A while back at work, back when there was work to go back to, I had a coworker that used to lie compulsively. He’d just say whatever came to mind, usually about musicians, usually tall-tales just credible enough to believe. We got talking about punk one time after work, and after a couple beers he told me Mr. Chi Pig had died. That was the day I figured out he’d been lying to people at random – there’s no way Chi Pig had died.
Mr. Chi Pig could never die.
The first time I met Mr. Chi Pig, he challenged me to a fight. It was in June of 2012, I’d just moved to the city and was out on the town for a friend’s going-away party. Chi would have been in Vancouver for about 22 years at that point. I’d been in town for about six months and had no idea what I was doing in a dive bar so close to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
The DTES has a lot of serious issues but it’s relatively safe to walk through, especially if you’re polite and mind where you’re going. I didn’t know that in 2012: it was an adventure. I’d never been to Pub 340 either, the ancient little dive bar hidden off the side of Victory Square, which was the site of intense labour protests near the turn of the century. The place used to be called Churchill Arms and it was a working class union bar. It still kind of is.
Pub 340 is a tiny mess of a bar now, even moreso in 2012: it has heavy glass mugs for the cheap, watery lager you can get by the pitcher for around ten bucks. We had a party of about 20 and drained about 20 pitchers. It was karaoke night and our friend was leaving town, after all. If you’ve never done karaoke in a dive bar, it’s a bit like being trapped in the belly of a pirate ship, complete with the rolling, brawling and screams.
It’s great, you should try it.
After the party and the karaoke were over, the two-foot stage at the end of the bar was a free-for-all. Drunk people sort of tripped up onto it and stayed there, waving around in the spotlight. I was one of those drunk people. I wobbled around, sort-of dancing in the way only super self-conscious twenty-somethings sort-of dance, and pitched backward into something small and soft.
I stumbled back a bit and spun to catch myself before I fell. In front of me was a rail-thin man with a long, pointed beard and a comically oversized fu-manchu mustache, the kind you never see on anyone, ever. His hat was a nest of owl feathers on top his head and he was wearing a gold lame suit and pants. The strange little man hadn’t quite fallen over either, but he’d probably sloshed some of his beer on the sagging, carpeted part of the stage. I had no idea who this man was, but when I went to apologize he got up in my face. He had an accent that was difficult to trace, but spat every word with increasing, mad conviction. The sentence was a roller-coaster:
“Excuse me man sorry I’m not trying to start anything but if you have a problem I’ll Kick Your Fukkin Ass.”
I had absolutely no idea who he was. I didn’t fight that night – I turned down the invitation to an ass-kicking and he wandered off like nothing had happened, shimmering gold under the dive-bar spotlight.
Mr. Chi Pig was born Kendall Chinn in 1962, of mixed German and Chinese ancestry. He named himself after an all-girl new-wave trio from Akron, Ohio: the Chi in chi-pig stands for chicken, because the group itself was named after a barbecue joint. Chi was also, among other things, gay, schizophrenic, a former hard-drug addict and semi-homeless when I first met him. He’d been openly gay since around the early 90’s when he moved to B.C., and the schizophrenia had allegedly been jump-started by a traumatic head injury during a live show with one of his bands. His first group went by the name LIVE SEX SHOWS, the best and worst name for a punk act ever. His most famous band, SNFU (Society’s No Fucking Use), was enormously influential on skate-punk as well as a Canadian punk band fronted by, again, a mixed-race gay schizophrenic guy from Edmonton.
Mr. Chi Pig was a pioneer, and this was all incredibly important information to someone that had almost fought him in a bar.
I know all this because I started doing my homework the second I figured out who I’d stumbled into. I found out about the very intimate biography that Chi doesn’t love talking about called Open Your Mouth and Say… Mr. Chi Pig. I scoured the internet for a copy. I started listening to SNFU and realized they were fucking fantastic. I correctly identified 2004’s intense, lived-in, poverty-and-perseverance anthem “Cockatoo Quill” as one of the greatest punk songs I’d ever heard. I realized that I had literally run into one of the most fascinating people in the city, and I probably owed him an apology. I got a lot of opportunities to do so.
