Talk about a whale of a tale! In March of 2013, Bahooka, one of Southern California’s oldest and most beloved kooky tiki restaurant/bar establishments closed its doors for business, sending sentimental shockwaves throughout the fan community across the U.S. and beyond. While the details of what transpired between family members remain vague, there is one certainty – those left with control over Bahooka simply didn’t want it anymore, and so, the property was sold.
Shortly after the sale, word came that a new owner would be renovating Bahooka as a Chinese Restaurant, which prompted tiki fans far and wide to ask exactly what would happen to the establishment’s most famous resident – Rufus, a huge, carrot-eating, nearly 40 year-old Pacu that had became a celebrity over a period of decades at the location.
This story now picks up really where our last left off – following Theme Park Adventure’s final trip to see the iconic restaurant one last time. If you’ve not yet read Bahooka, Farewell and Aloha to You, click the link to check out that heart-felt editorial.
At the time of Bahooka’s closure, its future was up in the air. While it had been announced that the location would become a Chinese restaurant, fans were left wondering if it would be gutted or completely leveled. Even more importantly, people wanted to know what would become of all of the fish and sea creatures – including Rufus – during the transition. Communication from Bahooka’s new owner was poor at best, and fans everywhere voiced their concerns on websites and message boards, including Tiki Central.
In the months to follow, there were reports that Bahooka’s new owner was either slowly selling off or giving away the fish and their tanks that adorned just about every interior inch of restaurant. This news gave more momentum to the pressing question – what was to become of Rufus, who was obviously very large and very old. Little to no response came, prompting demands rather than polite questions from the community; everyone was concerned for the fish’s well-being, and the lack of response from the new owner frustrated many people.
Finally, word came that Rufus was alive and well from Jorge Mastache, the gentleman who’d cared for all of Bahooka’s critters since 2001, who was still visiting, feeding, and caring for Rufus and the other remaining fish months after the restaurant’s closure. When the public heard that Rufus was still living in the abandoned property alone in his tank and certainly in the dark, it sparked outrage and a movement online to get the old Pacu moved to a new home where he wouldn’t be alone, and he could live out the rest of his days surrounded by positive tiki energy and love from adoring fans coming to visit. Renowned tiki artist Tom “Thor” Thordarson sketched a heart-breaking illustration of Rufus, alone and confused, which went viral on the Internet among tiki communities and fan sites; he was one of many prominent voices in the crowd urging for Rufus to be given a new home.
Compounding the drama surrounding Rufus and the other fish, was the fact that the ownership of Bahooka kept flipping as the property changed hands at least twice, each new investor trying to figure out what to do with the old restaurant and its gilled inhabitants.
A new owner by the name of Alan Zhu came forward and in his first communication with the public, stated that he and his team were planning to move forward with completely renovating the restaurant as a Chinese buffet, and that Rufus needed to be out in one week.
Fish caretaker Jorge Mastache spoke up regarding moving Rufus, stating that it would be a very expensive, very delicate operation that could very possibly kill the aging fish due to stress. Undaunted by Mr. Mastache’s grave warnings regarding Rufus’ relocation, the community instantly stepped up with efforts online to raise whatever money would be necessary to find the Pacu a new home and new lease on life.
In the background, away from the spotlight, discussion was already underway with Damon’s Steakhouse in Glendale – now considered to be the mothership of Los Angeles tiki restaurants remaining. The restaurant was very interested in securing Rufus and taking on the high cost of moving him, as well as installing a brand-new massive aquarium for him.
This is where the story gets even more slippery.
At the same time that talks between Damon’s management and Alan Zhu were moving forward behind closed doors, very public momentum continued online to raise thousands of dollars to move Rufus to a new location. And this momentum had swelled way beyond tiki fan sites. Mainstream media and other Los Angeles-based bloggers were picking up on this emotionally-charged phenomenon. This attracted the local media even more, and stories began popping up all over Southern California, from Fox News to The Los Angeles Times and everywhere in between.
Money suddenly wasn’t the concern. However, communication from Alan Zhu was. The more people became aware about the plight of Rufus, the more Mr. Zhu retreated into silence, with occasional “insight” being shared by individuals claiming to be friends or close associates of the businessman, stating that they were still looking into what to do with the fish well past Zhu’s imposed “one week” deadline.
