(This post was first published on News Break, here.)
At the Forbidden City Supper Club, there was a large canopy and red carpet outside the entrance. From there, you walked upstairs, leaving your jackets and wraps at the coat check. The owner, Charlie Low, greeted and seated you and all the other patrons. Once the show began, he became master of ceremonies.
“Hello, boys,” Low called out to the servicemen in the audience. “Welcome to San Francisco!” The servicemen cheered enthusiastically.
That’s the way my mother, Helen Yee Chan Cochran, remembered this famous San Francisco nightclub at the height of its popularity in the 1940s. She was a waitress in her twenties at the time, and her husband was a factory worker, but in a time long before television and the internet, clubs were for all, not just the well to do.
When Social Connections Were In Person
In these days of isolation, when many of us are sheltered in our homes in pajamas or barely dressed for Zoom meetings, let us reminisce about this time and place where the working class mixed with celebrities and people made themselves beautiful to add to the loveliness of an evening.
Imagine yourself with tables all around and men and women dressed up. There’s a dance floor with a big band playing and couples dancing. Then performers come out to sing and dance in scintillating costumes.
After the show, they join the audience to sit and chat. It is a place that lives on in books and movies and continues to inspire today’s performers.
The Golden Era of Chinese Nightclubs
During World War 2, people were willing and able to spend money for the first time since the Great Depression. San Francisco became a liberty port for all the armed services. When the servicemen got liberty, they wanted entertainment, so there was a profitable business for nightclubs in general.
Military personnel, especially from middle America and the South, had often never seen an Asian person, let alone an Asian singer or dancer, so Chinese clubs were popular.
In San Francisco’s Chinatown, there was the Kubla Khan Chinese Theatre Restaurant, Lucca’s, Andy Wong’s Chinese Skyroom, Club Mandalay, Club Shanghai, and the Lion’s Den. My mother went to most of them with her friends and has the photo folders to show for it.
However, the most famous club, and by far, her favorite, was the Forbidden City at 363 Sutter Street. She said Charlie Low had the best performers of any of the Chinese club owners.
There were chorus girls who performed the can-can and sang popular American tunes. A singer crooned so much like Bing Crosby that everyone called him Bing, and customers didn’t know his real name. There was Dorothy Toy and Paul Wing who performed the most astonishing dancing.
Video of Dorothy Toy and Paul Wing in “Deviled Ham” (1937)
There was also Noel Toy, a fan dancer, who was dubbed the Chinese Sally Rand. She had beautiful, pale-pink ostrich-feather fans and riveted the audience when she was dancing. My mother recalled that she swirled and twirled her fans, but somehow you never saw more than her legs, arms, and a glimpse of the side of her body.
Thanks to Toy’s provocative dancing behind bubbles and fans, the club’s business took off in 1940 after struggling for two years. On any given night, there was a crowd around the bar, at least four people deep. Life Magazine published a three-page spread about the club, praising the Chinese women’s dancing abilities as a “fragile charm distinctive to their race.”
The Forbidden City has been called an Asian-American version of the Cotton Club, as it featured an all-ethnic cast of performers for a mostly white audience who performed to the popular tastes of the day rather than in stereotyped or authentic ethnic roles.
My mother recalled that Charlie Low was gregarious and popular, socializing equally well with Chinese and Caucasians. He knew how to work a room, and he had a great memory for names.
During the time that she went to his club, Low had a series of wives. The fourth and youngest, named Ivy Tam, had a beautiful, flawless, pearl-white complexion and shining black hair.
My mother said, “She had a way of lighting up from within whenever she entered the room, so you couldn’t help but smile back and admire her.”
After the show, the chorus dancers came into the audience. My mother saw that their purpose was to encourage an extended stay and, consequently, more business for the bar.
However, she felt that they honestly enjoyed the post-show chitchat, joking, and visiting. The chorus dancers never came to my mother’s table because she was always part of a table of men and women on dates.
Instead, the dancers visited tables occupied by servicemen out for the evening. The fellows would treat the dancers to drinks to engage their conversation and buy more drinks for themselves.
As popular as the Forbidden City was, especially among Caucasians, many of the performers, particularly the women, were shunned by the respectable Chinese community. Performing in public and showing one’s legs, as the chorus girls did, was considered shameful.
