Last week, Fortune, the DJ-fueled nightclub in Old Town Chinatown, joined the growing ranks of venues permanently closing their doors during the pandemic. The bar was a neighborhood stalwart, offering quality drinks and nightly local DJs in a historic building in the struggling neighborhood of Old Town Chinatown — arguably the only nightclub-focused neighborhood in Portland.
While COVID-19 is partially responsible for the closure, it’s also due to a yearslong legal battle with the landlords, who, according to Fortune co-owners Kurt Huffman and Eric Bowler, have been intent on driving the nightclub out its space since 2018, and finally were given the go-ahead from a court in February of 2020 to evict them.
The building that housed Fortune was once the home of the historic dim sum restaurant Hung Far Low, which opened there in 1928. In 2009, Hung Far Low moved to 82nd Avenue, and not long after, Huffman took over the space and opened Ping, a lauded restaurant helmed by Andy Ricker. Eventually, Ping closed and Ricker would focus on expanding the famous Pok Pok. The spot went through numerous iterations, including stints as hip cocktail bar Easy Company, the more casual watering hole Big Trouble, and as the commissary kitchen for the popular, pork-heavy sandwich shop Lardo, part of Huffman’s now citywide restaurant group ChefStable.
In 2015, Huffman met with Eric and Karen Bowler, who co-owned the hip club Tube down the street, and together the team opened Fortune that May. The club did well, and almost immediately after opening they began renovating and expanding the space, moving the Lardo commissary kitchen to a new location. JoAnne Hong was in support of the expansion, says Huffman, though some of the arrangements were made with her verbally.
In late 2017, Hong passed away, and her children took over as landlords. Eric Bowler says that in April of 2018, while the expansions were nearly done, a few of the Hong heirs came through the space. “They started freaking out immediately,” Bowler says. “They totally flipped out on us, told us we couldn’t do what we were doing.”
Both Bowler and Huffman claim that the expansion efforts were then considerably slowed— what was originally set to open in May of 2018 ended up getting pushed back to early September. “It took infinity to sign off on anything,” says Bowler. A suit that Fortune filed in September of 2018 against the Hong family accused Debera Hong and other family members not named as defendants, of having “trespassed and/or entered the properties without property notice or proper purpose,” and that they “...harassed [Huffman and the Bowlers] and their customers, demanded certain fixtures be removed, took photographs in an attempt to fabricate a case for their noncompliance with City of Portland Building Code,” and overall delayed the opening by more than four months. Eater has reached out to the Hong family for comment, but has not received a response.
Eventually, the Hong family attempted to evict the Bowlers for violating their lease, which fueled a two-year-long legal battle between the tenants and their landlords. By March of 2020, COVID-19 struck the city; Huffman and the Bowlers eventually realized that even if they won in the end, they would be dealing with hostile landlords while the continuing pandemic would keep the doors closed. Bowler made an announcement on social media on Tuesday, September 8, that the bar was closed for good.
Both Eric Bowler and Huffman expressed a sense of resignation about the closure. Huffman still has his food empire ChefStable, and the Bowlers are part owners of the east side club Century Bar, whose wide patios have helped it weather the pandemic. But to them, they felt that the Hongs’ main reason for wanting the eviction was that Huffman had long ago signed a contract with JoAnne Hong and her attorney that would give him the first chance and a preferred rate to buy the Hung Far Low building, should she or her family decide to sell it. “We were so committed to fighting [the eviction] because from our perspective it was so transparent that they were trying to kick us out because I was given a preferred rate to buy it,” says Huffman.
Bowler says that he wants to spend more time with his family and working with Century, though it hurts to lose Fortune. He also points to the fact that clubs like Fortune and Century have been struggling, and will continue to do so in the face of the pandemic, especially with so little aid from local and federal governments, and that it was almost not worth the fight to stay open. “The overwhelming emotion and feeling I’ve had is how the government has left nightlife and music out to dry,” Bowler says. “It’s something that needs to be addressed. As a DJ and bar owner, there’s just been nothing for us.”
Correction: This story was corrected to show that Ping opened in 2009, not 2005.