vann was the best thing I can think of that came out of the Vietnam War. He became an icon.”

And that is what he wants those who knew Chen to celebrate. To that end, he and others are organizing a celebration of Chen’s life for April 28. Chen would have been 53 on April 29.

”We’ll have the celebration of his life on the 28th, and toast him at midnight on his birthday,” says Aviance, adding one strict caution: ”We don’t want mourning and sadness.”

As Chen celebrated life in clubs of Washington, says Aviance, it’s befitting that this last celebration, too, be filled with the music and gaiety he loved.

The celebration of Vann ”Mama Chen” Chen’s life will be Saturday, April 28, at Townhouse Tavern, 1637 R St. NW, from 9 p.m. till closing. Aviance asks that in lieu of flowers, those wishing to honor Chen make a donation ”in the spirit of Vann’s generosity” to the charity of their choice.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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