As a result, almost without exception, the performers were from out of town. In many cases, the women, because their parents disapproved so strongly, had run away from home to perform, usually around the age of 17.
Jadin Wong, for instance, ran away twice as a teen with dreams of making it in Hollywood. The second time, she climbed out of her bedroom window, and her mother was waiting for her below.
She thought she was sunk, but her mother said, “You really have to go, don’t you?” and Jadin said yes. So her mother gave her $40 out of her purse, which was a large amount of money for her family at the time.
Once in Hollywood, she ran out of money. She decided to try tap dancing on Hollywood Boulevard in the hope of earning enough to buy something to eat. Amazingly, as she was tapping, Norman Foster, a movie producer at 20th Century Fox came along, and a storybook scene ensued.
He bought her lunch, then brought her home to meet his wife, Claudette Colbert. As a result, Jadin got her first role in a movie, “Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation.” She later went on to perform at the Forbidden City.
My mother could relate to some of the disapproval experienced by the performers. Her father had frowned on her being a waitress, as he viewed even this profession as low and disreputable, involving as it did serving the public for tips.
Yet she recalled, “You could tell how much every one of the performers loved their work. They had a passion for singing and dancing and put their hearts into each show.”
Arthur Dong, producer of the Forbidden City documentary and author of Forbidden City USA, echoed this sentiment, saying, “(A)ll they wanted to do was sing and dance, and nothing — not even their parents — was going to stop them.”
According to music writer and broadcaster Ben Fong-Torres, the Forbidden City “was quite a bold experiment, and it shattered conceptions that people might have had about other people of color…(I)t was one of the major platforms for a change of mind, a change of attitude, a change of perception on the part of those who came in to see these bold and brave performers.”
Jimmy Borges, a former performer at the club, said, “[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 whenever I ran 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.’”
The club inspired the novel The Flower Drum Song (1957), which became a musical (1958) and film (1961) of the same title. It is the setting for Lisa See’s 2014 novel, “China Dolls.” It was also the subject of a mid-1980s documentary by Arthur Dong.
During the club’s early years, the performers’ salaries, modest as they were, provided rare job opportunities for Asian-Americans suffering from the era’s discriminatory laws. Just as significantly, numerous Asian American musicians, actors, and other celebrities either started their professions at the Forbidden City or became famous for performing there.
Examples of Forbidden City alumni who went on to work in film and television include:
- Jimmy Borges who went on to act in Magnum P.I., The Rockford Files, and Hawaii Five-O.
- Robert Ito who became known for his work on The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Quincy M.E., and Midway.
- Jack Soo who performed in Flower Drum Song, then became famous in Barney Miller.
- Sammee Tong who was in dozens of films and television programs over three decades, including appearing in Bachelor Father with John Forsythe.
- Noel Toy who appeared in eight films over four decades, including Big Trouble in Little China.
- Pat Morita who famously went on to become Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid.
Even today, it is challenging for Asian Americans to find roles in mainstream media, so there is an appreciation for how Chinese American nightclubs created opportunities for those in their community. Those who performed there are still an inspiration for young performers.
Frankie Fictitious is a burlesque performer who won Miss Exotic World in 2019. In a May 2020 Instagram post, she wrote about her admiration for former Forbidden City performer Coby Yee.
“My heart is so happy that Coby Yee is @burlesquehall Living Legend of the Year. Growing up in a Chinese-American household I was taught to work hard, keep my head down and blend in rather than stand out. There were not many Asian American role models in the media when I was growing up. In fact, I rarely saw Asian American representation in the media at all. If there was, we were often depicted as soft-spoken, weak, or the smart kid.”
“To have Coby be recognized with an award that represents a person who shows great strength, passion, drive, and breaks boundaries is such an inspiration to me (as an) Asian American Woman. Cheers to my role model and friend, Coby Yee!”
My mother appreciated that the nightclub performers broke stereotypes and showed the public a bigger picture of what Asians could be. It meant something to see performers who looked like her on a stage, and she wanted to support that. Mostly, the clubs were a fantastic tonic for her spirits.
May their memory live on.
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