The Willow Community Project

StreetLife’s research, collaborations and events have continued to explore new ways to boost York's creative economy and support creative communities. The Willow Community Project recognises the support needed to reconnect and record communities that have built up around music venues over time (including venues that no longer exist), and the part that venues and their staff play in cultural histories across the country. At the heart of this project is the Willow (1973-2015), York’s much loved Cantonese restaurant-cum-disco.


The Willow brings up vivid memories among its devoted frequenters. Working with the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past, the StreetLife team held Willow Community Meets and conducted oral-history interviews with former Willow punters and employees ranging across the 1990s to the 2010s, often supplemented with objects, playlists, and memorabilia. The project also took to the archives to find text-based and photographic records of the venue’s origins as a 1930s cafe, then as a Cantonese restaurant with live music and DJ from 1973, and as a nightclub from 2008. Highlights were the student newspapers featuring near-constant advertising and student-authored recommendations.

Several outputs have arisen from this project - firstly, the Willow Community Digital Archive, in collaboration with Greenstone at the University of Waikato, the AHRC-fund InterMusE project (led from York by Rachel Cowgill) and ThomFong, a strategy design consultancy co-directed by Vicki Fong. The collaboration explores an innovative approach to viewing archive material that utilises research expertise and user-experience design. Vicki Fong, daughter of the owners of the Willow, designed the iconic graphic identity, which includes the Willow girl and famous ‘Love it or Hate it?’ images many recall when remembering the venue.

Another outcome is the Willow exhibition at the StreetLife hub. Love it or Hate it? The Willow Legacy, curated by Andy Egerton, is a collection of artwork and music inspired by the Willow’s energy and legacy, featuring photography by Ceri Oakes, art by Peter Roman, and illustrations by Vicki Fong.

The Willow is an ideal example of how preserving the memories and artefacts of a community can inspire others to reflect on their values and ties to a town or city that played a role in their lives. The interactive archive will be made available to the public via the StreetLife website this summer and ultimately will join York Explore’s digital collections.