When “talking pictures” took over the cinema in the early 1930s, America’s fascination with Hollywood blossomed into a full-on love affair. Naturally, little girls and boys across the country dreamed of becoming glamorous starlets and debonair leading men, dancing and singing their way to stardom. It was no different for the first generation of natural-born Chinese Americans, who longed to escape from the traditional values of their parents.
The shining beacon that called to these young Chinese American dreamers was San Francisco’s Chinatown. This famed neighborhood not only held the distinction of having the densest concentration of ethnically Chinese people in the United States, but it was also the birth place of the largest district of Chinese-owned nightclubs, which thrived between 1937 and 1964.
“When Charlie Low’s nightclub opened, he showed that Asians don’t only do dishes or work on the railroads or do laundry.”
These grand rooms with tables, a dance floor, and a cabaret show promised their clientele a “taste of China,” but really, it was more China-by-way-of-Hollywood. The facades and interiors of places like Forbidden City, the Chinese Skyroom, Club Mandalay, the Kubla Khan, the Lion’s Den, and Club Shanghai were done up in Western stereotypes of Chinese culture, from pagoda roofs to rice-paper screens and lanterns, while diners could order familiar nightclub-staples like steak and potatoes. The Chinese American chorus girls might make their entrance in modest cheongsams, but would quickly discard them to reveal sexy burlesque costumes underneath. Elegant chanteuses sang popular American ballads in curve-hugging evening gowns, and dapper men sang and danced in tuxes and top hats.
Trina Robbins—a San Francisco-based ’60s underground comix pioneer, writer, historian, and vintage-clothing collector—met Pat Chin, Cynthia Yee, Isabel Louie, and Ivy Tam in a dance class, and learned they had been Chinatown nightclub dancers in the 1950s and 1960s. Robbins quickly realized she’d stumbled across a fascinating, lost piece of history and set about interviewing as many of the living nightclub owners and performers as she could, as well as their friends and family. She compiled their stories in the 2010 book, “Forbidden City: The Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs.” Robbins spoke with us and explained how these women and men took stereotypes about Chinese people and turned them on their head.
Collectors Weekly: How did you land on the topic of Chinese nightclub performers?
Trina Robbins: I’ve taken dance classes in San Francisco for at least 20 years now. In this one dance class, it was me and mostly a bunch of very conservative older Japanese women. Then one day, these four Chinese women suddenly appeared in my class. They were older, too, but maybe not as old as the Japanese women. They were absolutely not conservative. They were beautiful. They had fabulous legs, and they were great dancers. And I was like, “Who are these women?”
Eventually, I found out they had danced in San Francisco’s famous Chinese nightclubs, whose lifespan was from 1937 to 1964. These women, of course, were part of the group that had danced in the later period because the female performers of the earlier period—those that were still alive—were all over 85.
First, I discovered that these four fantastic women had formed a nonprofit dance troupe called the Grant Avenue Follies. They were not the least bit retired. They danced for senior citizen centers and hospitals and veterans’ organizations. They danced for nonprofit groups. They invited me to one of their performances and they were fantastic. I said, “I have to write about you.”
I started interviewing them. Through them, I got the names and addresses of these other performers—men and women dancers and singers—who had danced much earlier, in the ’40s. The older ones had really incredible stories. By the time the dust had cleared, I had interviewed 22 people, retired entertainers, or their sons, daughters, or kid brothers or sisters, in the cases where they had passed away. I had more than 200 pictures. I had a book.
At least two women, I’m sorry to say, have passed away since I wrote the book—one of them before the book even came out, and the other one, the absolutely gorgeous Jadin Wong, who was queen of the nightclubs in the ’40s, passed away in 2010, two months short of her 97th birthday. But at least she had seen the book, and she really enjoyed it. It made me feel so good that these performers could see that they were remembered.
Collectors Weekly: What prompted this nightclub scene to get going in 1937?
Robbins: It was a new generation of Chinese American people, who were born in America. Their parents, who often had come over from China, were very traditional. In some cases, these performers might not have had mothers who had bound feet, but they at least had grandmothers who did. But this was the new generation that grew up in America: They ate hamburgers, and they Charlestoned. They saw Chinese American silent film star Anna May Wong in the movies. If Anna May Wong could perform, why couldn’t they? They wanted to dance. They wanted to sing. It was their talent.
“Some GIs from little towns in the South or Midwest would go out of curiosity. They would discover that Chinese women were not tiny, little singsong dolls.”
In many cases, the women, especially because their parents disapproved, had to run away from home to dance, and usually, it was around the age of 17. Jadin Wong ran away twice, and the second time, she climbed out her bedroom window and her mother was waiting for her below. At first, Jadin thought, “I’m sunk,” but her mother said, “You really have to go, don’t you?” and Jadin said yes. So her mother reached into her purse, and she took out $40. In the Depression, they were very poor, and it was an enormous amount of money, but she gave it to Jadin anyway.
