A funny thing happened in Chinatown nearly half a century ago. One day a Mexican-American delivered a new rug to a seedy topless bar called the Shanghai Junk partly run by a half-Chinese, half-Scottish man from Calgary.
The two men, Richard “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong, immediately hit it off, and Chong soon offered his new friend — who was in Canada to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War — a spot with his improv comedy troupe City Works. In the late ’60s, City Works performed inside the bar, located at the northeast corner of Main and Pender streets that is now home to a TD bank.
The rest is history and the two eventually went on to become world famous as the trail-blazing, alliterative act Cheech and Chong. The duo is credited with originally firing up the stoner comedy genre that in recent years has produced such films as the Harold and Kumar franchise and Vancouver native Seth Rogen’s Pineapple Express and Superbad.
“He was fast and funny and tired of laying carpets, so I offered him $5 a week more than he was getting laying rugs,” Chong wrote in an article published in Cannabis Culture magazine in 2008. “It was a very creative dynamic with myself, David Graham, Gaye Delorme and now Cheech all trying out different material on the unwitting stripper bar patrons.”
Chong had already seen a degree of success through his former job as the guitarist for Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, whose biggest hit “Does Your Mama Know About Me?” reached number 29 on the U.S. pop charts. The band toured with the likes of Stevie Wonder, the Temptations and James Brown, and Chong once had the opportunity to jam onstage in England with guitar legend Jimi Hendrix — himself an occasional Chinatown resident who regularly travelled from Seattle as a teenager to visit his grandmother.
Chong was booted out of the band after being late for an important meeting and he soon discovered comedy provided a better fit for his talents than music.
The two eventually moved to Hollywood and made it big with a string of hit films and comedy records during the ’70s and early ’80s, but their formative years together in Vancouver had a lasting impact on their act.
Cheech’s exaggerated Mexican accent, for example, was first played up for laughs due to there being very few Hispanics living in Vancouver in the late ’60s. Their long-running foil Sgt. Stedenko (played by Stacy Keach in the cult classic film Up In Smoke) is based on a notorious RCMP drug squad policeman named Abe Snidanko, and Chong’s drawled “Hey maaan” catch phrase was inspired by a hippy named Strawberry who lived in the Shanghai Junk’s lighting booth.
The pair recently reunited again after going their separate ways in 1985, but Chong has always maintained close ties to Vancouver and owns a home here.
“Because I was so poor when I lived in Canada, every time I come up there I feel like I cheated everything,” Chong, 75, told the Tri-Cities Now a few months ago before a show at the Red Robinson Theatre in Coquitlam. “That’s why I’m really friendly with fans. I still can’t believe a Calgary kid has made it this far.”