Because I love dive bars I started frequenting Pub 340 and the notorious Funky Winkerbeans here in Vancouver. Because I came to love Karaoke I’d hang out in these bars for hours, draining awful beer and listening to other people try to sing. Chi, it turns out, basically lived at these karaoke nights, and one of his signature songs was “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” Turns out it’s also mine.
I’d buy Chi a beer whenever I could, confident that he had no idea who I was, just to make up for possibly having been a huge jerk to him at the bar that one time. He didn’t know what the hell I was talking about but he appreciated the beer and loved to talk. He’d tell me wild stories, or sometimes he’d speak in code. Sometimes he’d be randomly, hilariously antagonistic – you never knew which you’d get. He was always drawing – he proudly painted the album covers for SNFU, which remained his on-again off-again touring act. I’d ask him about it. Sometimes he’d introduce me to his friends, and sometimes he didn’t speak at all and just wandered off into the night. Over the years, very gradually, we became friends.
I’d gradually become a very serious SNFU fan too, so when the 30th anniversary show for their debut album came around in 2015 I knew I had to see Chi play. I hadn’t seen him in a while. I was excited to see what this intensely strange, unique man was like when he was doing his real job as a part-time rock star. I didn’t tell Chi I was coming and I didn’t see him anywhere beforehand – like everyone else at the Red Room I just bought my ticket and waited with another friend. This was five years ago yesterday.
Chi and his band were set to play the entirely of …And No One Else Wanted To Play, their 1985 debut. The crowd was ravenous. The crowd was also relatively thin – the Red Room isn’t a huge venue, and even then it was nowhere near full.
Chi didn’t care.
With the band all set up he strutted out on the stage like a firecracker in his replica Warriors leather jacket and commanded the stage. I’d never seen him like this, had never known he could be like this. Part of knowing Chi was knowing how inconsistent he could be, the way he floated in and out of spaces, sometimes in a daze. The way he would sometimes recognize me and sometimes not, sometimes stay and chat and joke and sometimes leave silently, or never show at all. That was not this man. Life had been hard to Chi, but the years dropped away when he hit that stage – there was no mumbling or indecision. He was absolutely in his element, and perfect in that way. He derailed his own band with his rants, heckled the crowd, kicked and wailed around on stage like a wild man not in his early 50s and nailed every note. He was alive in a way I’d never known he could be, and it was perfect.
It was two years before I spent any amount of time with Mr. Chi Pig again. I’d missed a couple of his famous birthday parties at Funky’s but had caught him performing karaoke a couple of times, and had even sung “Love Will Tear Us Apart” with him like I’d always hoped to. But I hadn’t spent any amount of time talking to him aside from the odd beer in line.
In 2017 I attended a Dreadnoughts show at Pub 340, a homecoming show for the band that named its second album after Victory Square outside. The show was fantastic and I stayed around for hours afterwards, just hanging out and soaking up the dive-bar glow. It had been a while since I’d spent any time there and I missed the place. I was also secretly hoping to run into Chi again.
I was in luck and spotted him at the bar. This time he was wearing a brown, wooly bear-hat with little round ears, a sequinned gold top and a drab blouse, red and gold leggings and combat boots. This was an average look for Chi, whose fashion sense transcended time and space. I walked up, and for the first time, he spoke first.
“I want to thank you for being so polite to me over the years.”
I was stunned.
“You’re Mr Chi Pig! Who wouldn’t be polite to you! Where’ve you been?”I asked, expecting another cryptic answer.
I got one.
“Oh I disappeared for a while there,” he said, more quietly than usual “I almost died ya know!”
There was the Chi I knew, smiling to himself. At the time, I didn’t know he wasn’t kidding – he was alluding to yet another battle with serious illness, something that had dogged him for years. I ordered the customary two shots of Jager. They were late.
“Hurry up ya f—–!” Chi shouted between his gapped teeth, giggling to himself.