Jadin ran away to Hollywood. At a certain point, she ran out of money and she was hungry, so she opened her bag and took out her tap shoes. She thought, “I’ll just tap on Hollywood Boulevard, maybe they’ll throw me some money, and I’ll get enough to eat.” As she was tapping, along came Norman Foster, a big movie producer at 20th Century Fox. It was just like all those stories in the old movies: He bought her lunch and then he took her home to meet his wife—and she was Claudette Colbert. From that meeting, Jadin got her first role in a movie, “Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation,” and she went on from there.
Collectors Weekly: But she ended up in San Francisco?
Robbins: Yes. San Francisco has the biggest Chinatown in the United States, so it was just naturally where Chinese nightclubs and performers thrived. There was at least one such club in New York called the China Doll. I think there may have been one or two in L.A., but the main ones were right here in San Francisco. A lot of the Chinese American population lived here, or if they didn’t live here, they lived in nearby California cities like Stockton or Sacramento, or nearby states like Oregon and Washington.
Collectors Weekly: Chinese American people came from all over to perform in San Francisco?
Robbins: Well, it was the only place. In those days, there was still an enormous amount of racism. You look at movies and TV today, and there’s still not a whole lot of roles for Asians. But in those days, there was nothing unless you were going to play Charlie Chan, and that character was actually played by a white guy, Warner Olund.
Collectors Weekly: When did these clubs take off?
Robbins: World War II was the boom time for the Chinatown nightclubs. GIs would be stationed in San Francisco before getting sent to the Pacific Theater, or they would come back to San Francisco for R&R. When the GIs were here, they went to the clubs. Some of these were GIs from little towns in the Midwest or the South, and they had actually never seen a Chinese woman before. They would go out of curiosity, and they would discover that Chinese women were great singers and dancers and not the tiny, little singsong dolls as they had been brought up to think. Also, Hollywood movie stars would come here on bond drives to sell war bonds, and they would all go to the Chinatown clubs—Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello, Jane Wyman, and Ronald Reagan.
Collectors Weekly: What were these nightclubs like?
Robbins: If you ever see an old Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie, or any Film Noir movie, many have nightclub scenes, and that’s what it was like. You’d have tables all over the floor with men and women sitting, all dressed up. There would a dance floor where couples would dance when the big band plays. Then, the performers would come on, maybe chorus girls or a beautiful woman in an evening gown, standing in front of the microphone and singing, or a gorgeous guy in a tux singing.
The Chinatown clubs always had a Chinese theme, with names like Forbidden City, the Shangri-La, the Club Shanghai, or the Li Po, and Chinese-style décor. To white Americans, they were exotic. These clubs were what they thought of as a taste of China. But the food was Chinese and American. You could get steaks. In those days, steaks were what you ate when you went out.
Collectors Weekly: What were the performances like?
Robbins: They mostly did American-style music and dance. The women would do this thing where they would come out in a long Chinese robe, looking very gorgeous and traditional, looking like the stereotypical image of a beautiful Chinese woman. Then, they would throw the robe off, and underneath it would be a cute, little dancing outfit. Jadin Wong, who I mentioned before, used to do this one number called the moon goddess dance. They would be like almost stereotypes of what white people thought Chinese dancers were like, the kind of stuff you might see in a movie of the period. But then they would do something to challenge the stereotype or break it open.
They were often compared to white American performers and movie stars so that mainstream audiences could relate to them, and say “Oh, look, there’s a Chinese version,” just as good as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. There was a Chinese Sophie Tucker, the Chinese Frank Sinatra, and a Chinese Betty Grable, whose whole thing was that she had great legs.
They weren’t copycat acts at all. They would be called, say, the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, because they were great dancers and they were a couple, a male and female dance team. But they didn’t imitate Astaire and Rogers, not at all. And Larry Ching, the Chinese Frank Sinatra, sang popular contemporary songs of the ’40s, but he didn’t sound the least bit like Frank Sinatra. It just meant that he was this great singer, he was the equivalent of Frank Sinatra, and he was Chinese American. He made the ladies swoon.
Collectors Weekly: How did WWII-era racism toward Japanese affect Chinese performers?
Robbins: Well, there were a few Japanese performers at these clubs, and they all changed their names. Dorothy Toy, one of the famous dancers in the club, she danced solo and also with her husband, Paul Wing, as “Toy and Wing.” She was actually born Dorothy Takahashi, but she changed her name. Toy and Wing were scheduled to dance in New York the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, and word got out that Dorothy Toy was actually Japanese. The couple was afraid of what angry crowds might do. The owner of the club said, “No, please stay,” but they said, “No, we’re leaving for you because we’re afraid of what they’ll do to the club.”