This round-and-round of frustrating miscommunication continued for weeks on end, resulting in some very heated exchanges online, most notably between passionate fans on Tiki Central, who began airing their concerns about all of the media attention causing Zhu to become non-existent in the matter. At one point, I asked Damon’s management personally what the heck was going on, and they indicated to me that they’d been cut off from the discussion and that no word was coming from the Zhu camp regarding the deal to move Rufus; they too, were agitated, confused, and hampered in their efforts by the stonewalling apparently taking place.
In a “change of heart”, Alan Zhu retracted his statement, and announced that after careful consideration, his team felt that moving Rufus to a new home would be too dangerous, and that he’d decided to keep the fish for himself – and for his new restaurant. With that, he asked the fans for all of the funds raised and more so that he could purchase and install a more than $10,000.00 2,000-gallon tank for the new restaurant. Fans flipped out, and heated discussions online ensued. Most people – myself included – felt that this was a really shady, opportunistic move by Zhu to take advantage of the situation so as to benefit his own venture. Let’s face it – Rosemead and its neighboring communities have what, about 7,658,453 Chinese restaurants? What would make Mr. Zhu’s stand out? A catchy name like “May Flower”? Ugh. No… how about a famous fish that was suddenly in the media spotlight? That’s the ticket! The general consensus was that not one cent should go to Alan Zhu or his fishy scheme to use fans’ donations for the betterment of his own restaurant venture. And I’ve gotta say, I agree with that assessment. Had Zhu said all along that they wanted to give Rufus a bigger, more beautiful home in his new restaurant, my guess is, everyone would have felt better and more supportive. However, just weeks before, this man’s sentiment was pay up, get this fish out, or else.
You connect your own dots.
That’s where the story went cold again, as communication between Zhu and the public ceased.
Still with me? It gets worse. Much worse.
Just over a month ago, fans started stopping by Bahooka, curious as to what condition it was in, and wanting to know what had become of Rufus after the media attention had faded. Folks were snapping pictures, and a tiki fan reported finding a very large empty tank behind the building. Rufus’ tank.
Instantly, word spread like wildfire through the community and once again, fans began demanding to know what was going on and what had happened to Rufus. Many feared the worst and were whispering that Zhu had disposed of the fish once the attention had died down so that he could proceed without the specter of Rufus’ fate hanging constantly over his head. A video shot on May 5th has surfaced online, showing a gutted Bahooka, absolutely void of any fish, including Rufus.
With all of the misinformation and in-fighting online, a clear picture of what’s transpired is very murky at this point. A long-time member of the Tiki Central group who claims to have insight and first-hand knowledge of what’s transpired, assured everyone that Rufus is fine – that he’s been moved and will return to the new May Flower restaurant when all is said and done.
That raises more questions. Information has surfaced that Rufus was moved to a “Koi pond” at the residence of Mr. Zhu. Automatically, one wonders how that move would have been possible, if Rufus’ caretaker Jorge Mastache was so very concerned about moving the fish from Rosemead to Glendale, how could the aging Pacu possibly have been transported safely somewhere without his tank? And how could a tropical fish be safely transferred to a cold Koi pond, when warm water and constant monitoring of temperature (to be kept at 79 degrees) is needed for this tropical fish to survive? If this is true, and Rufus suddenly lives at Alan Zhu’s residence (other information places the fish at the home of one of Zhu’s friends instead), how in the world is he supposed to survive another trip back to the new restaurant in Rosemead when it opens? Mastache and Zhu were so adamant about not moving Rufus because of the perilous logistics cited when they pulled out of the agreement with Damon’s – yet suddenly, it’s okay to transport the fish twice? Something doesn’t jive.
However, a Tiki Central “insider” to all of this promised pictures of Rufus, content and happy in his new/temporary home. The group seemed somewhat relieved – until the images never came to light as promised, with the poster saying he was having trouble uploading images. In this day and age of digital media and social networking? Really? My grandmother knows how to upload and post images online. Once again, the fan community has grown restless and called B.S. on this so-called “insider”. On top of this, it was pointed out how simple it would be to post a blurred image of a fish in a pond and say it was Rufus. At the end of the day, said visual proof of Rufus alive and happy has failed to surface.
NOTE: Just prior to the publishing of this story, said “insider” apparently passed the images from his phone to another tiki fan, who promptly posted them on Tiki Central. Looking at the new images vs. images of Rufus taken in Bahooka during its closing, one can very clearly see that the fish in the new images is not Rufus, causing even greater concern now amongst fans.
