Backtracks: Fiji’s first jukebox

Tom Mawi (right) with his brothers and Ian Fong at the Golden Dragon Cabaret in the early 60s. Picture IAN FONG

Today, the corner of Rodwell Rd and Usher St, Suva, is home to the multi- storey shopping and office complex known as TappooCity.

Wind the clock back 80 years, the site was host to a wooden building and to the Chungking Café – home of Fiji’s first jukebox – whose playlist included a song recorded by Litia Daveta.

Daveta would later change her name to Esther King and her powerful vocals would earn her a place in the popular American vocal group, The Platters.

Chungking Café was Harry Janson Ho’s first business venture in Viti Levu. Harry managed to get a lease and ran the cafe for close to two decades before relocating to the building located on Victoria Pde which would bear his name and go on to become Fiji’s live music mecca in the ’60s and ’70s.

His son, now the owner of Dragon Music and popular vocalist and performer Ken Jansen shared the tale of how his father acquired the jukebox in the early ‘50s and how lines would snake outside the eatery, with people clutching their sixpence in hand, ready to feed the machine so they could hear their favourite song.

The jukebox was also a “tutor” of sorts for young aspiring musicians, including people like Tom Mawi. “My dad’s family, like a few other Chinese families at the time, first settled in Kadavu.That’s where they began their businesses,” Ken shared.

“In the early ’40s, he came with Jim Ah Koy’s father to Suva and began working at cafeterias around here. “He used to cook and wash dishes at an eatery located where the old New Lilac Theatre used to be — on the corner of Waimanu Rd and Toorak Rd.”

Harry worked and saved enough to set up his own establishment and in 1941 he opened the doors of the Chungking Café.

Apart from enjoying brisk business from the locals, the cafe was also quite popular with United States servicemen and women who were stationed in Suva during the closing stages of World War II.

“They would come in for steak and eggs or chicken chowmein and some of the other popular Chinese dishes.”

The food business was doing well and took a turn for the better when Harry bought the jukebox from items auctioned off by the US Army.

“When WWII finished, the Americans auctioned everything off.

“Where Harbour Centre is today, there used to be a building called Millers and the US Canteen was situated there and that’s where my father came across the jukebox.

“He didn’t know anything about music, but he thought it would make a nice addition for the Chungking Café.

“There was a man called George Fong who used to make homemade amplifiers and speaker boxes.

“In those days, you couldn’t import electrical goods, so George was the man when it came to amplification for bands.

“So dad got George to fix up the jukebox and some Americans who had private record collections gave dad some albums and that formed the first playlist for the jukebox.”

Ken said the first playlist included early Elvis Presley songs and then US country music star Conway Twitty’s rendition of Mona Lisa.

“It also had a song that was recorded by Litia Daveta in New Zealand called My Boy Lollipop. “She was studying there at the time and cut the record there.

“When Litia came to Fiji during a break in her studies, she brought the record with her and my dad included it in the jukebox playlist.”

Ken said the jukebox was very popular, with scores of people lining up outside the café, money in hand, ready to hear their favourite tune.

“One play used to cost sixpence and people would just hang around to hear the music blasting out of the jukebox.

“For musicians, the jukebox was the perfect school teacher. They would come there with their guitars and play along, trying to work out the chords and chord progressions.

“Tom Mawi was a regular at the café and also a guy called Joe Boogie.

“Joe used to drive a taxi, but he was a really good guitarist too. They both learnt a lot of the licks for popular songs by listening and playing along to the jukebox.”

In the early ’60s, after numerous unsuccessful attempts to purchase the site of the original Chungking Café, Harry managed to buy a building on Victoria Pde. The three-storey building served three purposes.

The top floor became their home, the second floor was transformed into Fiji’s most popular nightclub – the Golden Dragon Cabaret, and the ground floor housed the New Chungking Café.

The popularity of the jukebox waned against the artistry and passion of the musicians and bands that performed at the Golden Dragon.

Next week, read about how Harry handed over the reins to Ken and how he transformed the Golden Dragon into Fiji’s mecca for live music.

More Stories