Collectors Weekly: How did tap dancer Stanley Toy (unrelated to Dorothy) make a comeback when he was 89 years old?
Robbins: Isn’t that a wonderful story? He made a comeback. And he died a year later, but he did get to dance in Lincoln Center one last time. It’s a wonderful story. Jadin Wong, whom I mentioned before, the queen of the clubs, when she retired from performing, she went to New York and opened the first and perhaps the only agency for Asian American entertainers, and she did that for the rest of her life. In 2002, the Lincoln Center was going to honor her with the Lifetime Achievement Award at its annual Concert of Excellence. At the ceremony, New York’s Museum of Chinese in America would salute her for all that she had done for Asian entertainers for so many years.
She knew Stanley Toy and all the other dancers, of course, in San Francisco. So she asked Stanley if he would perform at her tribute concert. He had just gotten a dancing partner, Ivy Tam, who was much younger than him—who was, in fact, one of the four women in my dance class. He asked her if she would dance with him at Lincoln Center. I’ve seen film of it, and it’s just beautiful. Clearly, he still had it.
Collectors Weekly: Are any of the Chinatown nightclubs still standing?
Robbins: I brought my camera and went to Chinatown and looked up all the addresses of where the old clubs were and photographed them. The only one that still looks like it looked at the time is the Li Po on Grant Avenue, which was a cocktail lounge, not a nightclub. Now, it’s a bar. Absolutely everything is the same as it was back in 1937 when it opened. I asked the woman behind the bar, “Did you know that this was exactly how it’s been since 1937?” She didn’t.
Read excerpts from “Forbidden City: The Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs”
On growing up in the Forbidden City:
Joyce Low Narlock, daughter of Forbidden City founder Charlie Low: The entrance, 363 Sutter Street, I believe it was a red door. And there was an awning, but it was just a tiny little entrance, … you’d go up these stairs, quite a few stairs. There were almost two landings, but on each wall on each side of the wall were Chinese paintings, rather garish paintings. You go upstairs and you make a left-hand turn and there was the lobby and to your right were the restrooms … there was a big mirror, and as you walk into the lobby there was a wall and on the wall were all the famous people who came to Forbidden City. I wish I had those photos. People would just stand there and look at all these pictures and marvel at who’d been there. And then you go to your left and there was a nice bar, and then you go straight in and there was the club itself. It was quite unique. Well, anyway, the entrance was, like I said, rather garish, but it worked. But the room itself I thought was quite nice.
They had a very large dance floor three steps up to the orchestra and backstage, like [my childhood neighbor and friend] David Gee said, we spent a lot of time back there. Played around back there till my father said, “Sshh! Quiet, quiet, quiet.” We were nightclub kids. Like stage-door johnnies, just hangin’ around in the girls’ dressing room, helping them zip up and all that sort of stuff. That was a big thrill. Just helping them zip up the costumes and then just peeking through. Especially on opening night when there was a new show, because we’d go to all the rehearsals and I knew all the steps and everything and I’d be out there, looking and making sure they were doin’ okay.
On the scene at Chinatown nightclubs:
Joyce Low Narlock: As far as [Forbidden City] itself, it was quite a bustling business. I remember there were tons of servicemen during [World War II], of course that’s why we became so popular. … So that’s how my dad made so much money during the war. Because of them being here in port before they took off.
What was really exciting was when it was really crowded and people would go on as to what a wonderful show it was, and it made me very proud. I was just beaming every time they said, “Oh Charlie, it was such a great show! We enjoyed ourselves so much!” and I remember just feeling very proud of that and my dad would go around to all the tables and just say, “Hi, I’m Charlie!” and that’s how he was.
He would work the room, and he really did know how to work the room, so that was exciting. I just marveled that here he was, this one little Chinese man among all these Caucasians, very well-to-do Caucasians. He just had that personality that drew people back in all the time and he had a terrific memory for names.
On running away from home:
Candice Ponciano, Forbidden City dancer and daughter of dancer Ellen Chinn: [My mother] was known as the Betty Grable Legs of Chinatown, and my sister and I inherited her legs. I think she ran away from home. She was probably underage. As far as I know, she lived on John Street, which is in the Chinatown area, and that was with girlfriends, but she was raised in Monterey. And I know she ran away and was dancing on the stage, and I know grandfather—whom I’ve never met because I’m mixed and he didn’t care for that——he went to the club, grabbed her off the stage, and brought her home, and she ran away again.
It was taboo to dance in Mom’s day onstage exposing your legs, and even in my teen days, the Chinese girls were shy and demure. But before Forbidden City, Mom had us going over to Oakland to [join] the Weldonians marching band, they were the best in majoretting. She had us go over there every weekend and learn baton twirling, and then we competed, then we marched in parades.