Once again, Thor took to his sketch pad to illustrate what most people are fearing – that Rufus literally sleeps with the fishes now. It’s a really depressing follow-up to the sketch he did before, depicting Rufus being left behind in the darkness of the shuttered Bahooka. However, it brings the glaring thought in everyone’s head to the forefront of the situation now. Alan Zhu and his “associates” have proven that they are both shady and not terribly forthcoming with information most of the time. I’m not saying Rufus isn’t at someone’s residence; the simple logistics of such a move just really don’t add up for me personally.
Most recently, someone stated that Mr. Zhu had confided in a former Bahooka employee that he’d simply thrown Rufus into a river in Long Beach; if true, that would without question, have been a death sentence for the Pacu, let alone terribly cruel. No one knows what’s transpired – and everyone remains upset and on edge, fearing the worst while hoping for the best. Regardless of where or what’s happened to Rufus, one thing is certain – Alan Zhu has not helped the situation or himself in the least by being evasive, opportunistic, and ultimately, silent throughout this ordeal. What makes matters worse is all of the hearsay, which may or may not be true about Zhu; it is however, turning normally very friendly, easy-going tiki fans into stressed posters, often arguing with one another and taking jabs at each other online. It’s disheartening all around.
I drove to Rosemead this week myself, to see Bahooka, and to take pictures of the property to accompany this story. Despite Mr. Zhu’s associates saying the new restaurant will be opening soon, there was no construction crew present working on the interior or exterior of the restaurant. What I did observe was a stony-faced older Chinese gentleman patrolling – almost marching – around the perimeter of Bahooka while talking into an iPhone headset’s microphone in a hushed voice. He clearly saw me taking pictures, yet walked past me twice without looking at me, attempting to smile or communicate, or even ask me what I was doing. A young woman pulled up next to me and rolled her window down; as she started to ask for directions to a local street, I apologized and said I wasn’t familiar with Rosemead, and that I was just passing by and had stopped to take some pictures of the closed restaurant. As she started to drive away, the Chinese gentleman waved her down; instead of giving her directions, he stated loudly that a “new Chinese restaurant will be opening here – next year!” She said okay, and drove off. Mr. Militant continued his patrol and didn’t once acknowledge me; it was the weirdest thing, and I wondered why he said the restaurant would open “next year”, since everyone’s said it would be this summer. Perhaps he got his English confused; or perhaps he’s much closer to the situation than anyone here, on Tiki Central, or anywhere else. Hell, maybe it was Alan Zhu himself; I wasn’t about to ask and raise suspicions while on their property. I saw the exterior, which is a mess. I saw the interior through an open door; it is gutted as seen in the video with no further work done and a long way off from being ready to open.
- Bahooka is completely gutted with very little work being done on the interior; not one construction worker was on site early Monday morning when I stopped by for a look
- Bahooka’s exterior is a mess, with heaps of concrete, debris and huge wooden pilings lining its parking lot
- Rufus’ tank was found outside the restaurant more than a month ago and has since been hauled away
- Images of the missing fish have not come to light at the time of this posting; images claiming to be Rufus have, but they are not, based on vast physical differences between the Pacu in the new pictures and the last images people have of Rufus from Bahooka
- There is total radio silence from Alan Zhu and his associates regarding Rufus at this point
Why does any of this matter? Why take the time to do a follow-up story on this when there are so many unanswered questions and so much miscommunication?
Because good people became involved. People that deserve better than a web of lies and deceit in return for their generosity. It’s more than a story about an old fish, or over a thousand fish that called Bahooka “home”. It’s an emotionally-charged story that is about truth, a fan community left hanging, and a shady-at-best restaurateur that will bring heaps of bad juju on himself and his venture if its doors open and Rufus is nowhere to be found. This local tiki fan community isn’t going away. They want answers, and I think that media sites like this one and others that expressed interest in the closure of Bahooka and the fate of its fish collection need to recognize this and come together once again with a spotlight and microscope to find out exactly what has transpired here.
I encourage other sites and fan blogs to raise questions again and put pressure on Alan Zhu and his associates to come clean about what’s happened to Rufus, or where he is. No one wants to slander Alan Zhu, and it’s not at all amusing to vilify him. He may be a fantastic guy that is truly looking out for Rufus’ best interest. However, he’s certainly not going out of his way in the least to save face or defend his reputation in the eyes of the public. Without pressure from the media, Alan Zhu is going to continue do just what he’s doing – and no one will ever know what happened once the media turned their back on this story.
This is the big one that shouldn’t get away.
– Rick West