Most Wellingtonians will remember the Evergreen Coffee House as a popular spot in the buzzing nightlife of the Vivian-Cuba Street quarter – where you could get late night toasted sandwiches and ‘special coffees’ served with whisky from the café’s owner, well-known transgender queen, Chrissy Witoko.
The interior walls of the Evergreen were decorated with collages, handmade by Chrissy, which include photographs, and magazine or newspaper clippings. Te Papa acquired the panels in 2012, along with some of Chrissy’s personal items, including a tiara reserved for glamorous events like her 50th birthday party, a major feature of two of the collaged panels.
Over the next four weeks I’ll be doing a research project focusing on the collages hung inside the Evergreen. I’d like to discover the stories they depict. Stories about the LGBTI communities and wider Wellington café and night club social scene from 1970 – 2002.
My project with history curator Lynette Townsend seeks to use the collages as windows into the past. We would like to uncover the stories, and the places inhabited by the many people pictured in Chrissy’s collages. We will be holding workshops with friends and acquaintances of Chrissy, for whom the Evergreen and similar Wellington establishments formed a central place in their lives. The first of these workshops was held last week with Dana de Milo and Kerrie-Lee.
As well as expressing Chrissy’s dedication to her own community, the Evergreen was open to all, whether they were gay, straight, politician, clergyman, sex worker or a man in drag. It was an environment in which people from many backgrounds could meet and discuss the issues of the time – this was particularly important for the gay liberation movement, in the 1970s and 80s. In this way, Chrissy Witoko continued the legacy of New Zealand’s famous transgender drag queen performer and activist Carmen Rupe, as Chrissy took over ownership of the café in 1984 after Carmen retired in 1980. Chrissy had previously managed the Sunset and the Nutcracker, and in 1984 became owner of the Evergreen, located at 144 Vivian Street. In 1990, the Evergreen moved next door to 146 Vivian Street, until the café closed circa 1995.
Before opening to paying customers at 10pm, the café operated as a drop-in centre for sex workers and night club workers. Chrissy Witoko and the Evergreen provided help and support to Wellington’s night workers, and a safe, social space for the city’s homosexual, bisexual and transgender community.
This blog isn’t only for telling Te Papa’s stories, it’s also a place where you can tell us some of your stories, and we’d really like to hear from you. If you have stories about the Evergreen Coffee House and would like to share them with us as part of this project, please leave a comment or get in touch with us at Louisa.Hormann@tepapa.govt.nz and LynetteT@tepapa.govt.nz.
The project is ongoing, and we welcome your comments and memories of Chrissy and the Evergreen.
Nḡa mihi rārau – many thanks to you all
Victoria University of Wellington
Collections Online Topic: Queen of the Evergreen