Jennifer Phạm, cofounder of Haibayô and Celebrate Argyle | Chicagoans of Note | Chicago Reader

Jennifer Phạm, cofounder of Haibayô and Celebrate Argyle 

“For so long, people didn’t know anything about Asian Americans. Showing who we are and being proud of who we are, it’s really important during this time.”

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Jennifer Phạm just west of the Red Line tracks on Argyle Street - MATTHEW GILSON FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Jennifer Phạm just west of the Red Line tracks on Argyle Street
  • Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

Jennifer "Nuky" Phạm, 37, helps run the Celebrate Argyle campaign and books musicians and artists at pop-up events for Haibayô, whose cross-cultural creative collaborations aim to energize the Asia on Argyle district. Phạm is a Chicago-born Vietnamese American and co-owns her family's business, Mini Thương Xá Pharmacy. She also serves on the board of directors for the Uptown Chamber of Commerce and on the associate board for the Chinese Mutual Aid Association.


As told to Philip Montoro

My family were the first Vietnamese business owners on Argyle Street. I grew up in Uptown, right by Argyle. Because there were very few Asian shops in that area, and the fact that my parents were the first ones to open up a store, it was a mini mall.

It's Mini Thương Xá Pharmacy—the nickname is Mini Tx Pharmacy. In Vietnamese, thương xá means "mall." It was a video rental store, it was a music store, you could get your film developed there, it was a jewelry store. You could get your karaoke systems there, laser discs. For maybe 15 years or so, it's just been operating as a pharmacy and medical center.

When I got a little older, my dad decided that he may want to sell the pharmacy to CVS. When he told me that, I started realizing how important Argyle was to me, and also I realized my responsibility to the area, to continue the legacy of what they created here.

From that, I worked together with different organizations to have pop-up events. Then a really good friend of mine, Hạc Trần, and I decided to create this organization called Haibayô. The name comes from a Vietnamese phrase, "One, two, three, cheers." In Vietnamese, when you do the cheers with someone, it's "Một, hai, ba, vô [pronounced 'yo']!"

Haibayô formed in 2019. We actually started off as a DIY pop-up event. I've been in the nightlife industry for quite some time now—I basically started bartending when I was 21. I thought a really good way to bring the young folks that I grew up with to Argyle is through a party.

We worked with one of my friends that owned a restaurant on Argyle Street. We basically turned it into a Haibayô party, and we would have different DJs play. I created a cocktail menu. I called one the Lychee Cha-Cha-Cha, because my parents love dancing to the cha-cha-cha. I also made the Phở Sho with phở spices that I got at Hoa Nam grocery store, which unfortunately closed during the pandemic.

At most of our pop-up events, we had late-night phở. Growing up, my parents used to drive me to all their Vietnamese parties, and they would make music all night long—someone would be on the keyboard, someone would be on the drums, my mom would get up and start singing. It was kind of like an upgraded karaoke. And around midnight, they would always get hungry and make phở or another noodle soup. I wanted to bring a little bit of that culture into the party atmosphere.

The first one, we featured two DJs—one was Charlie Glitch, my partner. He's Mexican and Puerto Rican, so not southeast Asian, but very helpful with this event! We also featured my friend Norm Rockwell from the Pacifics—he's an old-school DJ. He's pretty active in the Chicago hip-hop community. The second one was in May, for AAPI Month. We featured Ubae, who gave us a drag performance.

It was shoulder-to-shoulder packed when we did that second event. We needed to get a larger space. I was meditating one day, and just had this thought: "I wonder what's on top of that one building?" Hạc went to go check it out. It was a loft space, and my friend was managing it—my tutor from when I was a little girl. He was actually using it as storage. Hạc and I told him about what we were trying to do, and he agreed to let us use it.

When we did the Haibayô events, when we got into the larger loft space, we highlighted musicians and we had performances—by mostly southeast Asian artists, and folks that are directly from Argyle Street. We had Elephant Rebellion, who are a big part of the community. Suburban Kid McFly was one of the performances. Jofred Estilo, Mark Major, DJ Sabado, Supes Base, DJ Raboo, DJ Trew of Altered Tapes, DJ Hữu Lý, RTST. We also highlighted different visual artists—Cookie Kwan, Danbee Kim, Vitaliy Vladimirov, WingT2H, and poets from Luya Poetry. We had southeast Asian and BIPOC vendors. We wanted it to feel like a night market, so food always played a huge role in our events. We made it a point to feature a restaurant from Argyle for each one.

