Honolulu Advertiser

Tuesday, April 17, 1979

by Pierre Bowman


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You walk in from the bright morning Kalihi sun and stand there in the dimness, blinking and owl-like as the conga and bongo drums assault your ears and your eyes try to make some sense of all the bamboo curtains and mirrors and fun fur throws on the black plastic furniture.

As your eyes become accustomed to the dim light, you begin to pick up details, like the red phone from Korea with the red lips pasted in the middle of its dial.

And the little robot with dental floss and a tooth brush in its hands.

And the striped sheets hung from the ceiling, billowing in the air-conditioning and looking like a giant hammock run amok.

And the American flag tacked to the back wall, sharing space with a poster of John Travolta dancing and a photograph of Richard Nixon looking, well, like Richard Nixon.

If the whole thing doesn't quite dazzle, there's no question that it flashes. The Bette Miller phrases come to mind: Trash with flash; sleaze with ease.

The one phrase that doesn't come to mind is dentist's office. And yes sir, that's what it is. A dentist's office.

It is, of course, no ordinary dentist's office. And we're not dealing with your ordinary dentist. We're dealing with Dr. Rodney Chang, the self-proclaimed "Disco Doc," the dentist who has transformed the waiting room in his Kalihi office into this cantata of clacking strings of bamboo bits and nonstop gewgaws.

Chang, who is 33, is eager to explain the method of his madness as he talks in his waiting room cum disco, sometimes barely audible above the blasting music, his eye peer wide behind thick glasses, his hair - permed within an inch of its life - splays out in all directions, and his slender fingers move nervously and constantly.

A touch of the mad professor meets the eye of Chang, and it turns out that he has the kind of eclectic mind that flits from one notion to another that could well mean that his look fit his personality almost perfectly.

"The waiting room is the most undeveloped part of a dentist's office," he says above the throb of the music, clearly speaking of all those waiting rooms in all those other dentists' offices.

"This office is a test tube on patient attitudes toward dentistry. Can you decrease the pain threshold through entertainment and distraction rather than just old magazines?

"On another level, this office is an esthetic experience. It combines the three most important aspects of my life - psychology, art and dentistry."

As Chang talks and explains that the red phone with the lips on the dial is art, you can't help but think of the dentist in "Bells are Ring" who loathed teeth and gums but loved composing tunes on his air hose.

"I conceived this on Jan. 27 and the disco opened on March 24," Chang continues. "The Third stage is not in yet. That will be a lot of planned functions. And a night clientele and a night staff."

Chang practices with two other dentists in the Kalihi office and in another office downtown in the Alexander Young Building, where the waiting room has remained your old magazine variety. The big idea in Kalihi is that Chang will eventually stop fixing teeth during the day and work only at night, presumably on patients glazed with perspiration from dancing their fannies off in the waiting room, rather than drenched in nervous sweat.

Chang says his place, officially called "Da Waiting Room," is the only free disco open during the day - but it's only for patients, although they may bring friends if they please. He says folks don't need a dental appointment to come and dance.

"Obviously this remains a waiting room," he says. "There's no smoking and no drinking. No alcoholic beverages. But here it can be boy-meets-girl. And this is one of the things I always wanted to do" Be a romantic."

Chang has all kinds of visions of what his office is going to be, although he acknowledges that the place isn't exactly packed with folks popping in to dance. Most everybody is still coming in to get their teeth fixed.

He's trying to get a disco jockey in (there's a modest booth for such a purpose) part-time to spin platters and pitch preventive dentistry between sets. He envisions disco lessons for toddlers.

"I see it like a swimming pool," he says. "The first step (for toddlers). I hope they learn more than how to dance. I hope they stay with me their whole life, which means they'll keep their teeth their whole life."

"I'm a terrible carpenter," he says.

Since Da Waiting Room opened, Chang has provided questionnaires polling his patients' reactions. The results of their responses will eventually be fed into a computer as part of his research for a doctorate in esthetics, which has nothing to do with dentistry and one of Chang's current passions.

He produces a sheaf of the questionnaires with a flourish. They're overwhelmingly favorable. Lots of folks like the disco. Lots of folks say nice things about what Chang has done to their teeth.

Chang says it's really neat when the drill gets going with the disco music.

Your eyes kind of roll around with the concept and the congas and the bongos beat away and you plow through the questionnaires, looking for at least one traditionalist in the stack.

Finally, you find it in the space for comments on one of the questionnaires:

"Dentistry is a fiduciary profession and as such requires that the dentist-patient relationship be one of mutual trust and respect. People don't go to the dentist to dance, in the same way that they don't go to a disco to have their teeth filled."

You emerge from Chang's office and the morning sunlight is almost blinding. The roar of a passing bus seems near bliss after the insistent blast of Da Waiting Room.

A lesson in the element of subjectivity/bias in journalism
Dare to compare same subject matter by another writer


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Historical Note - Several years later the handle bar-mustached, cigar smoking, balding, and pot-bellied Pierre Bowman died of cancer. But not before witnessing "Da Waiting Room" and its "Disco Doc" become of one the main attractions on the top rated NBC Real People Show for 1979, the same year this article was published locally. Items such as the red phone, so criticized as sleaze and not "art," and his perceptual experience in such a unique working environment, helped Chang in the next year derive his art psychology theory which led to his Ph.D. The next year Da Waiting Room influence on young patients was published in a clinical journal of dentistry and supported as an important alternative treatment center by a psychiatrist. Now in 2001, after several international museum exhibitions of his computer paintings, Chang divides time between a wonderful family (three children, one gifted in dance, another in piano, and yet another in the Gifted & Talented program for art) and curating digital art shows for the Internet's Truly Virtual Web Art Museum, currently averaging over 800 visitors per day online. Yes, Dr. Chang, 55, is still a dentist but now without the splaying disco perm or disco waiting room (currently filled with old magazines like everybody else) but does manage to still go with wife to his favorite disco (Rumors in Waikiki) on a regular basis. Chang claims to now be dancing better than ever in his life due to synthesis of his eclectic repertoire of dance steps learned from popular styles from the 50s, 60,s, 70s, 80s, 90s and now the new millennium.