We were just a block from Disneyland, about to enter a squat-looking building on Katella Avenue out of a Van de Kamp's bakery ad campaign. This was the Dutch Club AVIO, the only such social club for Dutch-Indonesians in Southern California—and it's almost as old as Disneyland itself. To put it into perspective, Walt Disney opened his park in 1955. This club has been meeting in this space on designated nights for music, food and dancing since 1959, when it moved from Los Angeles. Tonight was one of those nights. The parking lot was full, and the sweet smell of satay filled the air. As we walked, my date and I clutched each other's hand in anticipation of what we would find inside.
On the way toward the entrance, we encountered two men in their 60s tending to a barbecue grill. The Asian-looking man flipped the satays, handing the finished meat skewers to his white cohort. It was the white man, dressed in a SPAM T-shirt, who smiled at us and asked, “Apa kabar?” (“How are you?” in Indonesian.)
“Baik!” I replied. (Fine!)
Once inside, we paid the cover charge to a woman sitting behind a cash box. She gazed at us curiously, “Are you Indonesian?” she inquired.
“Yes,” I said, realizing immediately we were the strangers in a room of people who all knew one another by name.
She motioned to a nearby table, where a group of Asian-looking older ladies were only too eager to welcome the newcomers. One of them asked if I spoke Indonesian. “Sedikit,” I said to her. (A little.)
“Do you dance?” another asked my date, who shook her head nervously. “I'll show you!” she said, laughing as she did a little jig.
We sat at one of the long, covered picnic tables. People were signing a birthday card that went around. Save for members of the band who were setting up while everyone ate, we were the only ones under the age of 40, if not 50. Rumors that this club's remaining membership was aging and dwindling were not exaggerations. It once numbered in the thousands, but as subsequent generations became assimilated and moved away, what's left is this group of middle-aged to elderly folks, a mix of Dutch and Indonesian, some white-skinned, some brown-skinned, some in between.
Later, when the man in the SPAM shirt saw me looking at the wall next to the bar, which is plastered with old photos of ships, he explained with wistfulness that these were the vessels that took them from the island archipelago in the 1940s to 1960s—the time period that marked the mass exodus of the Dutch from Indonesia when Sukarno came to power. On another wall were posters, news clippings—all in Dutch. One featured a svelte young man named James Intveld, who just happened to be that night's performer. Before Intveld and his band rocked the house, he gave a shout-out to his parents, who were in the audience and celebrating their wedding anniversary. They were club members, just as Eddie and Alex Van Halen's parents were; I'm told the brothers performed here, too, long ago.
Intveld's rockabilly music soon spurred dancing from the group. I saw people my parents' age move in ways I never knew they could. I watched a frail-looking Asian man who looked to be about 80 and was dressed in Western wear ask a woman 20 years his junior to dance. Her husband stayed behind to watch, eating the same food everyone ate. This was the satay plate, doled out from an opening in the wall between the kitchen and the dance hall. Sold for $7.50 per plate, it's served with rice, a salad, some fried tempeh, and a handful of krupuk (shrimp crackers)—a hodgepodge of potluck-style grub you'd likely find at Indonesian birthday parties and picnics. A dollop of sambal was applied to my plate only after I answered in the affirmative that I liked spicy food. For dessert, the kitchen offered the coconut milk-sweetened soup of wiggly tapioca noodles called cendol, as well as kue talam ubi, which is like a chewy hybrid of a cupcake and Jell-O pudding.
A month later, I returned for AVIO's next dance event. So as to not draw attention to my presence, I asked that the Weekly's photographer come separately. The ruse was futile—the photographer stuck out, just as I did, and the members quickly put two and two together. But because I was finally identified as a member of the press, I was given a photocopied booklet of the monthly schedule that only members were privy to. Since the group possesses no Facebook page or even a website, it would've been exceedingly difficult to find out about the next event without it.
So here's the point of this article: the next big dance and Indo food night happens April 5, starting at 5:30 p.m. Go and experience a rapidly disappearing part of Orange County history—yes, you'll seem out of place, but the members will warmly welcome you, just as they did this infernal rag. And you just might get an 80-year-old to ask you to dance.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.