This Bar Owner Has a Drink For Your Every Mood
Noticing a lack of places for young, queer people of color to gather in Bushwick, Vanessa Li teamed up with her friend, Bowen Goh, to open up Mood Ring, a bar with an astrological twist. With a rotating menu of cocktails inspired by the season’s current zodiac sign, a lush, colorful interior, and lighting taken straight from a Wong Kar-wai film, Li’s created a space that’s equal parts safe and exciting, inspired by her own life experiences but also just plain fun. Intrigued and inspired, we jumped at the chance to talk to Li about her goals for Mood Ring, her interest in film, and, of course, what cocktails you should try when you go to her joint.
Prior to opening up Mood Ring with your co-owner Bowen Goh, what were you up to?
My background is in non-profit and community work. I’m from San Francisco originally, and I worked at a small community center serving queer and trans youth for about six years while obtaining my degree in Asian American Studies from San Francisco State. During my time there, I helped run a paid internship for LGBTQ high school students that focused on social justice education and job readiness skills. It was work that felt personally rewarding but also emotionally draining. Once I moved to NYC, I switched to working a rather mundane office gig just to get on my feet. During this time, Mood Ring started out as a side project that Bowen and I worked on together when we’d get home from our 9-to-5 jobs.
What made you both want to open up Mood Ring? How did the idea come about?
Bowen and I initially toyed around with the idea of opening a takeout spot, but we were still unsure of it. We actually really love nightlife, and it was during a trip to Berlin that the idea to open a bar just clicked in my head. We were at a small but packed gay bar called Roses that has their walls and ceiling completely covered in red shag fur and red lamé fabric, and we just wanted to do something that was unique and fun.
There seems to be multiple influences for Mood Ring. What made you want to mesh all of them together to build this unique bar?
We wanted to shy away from having an on-the-nose “theme” for the bar. Instead we used a few of our biggest inspirations as points of departure. Wong Kar-wai’s films were the number one thing for us, since we initially bonded over his films when we first met. DIY is also a huge part of our DNA, and we worked with friends and friends of friends during the design and build out. Lastly, we have a rotating monthly special based on the astrological season and we like to bring in readers from time to time.
You mentioned that when you were younger you didn’t understand why your aunts and mom were so crazy about the men in Wong Kar Wai’s films. What do you understand now about those men that you didn’t back then? And how have Wong Kar-wai’s films and the men in them influenced Mood Ring?
The men and women in Wong Kar-wai’s films are total heartthrobs, and they were especially popular in the ’90s in Hong Kong which is where my family is from. You know, when I first started becoming interested in film in high school, I was really obsessed with French New Wave and was pretty unaware of how Eurocentric my film viewing habits were. Even in terms of which films I thought were worth watching, it was all France, Italy, Germany, white directors from the States… It was life changing when I watched my firstWong Kar-wai film, Chungking Express. I honestly get excited about watching anything in Cantonese, but also the fact that his films hit on themes of urban isolation, unrequited love, missed connections, all totally spoke to me as a young, hopelessly romantic, “When Will I Find Love” college student. I doubt anyone can watch that film without falling in love with Tony Leung and Faye Wong. They are true icons in Asia, along with many other actors Wong Kar-wai has worked with. As people who enjoy film and art they are huge inspirations to us. Mood Ring is sort of famously dimly-lit and rightfully “moody,” so much so that The New Yorker wrote that you need to squint your eyes in order to read the menu. But that was a worthy sacrifice for in order us to achieve our Wong Kar-wai aesthetic aspirations.
As a woman and person of color there must’ve been some difficulties getting Mood Ring up and running, especially compared to other bar owners who don’t have to deal with stuff like that. How’d you prevail to be the heroine of Mood Ring?
I dealt with, and still deal with, heavy symptoms of imposter syndrome. It wasn’t even a matter of believing I could do something, rather there were many times I was forced to do something in order to make Mood Ring a reality and I just did it. Facing challenges from multiple city departments, learning how to confidently make a deal, sitting in meetings with our local community board as the only business owner who is a woman—let alone woman of color—in the room was all outside of my comfort zone. It helped knowing that there are other women-owned businesses in our neighborhood, like Rebecca’s and Little Mo.
Do you still face difficulties even now that Mood Ring’s doing so well?
I try not to focus on it, but many people are still confused about how Bowen and I are able to own a business and they’re almost always surprised when they see how young Bowen and I look. It also happens pretty often that I get mistaken for his wife. Other than that, running your own business, especially a bar and venue, is extremely difficult, exhausting, and gross and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But I totally love it!
What do you think Mood Ring represents to the young people of color in Bushwick?
Its meant a lot to me when queer and trans people of color tell us that they enjoy coming to Mood Ring, since as a queer woman of color it’s often been difficult to find spaces where I feel comfortable and can have fun. We are continually working to address issues of harassment, transphobia, homophobia, racism, and sexism in nightlife spaces as there is still so much more to be done. At the very least, I hope we can at least show that you don’t have to be an old, cis straight guy to own a business.
Do you feel like you’ve accomplished what you wanted for Mood Ring? For how it’s grown? How it’s now recognized as neighborhood pillar?
I think Mood Ring is still a work in progress, but I’m amazed by what we’ve been able to do during our first year. We had to prepare ourselves for complete failure—what if no one heard about us and everyone who came hated us? As a first-time business owner, you have to mentally accept that you might fall flat on your face. We’re not completely satisfied, but personally, I’m really relieved that we have people who love us.
What do you think Mood Ring does better than any other bar?
We are a very sexy date spot. We practically designed the space for the purpose of being able to take flattering selfies. We have plenty of space and amazing music that’s perfect for any birthday celebration, too.
How do you come up with the drinks represented by each astrological sign? Do you plan to keep the same drinks or change them up every year?
We like to focus on one particular aspect of each astrological sign, as well as incorporate any spirits or ingredients we’re currently excited about. For example, for the Scorpio cocktail “Sting,” we focused on the sign’s reputation for intensity and passion. We used Banhez mezcal joven, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur, Campari, and a star anise garnish. It was a little spicy, a little smoky, and very strong. Moving into the next year, we’re leaning towards changing the cocktails up so that we can keep playing around and experimenting.
On any given night, what drink would you recommend?
If it’s your first time at Mood Ring, definitely go for the current astrology special since it’ll be available for a limited time. Otherwise, my favorite cocktail of ours is the Petty, which has Giffard Lychee liqueur, vodka, dry vermouth, and maraschino cherry. It’s my favorite way to finish off a busy weekend shift.
Are there any big projects or events coming up for you?
Our first year anniversary is at the end of September, and we are planning a weekend full of parties in order to celebrate. Also, we just released our first piece of merchandise, a tote bag designed by Syan Rose, one of our bartenders who is also a talented illustrator. We’re excited to release more merch in the coming year.
Check out more of Mood Ring on Instagram.