‘Embracing artistic risk taking and championing equity and diversity; our focused vision is access for all – providing warmth and physically safe spaces to share, engage and perform.’

    The above words are what greet punters on the Mamma Chen’s website. 

    This Footscray live music venue, has had a long history of supporting local artists and fostering community initiatives. It’s located in the 114 year-old heritage-listed ANA building, which previously housed the Dancing Dog Café for 17 years. Paul Kelly and Ross Hannaford are just two of the many talented local musicians who’ve performed at their open-mic nights over the years. 

    Due to rising rents and mounting development pressures, the Dancing Dog Café eventually closed in March 2019, much to the dismay of the local arts and music community. This happened around the same time that the Reverence Hotel (or affectionately, The Rev) announced that it was shutting its doors, leaving a dearth of live-music venues in the inner-west. 

    Enter stage left: parent-progeny duo, Linda and Emily (Em) Chen.

    Em grew up in the Macedon Ranges and moved to Footscray with their mum, Linda in 2011. For a time, they lived round the corner from the Dancing Dog and have fond memories of both the venue and the community. It was at the Dancing Dog where Em played their first gig, and where supportive mum Linda would attend to watch her child blossom as a musician. ‘Over the years she’s probably only missed about 10 of my gigs,’ Em says with a smile. 

    Since those early days, Em has performed in multiple venues across Melbourne, and currently plays in four bands in various capacities. They have also worked in hospitality and tended bar in different businesses across the inner-west.

    When they heard that the Dancing Dog site was up for lease, Linda and Em jumped at the opportunity and signed the lease at the start of 2020. It was a huge project to take on for a first business, but the pair believed strongly in the need for a local live-music venue and their ability to create and sustain an inclusive and safe community for artists of all backgrounds. 

    No rest for the wicked

    As we all know now, 2020 was not a good year. Neither was 2021. The Covid-19 pandemic was brutal for small business everywhere, and it was no different for the Chens. The landlord was kind enough to give them rent relief for 6 months, but eventually that rent had to kick in, draining their already shallow pool of funds. Construction delays and issues with permits and licensing added unexpected costs and contributed to more hiccups along the way. Even when the doors finally opened in February 2022, Em and Linda had to continue working their day jobs in order to ensure that there was some money coming in to buffer operations. Em’s days off are filled with admin, payroll and all the behind-the-scenes stuff done in the darkness to ensure the smooth running of Mamma Chen’s

    Things are starting to look up however, as they have recently been granted an extension of operating hours and are waiting on similar extensions to their liquor licenses. Once that kicks in, Em will be running the joint full time, and they have exciting plans for even more gigs and events to be added to the eclectic program.

    It starts and ends with community

    When speaking to Mamma Chen’s regulars, the words ‘community’ and ‘inclusivity’ come up a fair bit. Even their website is fully equipped with accessibility features such as the option for dyslexia-friendly fonts, larger text and the ability to pause animations. 

    Cameron Bobbitt barely skips a beat when I ask him about his thoughts on Mamma Chen’s. ‘Inclusive, diverse … One of the best-treated music rooms in all of Melbourne,’ he says.

    Cam is part-owner and coffee extraordinaire at Nabo in Kingsville and also an established muso. In his opinion Mamma Chen’s also has the ‘best sound in a live music venue in the west’. 

    Cam also has a long history with the venue, having played some of his first gigs at the Dancing Dog’s open-mic nights. It is also where he first met his life and business partner, Sarah de Lean. He was performing and she had happened to be in the audience that night. ‘I guess it sealed the deal,’ he laughs. 

    Mamma Chen’s commitment to accessibility for both punters and performers is shared with the community that frequents the space. Regulars have reached into their own pockets to contribute what they can, while others have started GoFundMe campaigns and have pledged their tax returns to help purchase a single-person operated stage lift. This is to ensure that all performers are able to access the stage without requiring assistance. They currently hire one out if a performer should require one, but aim to have one permanently at the venue when they can afford to do so. 

    ‘Completely accessible and comfortable spaces are rare, especially for live music venues,’ says Jodie Langford. ‘It’s an easy place to sit down for a chat with strangers and walk away with lifelong friends.’ Jodie has been a regular at Mamma Chen’s since it opened and often jokes that Em ‘stole her’ from another local watering hole. 

    Jodie also used to be a patron of the Dancing Dog, and tells me that Mamma Chen’s has ‘the same four walls, but a much bigger heart’. 

    ‘Prettier walls too,’ she quips. I’d have to agree. 

    Check out their website and socials for exciting events and upcoming gigs.
    Address: 42A Albert St, Footscray 3011
    Socials: Insta (@mammachens)
    Facebook (Mamma Chen’s)

    All images taken from Mamma Chen’s Facebook Account

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