These Nightclub Entertainers Paved The Way For Asian-Americans In Showbiz

Mar 14, 2015
Originally published on March 17, 2015 2:27 pm

As a kid growing up in San Francisco, filmmaker Arthur Dong often walked by a nightclub just outside of Chinatown. "I remember distinctly looking at the marquee and looking at the glass display case [with] all these wonderful black and white photos of Chinese people, but dressed in zoot suits and 1940s kind of gowns and tuxedos," he says. "And I had never seen Chinese dressed like that."

The club was called Forbidden City, after the Ming Dynasty imperial palace, and in 1989 Dong released a documentary about it. The film, Forbidden City, USA, captured a little-known chapter of entertainment history: the Chinese-American nightclub scene that flourished in San Francisco in the 1940s and '50s.

Last year Dong turned his research for the film into the book Forbidden City, USA, and this week the Center for Asian American Media is honoring Dong at its annual film festival in San Francisco.

'My Mother Didn't Want Me To Be In It'

When Dong first decided to make a film about the Chinese-American nightclub scene, few people wanted to talk about it. He says, "The whole notion of women wearing scanty clothing, showing their legs in public was taboo for the conservative Chinese community at that time. So I think the Chinese community, by and large, really wanted to forget about these clubs because they weren't proud of it."

Back when the clubs were getting started, conservative Chinese parents didn't want their children to become entertainers, but a new generation still dared to try. Mai Tai Sing was part of that generation. Now 91 and living in Hawaii, Sing started out dancing as a chorus girl at Forbidden City in the early '40s.

"My mother didn't want me to be in it," she says. "Why? Because it's not a high-class job; it's low-grade — dancing, showing your legs and everything."

Coby Yee also worked at Forbidden City in the mid-'40s. Billed as "China's Most Daring Dancing Doll," Yee says that when Louis Armstrong's wife saw her perform, she compared her to Gypsy Rose Lee. "She said, 'Honey, you out-Gypsyed Gypsy,'" Yee recalls. "So I got a big kick out of that."

'Even While They Were Entertaining ... They Would Still Be Subjected To Racism'

Charlie Low opened Forbidden City in 1938, and from exotic dancers to comedians to acrobats, he made sure the club had it all. It was even featured in major media outlets, including Life magazine. But that didn't shield performers from the mostly white audiences' racial taunts.

According to music writer and broadcaster Ben Fong-Torres, "Even while they were entertaining — not unlike the blacks who entertained in New York City at the Apollo [Theater] and the Cotton Club — they would still be subjected to racism. So even though you are the stars of the show, to which these paying customers have come to attend, they still feel superior to you and make ... racist remarks to your face, or shout it out from the audience. And I think that was pretty difficult for most of these entertainers to take. But as [singer] Larry Ching said, 'I had to. Otherwise, I wouldn't be in the business.'"

Still, Forbidden City attracted celebrities like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Duke Ellington.

"This was quite a bold experiment and it shattered conceptions that people might have had about other people of color," Fong-Torres says. "And it 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."

Audiences included servicemen, locals and busloads of tourists. Singer Jimmy "Jay" Borges — who was born in Hawaii to a Portuguese, Hawaiian and Chinese family — recalls one evening:

I was singing "Fever": "Never know how much I love ya / Never know how much I care / You give me fever." And this lady, she was looking at me and there was this look in her eye of complete mystification. And she says to her husband, she nudges him with her elbow, she says, "Oh, Charlie, he sings just like a white man!" And that was so funny. That was so funny I started to laugh, because she didn't mean it in a bad way. She meant it like she had never seen anybody like me sing a song that was made famous by a white person.

Still An Inspiration

Charlie Low sold the club in 1962 to dancer Coby Yee and her family. Yee, now 88, says it was good to see some of the comedians and performers who had honed their skills at the club go on to careers in television and movies.

"I remember Pat Morita, who I shared a dressing room with, and he later was in Karate Kid," she says. "There was Sammee Tong, who was in Bachelor Father with John Forsythe. And of course there was my dance partner, Robert Ito, who did a series called Quincy [M.E.]. And then there was Jack Soo, who became famous in Barney Miller — he also did Flower Drum Song."

Today, those who performed at Forbidden City are still inspirations. "I continually meet younger Asian-Americans who want to be a part of the entertainment industry," Arthur Dong says. "They are still being inspired. And I think that's a reflection of how much of a struggle it still is to try to break into mainstream media, to try to break into mainstream entertainment, to be recognized for your talent and not be hindered by the fact that you're a particular color."

Jimmy Borges, now 79, is still performing professionally. He says, "Forbidden City allowed us to be pioneers, and we opened the doors for so many young Asians who wanted to get into the world of entertainment in any way, shape or form."

According to Arthur Dong, that also made them rebels. "They knew what they wanted," he says. "They had dreams, they had goals and they weren't going to let larger societal bigotry get in their way. And they had fun doing it. These folks had a lot of fun struggling to achieve their dreams."