On the audiences:
Frances Chun, singer: Chinese American people love to dance … So Chinatown had three dance bands, and that was during the big band days, 1936, ’37, ’38. Regardless of whether the bands were big or not, Chinatown always had a dance band. There was always a dance going Friday and Saturday night, anywhere. You looking to dance, just come to Chinatown. Fifty cents.
Cynthia Yee, Miss Chinatown 1967 and a dancer with Jadin Wong’s touring Oriental Playgirls review: Most of our customers were not Chinese. However, every time we were in town and the Chinese knew about it, they would all get together and come to see us. After the show they would make sure that they take us out for a dinner or snack, and they were very very hospitable.
In our opening number, we had authentic Chinese costumes from the Chinese opera, and very heavy headdresses all sequined, all embroidered, beautiful, from Canton, China. … Dorothy would either have the costumer or have her mother at that time, cut up all the costumes to make it very commercial and very sexy and very attractive. That’s what we were known for—a lot of legs. … See, at that time you have to remember, the nightclub’s gone, people didn’t know what nightclubs were, and then the traditional Chinese dance comes, very traditional, very conservative, almost looking like [we were] wearing pajamas and then out comes Dorothy Toy in her fancy sequined outfits all cut up to show legs—that was really something. We always started out with a very traditional Chinese number and then we would go into a modern number, such as “Grant Avenue.”
On how the crowd treated the performers:
Jimmy Borges, performer and actor known for “Hawaii Five-0”: I remember some Caucasian lady, and I’m walking by and singing “Never know how much I love, you, never know how much I care,” and she says, “Oh, Charlie! Look at him! He sings just like a white man!” That’s so—at that time I just thought that was funny.
Then I get down on my knees, and I’m singing to her like this, she takes her skirt up and she puts it over my head! Now I’m under her skirt, I’m under her skirt and I’m going “Help!” “I never—Help!—never know how much I love—Help!” I had no idea what to do because I was just, I was just barely out of school. … I was very innocent. Not knowledge-wise, but from being a practitioner of life. I hadn’t been around that much.
So I didn’t really know how to deal with it other than yell for help, and she thought it was funny. So did her husband. She thought it was funny, I’m under her skirt, you know, and everybody thought it was funny except for me. I got up—She let me out, I finished my singing, and after that, the chorus girls and all that, nobody let me off the hook.
On subtle racism:
Frances Chun: We didn’t go through a lot of the prejudices like some other artists, like the black artists. You know, we never had—nothing ever happened. It was very funny, I talked to my black friends, and I never experienced the stuff they had, and so I don’t say too much to make them feel bad. Somebody as famous as Ella Fitzgerald, they were not allowed to —this one singer I was thinking of, she was hired by Artie Shaw, they would not let her sit on the stage with the band. Can you imagine that? I never had to go through anything like that, you know? And little things like when the band is traveling together and they stay in a town, she’s not allowed to stay in the same hotel with them. You know, they had to stick somewhere out of town. Isn’t that terrible?
They used to call [Larry Ching] the Chinese Frank Sinatra. When I was singing a band they used to call me the Chinese Frances Langford. Why do we have to be the Chinese this and the Chinese that? Larry didn’t like it, either, when they used to call him the Chinese Sinatra. But he had a beautiful voice.
Jimmy Borges: [Before] the Asian was always looked upon as being a menial. And when Charlie Low’s nightclub opened, he showed that, you know, the Asians don’t only do dishes or work on the railroads or do laundry. They dance, they sing, they’re magicians, they’re tap dancers. And not only that, they’re very good at it. And so there was this dichotomy, these very strange attitudes that people would look at that. And that’s why it didn’t bother me when a lady says, “Oh, Charlie, he sings just like a white man!”
She didn’t mean it in a bad way that I’m almost as good as a white man. … “Wow, I never knew that an Asian, an Oriental could sing like that,” that was what was meant. And so I took it as such. And that way I got past, actually, a lot of stereotyping. And whenever I ran into stuff where people I would run into, racism or stuff like that, all it did was make me stronger. I says, “You know what? You’re going to be sorry one day, you’re going to wish you were my friend.” Because that was my impetus to succeed.
Eventually, some of those people that were not so nice came up and said, “Oh, yes, I saw you in a movie and I saw you on ‘Hawaii Five-0’ and I saw this and that.” And you know what happens? The same people that were, you shake their hands and you’re nice to them. If anything, nicer. So that’s the way to get back, it’s just—You’re being nicer to the person who wasn’t nice to you. Because you’ve achieved a plateau, you know, of what they perceive as success, and now they want to be your friend.
(All photos, except the image of Jimmy Borges, are from “Forbidden City: The Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs.” To read more, buy the book here. To learn more about Trina Robbins, check out her web site.)