Ode to Vone Moua and Malina's Sports Bar

[Malina's Sports Bar on Dale Street.]
I lived in Saint Paul's North End for over seven years, and not a few of them went by before I happened across Malina's. I lived not far from the oddly shaped intersection of Como, Front, and Dale Streets, next to the train tracks and near the cemetery. Malina's was on the other side of the tracks, just inside Frogtown by the big Asian grocery store.

Mine was a quiet neighborhood, very diverse, an old blue-collar Catholic area that was quickly changing. Hmong, Latino, Black and White, mostly getting along. Mostly it seemed that people avoided each other.

It was my roommate who first discovered Malina's. He was a restless guy, always wandering around trying to find something new that might disrupt his routines and cure his frustration with Midwestern isolation. He'd spent a lot of time in China and Southeast Asia, and was a bit obsessed with Asian-American culture. Well, he flipped out when he first found Malina's, an odd Hmong bar on a rundown stretch of Dale Street. "I have a new place for you to see!" he came into the kitchen one day.  Later that night we went down to Malina's together for some Big Buck Hunter Pro, a game of pool, and a couple overpriced bottles Beer Lao. (We were the only ones who seemed to drink the Laotian beer.)

The bar itself was a curious mix of things, seemingly random. It took up half of an old two-story building on Dale; the other half was always boarded up. This was the stretch of Dale that had been unfortunately widened during the 50s or 60s, one side of the street lined with old two- or three-story streetcar commercial buildings, the other half mostly vacant lots. It had a windswept feel, and out of an old beige building stuck a pale sign that said "Malina's Sports Bar," two palm trees on either side.  The name was mysterious. Nobody in there seemed to care about sports; they were rarely on the small TV. Nor was anyone named Malina. Inside there were some odd decorations: sports logos painted on a few walls, a large Marilyn Monroe statue in the corner by the booth, a mural of a desert continuing the Arabian theme.

Malina's quickly became our favorite place in the neighborhood. Most other places in the area seemed tired, filled with old people and an atmosphere tinted with a bittersweet nostalgia. Malina's was different. You would drive past it on Dale Street and could easily glance at the parking lot, checking whether the neon sign was turned on. It always opened late, usually around 8 or 9.

The other strange thing was that Malina's was either packed or empty. There was very little in between. About half the time you'd walk in to find yourself alone with either Vone or the woman I presume was his wife. She never really spoke to us, and did all the cooking. On the other hand, Vone was gregarious. He was the bartender/owner, and he seemed to like when we'd visit. He'd chat with us, always knew how long it'd been since we'd been there last. We'd talk in vague platitudes about the bar, the neighborhood. He told us he had been a social worker, but not a lot of other details. It didn't matter.

The bar was almost all young Hmong people from the neighborhood. I have one or two Hmong friends, and when I'd tell them that I enjoyed going to Malina's, they'd roll their eyes. "That's where guys go to cheat on their wives," one told me. Those dynamics were lost on me. All I noticed was the karaoke. I've been to a lot of karaoke bars over the years, but none of them could hold a candle to Malina's. The standards were high; there was a set of about two dozen 80s pop ballads, and you'd often see a shy looking girl wearing a sweatshirt take the stage and absolutely crush some CĂ©line. "I Will Always Love You" was popular, and something about crying eyes, anything with gradually escalating key changes.  Usually Vone would try to get me to sing too, for some reason, and after a few beers I'd oblige with a crap rendition of some Sinatra. Nobody clapped for me, but Vone seemed to enjoy it.

I'd often bring people to Malina's who were visiting from out of town, you know, like from Minneapolis. Vone usually made us feel comfortable there. The food was good, too. Malina's served a few different kinds of larb (a meat salad), or you could get a plate of papaya salad for a few bucks. Maybe its my imagination, but Vone seemed to delight in making it as spicy as possible. I'd sweat for fifteen minutes after eating it. There were other things on the menu too that were beyond my degree of difficulty limit.

Over the years, Vone spent a lot of time trying to fix the place up. He always seemed to be in a struggle with the neighborhood. The other Hmong bar down the street, Moonlight Magic on Western and Thomas,  was a lot more of a dive. A few years prior, it had had a gunshot incident and been closed down by the city. That was the neighborhood. Lots of places had that problem, bars on Rice Street, anywhere with lots of young people.

When my roommate moved away, I started going there a bit less often. Each time I'd return, Vone seemed to have done some remodeling. He painted the walls. He installed booths all around the old pool-hall room. The last time I was at Malina's was about a year ago. There was a live band, a buffet, and everybody was dancing. I'd brought a date, and we joined them.

Reading through the articles about Malina's in the paper this week is depressing. They all seem bleak, listing only the incidents of crime, all the times the police were called, the one time there was an incident in the parking lot. Who knows what happened this weekend, but none of the stories I read begin to do justice to the good things that Malina's contributed to the community, or my experienc eof them. It was one of the few spots in the neighborhood that actually had a pulse, oddly enough one of the few spots where I half felt at home.


The Pioneer Press has more on how this went down, just makes it worse:
It was a $20 dispute -- Yia Her, one of the men charged, wanted Vone Moua to give him back the money he'd paid to rent a pool table for two hours, the criminal complaint said.
Yia Her, 26, said he called his brother-in-law, 22-year-old Cheng Vang, and told him to bring a gun to the bar.
"Her was very angry and his plan was to use Vang's gun to scare the owner into giving him his $20 back," the complaint said, describing what Yia Her told police.


Jinwen said...

Hopefully there will be more bars for minority people (from other contries) in the further,everyone can find a bar feel conforable like home

Anonymous said...

You are a good writer. Thanks for sharing your story. : (

Anonymous said...

That was a sad for our Hmong community. The lose of Vone has devastated everyone who knew him and of him. I didn't know him personally but did chat when I went in. He always wore the biggest smile and always greeted me as a brother. Rest in peace brother Vone. You will be missed by all.

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