Ms. Jessica Lim’s youth was swallowed up by family, work and a journey to flee an authoritarian regime in Cambodia. Now in her 60s, she’s reliving her 20s.
On any given Saturday night at the Echo music and club venue, 64-year-old Jessica Lim commands the dancefloor, furiously grooving to the sounds of funky soul in the crowd of mostly 20- and 30-somethings.
Decked out in a homemade hat fashioned out of Hello Kitty-shaped lights, multiple cat-ear headbands and artificial flowers, the manicurist and grandmother of two is the grande dame of the Echo’s dancefloor. Her pink Kanye-style shutter shades glow brightly in the dark above the rainbow flower lei encircling her small frame. To top off her outfit, Lim carries a brightly colored plastic hand-clapper in one hand and a LED toy spinner in the other.
“I like see people happy,” she says. “When you happy, other people happy.” Though her English is choppy, the language of dance is universal and she’s had little trouble making friends in the neighborhood.
Regulars at the Echo’s Funky Sole night greet her with enthusiasm like one might an old friend. She may not know their names, and most of them don’t know hers, but in the moment, when everyone is dancing to the same Motown beat, these details become inconsequential. Does alcohol fuel her smooth moves? “No,” Lim says. She parties solo and sober.
Employees at the Echo know her well and let her in without charging a cover fee on the rare occasion she arrives later than the 10:30 p.m. no-cover cutoff. “She’s just the kind of lady who doesn’t like to sit at home,” says Ryan Sutton, a security guard at the Echo. His stony, all-business face breaks into a smile when she comes in.
Jessica Lim smiles and poses for a photo alongside some of her admirers. Photo by Patricia Kelly Yeo.
Talent buyer Nancy Arteaga says Lim often plays matchmaker on the dancefloor, leading a girl by the wrist to an unassuming guy head-bobbing with his friends nearby. “She’ll hook you up,” Arteaga says.
The doggedly persistent Lim can even get the most lead-footed person to bust a move or two, whether it’s at the Echo or her other frequent haunt — The Short Stop in Echo Park on Sunday and Monday nights, when the DJs play old school hits all night long.
During the day, Lim works at an Encino nail salon seven days a week, giving mani-pedis to Valley dwellers. No matter how grueling her day may have been, Lim manages to find the energy to head out to Echo Park directly after work.
“Tired? I never tired,” Lim says, “I work hard, no think about that. Never ever think about that! When you stay home and sleep, no good for you. After work, I come dancing. I come do something good for you, like exercise!”
At the end of the night, she returns home to Chinatown, where she’s been a resident for over 30 years. Lim lives alone in an apartment she once shared with her late husband, who passed away in 2000. Her only son, now married with two children, lives in the San Gabriel Valley where he is a manager at a Costco. Lim says he’s unaware of her nighttime activities.
According to Lim, she was the unwanted second daughter born to an ethnic Chinese family in Laos. Lim was primarily raised by her grandmother after her father tried to give her up for adoption. Lim’s grandmother kept a firm grip on her granddaughter from the start, strictly enforcing a curfew and encouraging her to pursue higher education in Chinese. Early in Lim’s life, the family moved to neighboring Cambodia so Lim and her siblings could study in Chinese schools.
Although her grandmother wanted Lim to go to college in Hong Kong, a family financial crisis forced her to cut her education short and become a Mandarin teacher and tutor at the age of 18. Her young adulthood in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and its largest city, consisted mostly of back-to-back tutoring sessions for rich families and teaching at a foreign language school. At 22, she married her husband, a fellow language teacher. Her early twenties were a blur of family, work and marriage obligations, leaving her with little leisure time or the ability to experience anything remotely close to the freedom 20-somethings have today.
“Tired? I never tired. I work hard, no think about that. Never ever think about that! When you stay home and sleep, no good for you. After work, I come dancing. I come do something good for you, like exercise!”
Jessica Lim, Funky Sole’s “Rave Grandma”
Sometime between 1977 and 1978, Lim and her husband left Cambodia, joining the wave of refugees fleeing the dictator Pol Pot’s brutal authoritarian regime. For over two years, she lived in the Philippines and Thailand, her asylum status uncertain, before moving to the United States in 1980.
Once in America, the couple struggled to make ends meet, running a small garment business in Chinatown to support themselves and their son. She later picked up salon work when the couple needed to pay off a significant debt. According to Lim, they were scammed out of more than $200,000 through an investment in a Chinatown furniture store by a former friend and member of her Buddhist temple.
“I take care of myself, I no give people money anymore,” she says, smoothly glossing over the years she worked every day to pay off the debt in the late ‘90s. After her husband passed away, she’s worked every day to maintain her self-sufficiency over the protests of her son, who wishes she wouldn’t work so hard.
But not all her days are dedicated to work.
Having been a part of Echo Park nightlife for just over a year, Lim sees no signs of stopping her weekly routine. It’s a good excuse to show off the elaborate outfits she crafts with buys from the 99 Cents Only Store and other smaller shops in Chinatown that sell knick-knacks and accessories like light-up headbands with Hello Kitty ears.
Why does she return to the Echo every weekend? “Because I like this party,” Lim says. “The music is very good music and the people – they love me, really love me. When I dancing, the people very happy. I come here, I make lots of people happy too. Time so short. Be happy!”