“Chi!” I said, surprised. “Come on!”
“I’m 54 now! Once you get over fifty ya do whatever the-FUCK you want!” he barked, laughing at the slur he’d used (hopefully) ironically.
We shot the Jager and then I grabbed a pair of beers. The bartender only ever approached me for cash. It was bad form to let Chi pay, ever.
“I been drug-free fifteen years! Nobody ever believes me when I say that!” he said, giving me a look.
“Really? That’s impressive”
Relaxing a bit, Chi said, “Yeah it was all in the fukkin movie”
I winced a little at this, looking away to the bottles on the wall. I’d seen the movie. I liked the movie.
“I don’t believe anything unless I hear it straight from you, Chi.”
Chi’s friends showed up at that point, pulling him away into a conversation for a while. I finished my beer, went outside to check if my friends had left (they had), and eventually returned inside.
Chi was back on the barstool, alone now, and asleep. He looked old, older than he’d seemed before. At the time Chi was 54, but he’d always looked older. His skin was waxy, his hair had all been left to grey. He was tired – he was the same old Chi in conversation, but you could tell the years were gaining on him. He’d sag a little more after every outburst; a long time ago I’d seen him sit at that same barstool, bragging about being back on ‘the stuff’ before snorting a line of pepper off the counter top. This time it was too much to keep his head up.
He woke up again when the bartender passed by, and I went back to my stool.
“Are you still doing music, all that stuff?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“Oh yeah, well I’ve been able to touch people and change the world using my music and my art.”
He paused for a moment.
“That’s what I’ve done. I’ve been able to change people’s lives that way.”
I’d never seen him this sober in conversation, this serious.
“Do you have any tours coming up, where’s your band?”
“Well, two of my bandmates are in the hospital right now, but I’ll get em back. I’ll get em back.”
Chi used to draw all the time. He’d paint too, he had a little art kit he’d travel around with from bar to bar. It wasn’t unusual to find him camped out in one of the booths in the corner of Pub 340, looping patterns with his paint markers. He’d write his own lyrics, write new lyrics, and draw a lot of cartoon pigs. If you were a friend of his he’d make you one eventually, painting on whatever surface was available. Some people got canvases, others got cardboard. One guy I know got a cutting board covered in marker.
Funky Winkerbeans is covered in Chi’s art, much of it for sale. They’re stark black canvases with white paint figures and phrases in his simple, distinctive style. They’re probably still up there.
Mr. Chi Pig was a gay, mixed-race, schizophrenic punk icon, and the last time I saw him alive it was at Funky Winkerbeans. I was there for a friend’s birthday party. The bar is a popular haunt because of its super-high rockstar stage, the cheapness of the beer, and its absolute bar-none come-as-you-are karaoke policy. Everyone, everyone can go to Funky’s and sing – it’s a rule that often cuts both ways, and makes it one of the best karaoke experiences in town. It helps that the bar runs karaoke seven days a week.
I was on stage and drunk by the time Chi wandered in, this time in a dark cloak and hat. He was with friends as usual. I was wasted on the cheapest beer they had and working my way through “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”. I hadn’t spoken to Chi properly in a year, but it was his song either way. I invited him on stage, but he wouldn’t come. He just smiled and gave me a thumbs-up once he realized which song I was singing, to tell me that I wasn’t completely butchering it.
By the time I got off stage Chi was back outside again. I hit the bar for more beer, the same beer lineup where I’d once asked Chi why all his album’s names have seven words, and I’d simply been told “for luck”. I got more beer and rejoined my friends. I have no idea how much time passed, but by the time we made it back to the side of the stage, it was Chi’s time to sing.
Everyone at Funky’s knows Chi. A cheer went up when he took to the stage. He can sing, but a lifetime of fronting a punk band means you never know what you’ll get when he walks up the tall steps to the Funky Winkerbeans mic.
Mr. Chi Pig took a deep swig from his beer, blew it up into the air like a geyser, and sat down. Beer splashed down on him and on us as he launched into his own lilting, creaking version of “Hurt”.
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