Wong's War on a Reggae Club

Are the problems traffic and parking, or just the color of the customers?

City Councilwoman Martha Wong put on an unusual show-and-tell session in her City Hall office two weeks ago, but the subjects of the show weren't allowed to attend. In an effort to pressure reggae nightclub Jamaica Jamaica to move from its strip shopping center on upper Kirby at Richmond in southwest Houston, Wong issued a written invitation summoning business operators from the area and the club landlord to view a tape that supposedly showed drug deals and weapon transfers in the vicinity of the club.

Wong claims she's just trying to resolve a neighborhood problem created by large crowds entering and leaving the club in the early-morning hours. Jamaica Jamaica owner Brenton Paul Beecher contends that the councilwoman, at the behest of the Upper Kirby District business association, wants to drive his black club out of a predominantly white commercial area.

Don't look for the video to vie for any Oscar as best documentary. Several Harris County deputy constables served as cinematographers from their perch on a rooftop near the club. Dark and fuzzy video images tracked club patrons walking into the parking lot and nearby streets at closing time.

The lens-toting lawmen provided running commentary later, as the video rolled in Wong's office. "That's a drug deal," said one lawman, as the screen showed one black man handing another something that was indistinguishable. Likewise, a constable identified what he said was a shotgun being transferred from one vehicle to another, although at least one audience member says it was impossible to tell whether the object was even a weapon. Then there was that shocking scene in which a solitary man urinates in a nearby Texaco station car wash. Despite the alleged illegalities, the constable filmmakers had not arrested or charged anyone with anything. Meanwhile, a healthy contingent of off-duty HPD officers serenely worked security at the club.

Wong accepts the constables' contention that the video showed narcotics deals in progress. Others say the film showed no such thing. Attorney Gary Murphy represents Jamaica Jamaica landlord Menyu Wong (no relation to the councilwoman). Murphy found the claims that the club was endangering the neighborhood distinctly underwhelming.

"There was no evidence shown of any wrongdoing in the club or on the property," says the lawyer.

Upper Kirby executive director Jamie Brewster, also in the audience, concurred that the tape's contents were debatable. "It was not clear," she opines. "It was something that you wouldn't be able to have hold up in court." Of course, this was not in a court of law, but rather the court of Martha Wong, who had clearly judged that the club needed to go.

Wong invited no Houston police representatives to the meeting, either. Jamaica Jamaica attorney Jim DeFoyd finds that omission curious, since over the past year patrol officers have been enforcing a zero-tolerance zone around Jamaica Jamaica. They also provide the paid security on the club premises and the parking lot. "HPD has been really cooperative with us, and us with them," says DeFoyd. "This so-called videotape was done by contract deputies hired by the Upper Kirby District."

The piddling nature of the incidents captured on the video didn't deter Wong. She told the Insider she relied on the expertise of the deputy cameramen. According to a meeting attendee, she also expressed frustration that Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission officers made repeated checks but yielded no violations that could justify pulling the club's liquor license.

According to some of those at the meeting, the councilwoman asked how long Jamaica Jamaica's lease had to run and suggested that the landowner simply not renew the lease. A meeting attendee concluded that Wong was determined to force the club to move "because she does not like the type of people it is attracting, no doubt in my mind."

Wong denies that race figures in her effort but does contend that the only solution is the relocation of the club.

"There's not enough parking and too many people for the space available," says the councilwoman. She points out that she has been equally forceful with clubs on the Richmond strip, including establishments owned by Asians. As to the charge that the zero-tolerance enforcement targets black motorists outside the club, she retorts, "Have you been in there? Who was there when you were there?"

Beecher and attorney DeFoyd tried to attend Wong's meeting to present their side but were turned away by a Wong aide.

Beecher says his record doesn't justify Wong's strong-arm tactics.
"Martha Wong, for six years you have joined with the Upper Kirby District to ruin my business," declares Beecher. "We have been investigated by all city and state governmental agencies, and we have passed all these tests. Why won't you leave me alone?"

Jamaica Jamaica opened its doors 12 years ago and is primarily a recorded-music dance club that occasionally showcases big-name reggae touring acts, including Jimmy Cliff, Gregory Isaacs, Third World and Michael Rose, the former lead singer for Black Uhuru. The club, nestled at the point of a V-shaped shopping center, has a bar and table area that wraps around a sunken dance floor fronted by a stage. Beecher, a native of Spanish Town, Jamaica, became partners a decade ago with the original owner, Patrick Gillies. Beecher, 47, is well known to local reggae aficionados for his stints as DJ Paul Mellotone on KPFT/90.1 FM Pacifica radio.

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