Club Bamboo, a food and fitness program for Asian-American seniors, is like "Cheers" with calcium-enriched soy milk instead of beer.

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This is not a sad story.

Club Bamboo isn’t that kind of place.

True, some of its members know hardship. They’re far from their homelands and don’t speak English well. They’ve outlived spouses and eat alone in subsidized apartments. Their bodies are betraying them, and they have aches and scars to prove it.

Club Bamboo, a food-and-fitness program for Asian-American seniors, helps.

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On a snowy, slushy Wednesday, Oh Youngsook, 80, and Oh Chuhwan, 82, took a bus from their downtown apartments to the club, one of many programs at Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) headquarters in south Seattle.

The two Korean women did some line dancing — “good exercise,” said Oh Youngsook. They went to English class, where they practiced phrases such as “I will get off at the next stop.” Then it was on to the main attraction — a $2 lunch, nutritiously and culturally appropriate, made fresh each day. One day it’s Cambodian Braised Black Pepper Pork; the next it might be Bi Bim Bahp, a Korean rice dish with fresh vegetables, beef and a fried egg.

That’s Club Bamboo, where seniors can find peers speaking a common language, and friends with whom they can exercise, study, or just chat. “We’re definitely feeding more than the belly,” said chef Alice McLean Barnes, who passed a test worthy of TV’s “Iron Chef” to win her job.

Think “Cheers” with calcium-enriched soy milk instead of beer.

“I know everybody by name,” said Hai Shen Chang, 78, who’s been a regular since the club opened four years ago. He comes Tuesdays for tai chi and lunch.

“It’s like a big family here,” said Chang through an interpreter. “I feel happy because everybody eats together, and there’s no stress.”

Club Bamboo occupies the gym of ACRS, as everybody calls the agency headquarters. The club’s name was chosen because bamboo is familiar among different cultures and symbolizes strength, said club manager Miguel Saldin.

Most activities happen on the gym floor: line dancing, jazz dancing, yoga, tai chi, aerobics, table tennis, qigong, Chinese chess and more.

Mary Kim teaches line dancing on Wednesday mornings. Kim is a volunteer, like most Club Bamboo instructors. (The club needs more volunteer instructors, Saldin says.)

Some dancers wear sweatpants, others beaded blouses and jeans.

“It makes me happy to see others happy,” Kim said of her volunteering.

Oh Chuhwan, who braved a teeth-chattering chill to come, dances until an aching leg sidelines her.

She and her friend Oh Youngsook shuffle off to English class. They both live alone, far from any family. They both say they like Seattle. “The rain is romantic,” said Oh Youngsook, a widow, who left Korea 21 years ago. “The air is clean, the shopping is very nice and the buses are good,” added Oh Chuhwan, a divorcee, who came to Seattle in 1971 and worked as a seamstress for 30 years.

In class, the lesson focuses on basic phrases used on buses, in grocery stores, at pharmacies. Students concentrate on the differences between “on” and “off,” “go” and “goes.”

Instructor Jiye Hwang, 26, calls the elderly women “brave” for learning a new language at their age, especially with memories that aren’t as sharp as they once were.

At noon, Tuesdays through Fridays, seniors take a break from exercise and study to start lining up for lunch.

ACRS didn’t have a kitchen until 2008 when it moved into its current home, four blocks south of the intersection of Martin Luther King Way Jr. South and Rainier Avenue South, a half-mile north of the Mount Baker light rail station.

On a lark, McLean Barnes applied to be ACRS’ first chef. She had an eclectic resume, working in facilities management at ACRS and Bellevue Arts Museum, as well as running a catering business.

The audition: each applicant was given a chicken, onions, soy sauce and a halibut fillet. McLean Barnes recalls making four dishes. She got the job.

Everyone else in the kitchen is a volunteer. “I like being able to contribute to the elderly,” said Ree Ah Bloedow, a lawyer. “They’re dancing, lining up, peeking in. They always have smiles. They’re always appreciative.”

They’re also candid. “They’re a stitch. They tell it like it is,” said McLean Barnes, even telling her “oh, not so good” about some dishes.

The kitchen prepares about 60 fresh lunches a day, with a nutritionist-approved balance of protein, carbohydrates and the like. On Thursdays the kitchen makes about 300 sack lunches distributed at emergency food banks.

Club Bamboo, with 417 members, is just one of six food programs ACRS offers specifically for seniors, with others aimed at Vietnamese, Indochinese and Korean elders.

In all, ACRS provided 30,660 meals to seniors in 2011, according to Saldin, with Club Bamboo serving 5,060 of those.

McLean Barnes says it’s challenging to keep coming up with new recipes. But December’s menu featured a different dish every day, from 4-star Anise Beef Udon to Uncle Bob’s Pork Inihao. The food is not always Asian, she notes. She prepared Cuban food for an event featuring artist Juan Alonso.

Neighbors and construction workers have been known to stop by for lunch. Everyone is welcome to eat at Club Bamboo, says Saldin. The suggested donation for seniors is $2, and $5.50 for others.

Some seniors, such as April Eng, love to take a box lunch home if leftovers are available.

The food, and vibe, is so good that Eng and friends meet at Club Bamboo every month for what they call the Garfield Bulldogs Lunch Bunch.

Bettie Luke, 71, and Eng, 70, roamed the halls of Garfield High together in the 1950s. Eng went on to careers as a public schoolteacher, college administrator, and host of a KCTS-TV show, “M is for Music.” Luke has been a historian, diversity trainer, and social-justice advocate. Both have supported and advocated for ACRS programs in the past. Now they find themselves on the receiving end of the agency’s services.

“It’s such a kick to be a recipient of a program here. It was an unexpected development,” said Luke.

“This is the best phase of life,” added Eng. “All those careers were too stressful.”

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or

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