I feel like a lot of the population thinks, oh, OK, Asians are just a bunch of nerds or whatever. So here we have Ubae, who's Filipinx and performing drag, and then we have these different southeast Asian DJs. I wanted to shine a light on how amazing we all are, and how we come together through food and drink.

If you were to eat and drink with Vietnamese folks, it's called "nhậu." You're just drinking and eating with friends all night long. And when you cheers with someone, you don't do it just one time—you literally do it all night. You never take a sip of your drink just by yourself. You always say "Một, hai, ba, vô," and then you just keep doing it, like "Một, hai, ba, vô, vô, vô!"

During the pandemic, we kind of shifted gears because we couldn't host events. We ended up focusing on ways to get folks to go to the restaurants and order takeout. We did some mutual aid work, where we were able to get groceries donated to us, and we'd give them out to the Argyle-Uptown community. It was a collaboration with Sany Nguyễn, who's also a cofounding member of Celebrate Argyle, a larger organization we created together. She goes by Sany Delight.

The latest Haibayô event we did, we partnered with Uni Uni, who just had their grand opening during Lunar New Year weekend. It was a three-day event, and we had performances and an art gallery in the back.

Sany has worked with DishRoulette Kitchen, and she was the one who helped us partner up with them—they're a local nonprofit that supports restaurants and food businesses, and they were able to give us funding to do this Celebrate Argyle project. There's more folks involved—Hoàn Hùynh, Trang Trương-Hill. It's a visual storytelling campaign to highlight the AAPI folks and businesses on Argyle Street. We mostly use Instagram.

Celebrate Argyle started at the beginning of the year. Every time we did a video for any of the restaurants, the funding from Dish­Roulette meant the restaurant got a $750 grant. We're now sharing other resources—my pharmacy is a COVID-19 vaccination site, and we have a new partnership with Lyft, where you can get a ride credit to visit Asia on Argyle.

Mainly we just want folks to come to Argyle Street and care about it.

  • Celebrate Argyle debuted with a video explaining the origin of the Asia on Argyle district.

Our first video is a brief history of how Asia on Argyle got started. The next few videos focus on restaurants. The first one that just came out is Danang Kitchen. We didn't want to focus on the very popular three dishes—the bánh mì sandwich, the phở, and the spring rolls. Most places don't have that dish in the video, bánh khọt. When you go to a Vietnamese restaurant, especially on Argyle Street, most places have something very special that's not promoted. If you're on Argyle enough, then you know what to get from each place!

We want folks to learn and appreciate our people. Stereotypically, people think Asians are all the same. But we're so diverse as a community, the AAPI community. Being an Asian person, for the most part we're taught to keep our heads down, not create any type of noise. Not cause any quote-unquote trouble. For so long, people didn't know anything about Asian Americans. Showing who we are and being proud of who we are, it's really important during this time—we want other people to step up as well.

Learn. Learn Asian American history—which is American history. People can donate to organizations that are fighting for justice, and spend their money at AAPI businesses. In 2020 and 2021, over six businesses have closed down on Argyle. Hoa Nam is one. Bingo Tea. A few jewelry stores. Herbs Medic, the acupuncture shop. Altogether it's nine, actually—some of it has been due to retirement or lack of succession, most of it due to COVID. Argyle is already so small to begin with. To have that many businesses close—we just thought this is a really important time to show people who we are and what this area's about.

For Haibayô, we have something in the works for AAPI Month in May. We're collaborating with Qideas, a plant shop in the corridor, to host an outdoor event all along Argyle Street.

Ellen Dương—her family owns Qideas—voiced a lot of her concerns about the Asian hate. A few weeks back, there was a Vietnamese man walking around at night, and he got assaulted. On top of that, there's just been a lot of racism in general, with the rhetoric and the video we're seeing from all over the world—people are equating us to the virus. It's been really tough. We've addressed it through a Stop AAPI Hate video that we created.

  • Celebrate Argyle's Stop AAPI Hate video

We thought it would be a good idea to celebrate our unique culture with this outdoor event. We want to create a space where there's Asian American books available, and we want to get the community involved where they can sell their stuff outside. We want to have cultural performances. We want folks to wear their cultural attire if they feel comfortable. I'd be wearing an áo dài, which is a Vietnamese traditional dress. We want to create a safe space to be very proud of who we are. Instead of keeping our heads down and being in fear right now, we're just giving a fuck you to that. We're choosing love over hate.  v

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