Dong says all they wanted to do was sing and dance, and nothing — not even their parents — was going to stop them.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Later today, the Center for Asian American Media honors Arthur Dong at its annual film festival in San Francisco. It will screen a digitally remastered documentary he released in 1989 called "Forbidden City, USA." It captions a little-known chapter of entertainment history - the Chinese-American nightclub scene that once flourished in San Francisco in the 1940s and '50s. And as Heidi Chang reports, Dong has turned his research into a new book.

HEIDI CHANG, BYLINE: Arthur Dong grew up in San Francisco and used to walk by a nightclub just outside of Chinatown.

ARTHUR DONG: And I remember distinctly looking at the glass display case with all these wonderful black and white photos of Chinese people, but dressed in zoot suits and 1940s kind of gowns and tuxedos. And I had never seen Chinese dressed like that.

CHANG: Dong never forgot the club, which was called Forbidden City after the Ming Dynasty imperial palace. But when he decided to make a film about the Chinese-American nightclub scene, few people wanted to talk about it.

DONG: The whole notion of women wearing scanty clothing, showing their legs in public, was taboo for the conservative Chinese community at that time. So I think the Chinese community really wanted to forget about these clubs.

CHANG: Conservative Chinese parents did not want their children to become entertainers. Still, a new generation dared to try. One of them was Mai Tai Sing, who started out dancing as a chorus girl at the Forbidden City nightclub in the early 1940s.

MAI TAI SING: My mother didn't want me to be in it.

CHANG: Why?

SING: Because it's not a high-class job; it's low-grade - dancing, showing your legs and everything. Then it got exciting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good evening ladies and gentlemen, this is San Francisco after dark.

CHANG: Sing eventually became one of the club's stars. She's now 91 and living in Hawaii.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Her name is Mai Tai Sing, and she's America's most beautiful Chinese entertainer.

CHANG: Coby Yee grew up in Columbus, Ohio. She left in the mid-'40s and landed a job at Forbidden City where she was billed as China's most daring dancing doll. Yee says when Louis Armstrong's wife saw her perform, she compared Yee to Gypsy Rose Lee.

COBY YEE: I forgot her name. I think it was Lucille Armstrong, but anyway she said, honey, you out-Gypsyed Gypsy. So I got a big kick out of that.

CHANG: Exotic dancers, comedians and acrobats - Forbidden City had it all. That was Charlie Low's goal. He opened the club in 1938.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLIE LOW: Good evening, friends. I am Charlie Low, your host at Forbidden City in San Francisco- the nation's most unusual and outstanding Oriental nightclub.

CHANG: Low's club also featured a dance band and singers like Larry Ching from Hawaii, who is billed as a Chinese Frank Sinatra.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW HIGH THE MOON")

LARRY CHING: (Singing) Somewhere there's music, how faint the tune. Somewhere there's heaven, how high the moon.

CHANG: The club was even profiled in major media outlets, including Life magazine. But that didn't shield the performers from racial taunts from a mostly white audience, says writer and broadcaster Ben Fong-Torres.

BEN FONG-TORRES: So even though you are the stars of the show, they still feel superior to you and make remarks, racist remarks, to your face or shout it out from the audience. And I think that was pretty difficult for most of these entertainers to take. But as Larry Ching said, I had to otherwise I wouldn't be in the business.

CHANG: Nevertheless, Forbidden City attracted celebrities like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Duke Ellington.

FONG-TORRES: This was quite a bold experiment, and it shattered conceptions that people might have had about other people of color. And it 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.

CHANG: Audiences included servicemen, locals and busloads of tourists. Singer Jimmy Borges, who was born in Hawaii to a Portuguese, Chinese and Hawaiian family, recalls one evening.

JIMMY BORGES: And I was singing "Fever" (singing) never know how much I love you, never know how much I care. You give me fever.

And this lady, she was looking at me and there was this look in her eye of complete mystification. And she says to her husband, oh, Charlie, he sings just like a white man. And that was so funny. I started to laugh because she didn't mean it in a bad way. She meant it like she had never seen anybody like me sing a song that was made famous by a white person.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And so, ladies and gentlemen, that concludes the first edition of our shows here at the Forbidden City. May I say to you one and all that you have been a most delightful audience, and on behalf of the cast and yours truly, I'd like very much to thank you.

CHANG: Forbidden City's founder sold the club 1962 to dancer Coby Yee and her family. Yee's 88 now and says it was good to see some of the performers who honed their skills at the club go on to careers in television and movies.

YEE: I remember Pat Morita, who I shared a dressing room with, and he later was in "Karate Kid." And there was Sammee Tong, who was in "Bachelor Father," with John Forsythe. And then there was Jack Soo, who became famous in "Barney Miller." He also did "Flower Drum Song."

CHANG: Those who performed there remain an inspiration to young Asian-Americans today, says filmmaker and writer Arthur Dong.

DONG: And I think that's a reflection of how much of a struggle it still is to try to break into mainstream media, into mainstream entertainment, to be recognized for your talent and not be hindered by the fact that you're a particular color.

BORGES: We were pioneers.

CHANG: Jimmy Borges is 79 years old, and he's still performing professionally.

BORGES: Forbidden City allowed us to be pioneers. And we opened the doors for so many young Asians who wanted to get into the world of entertainment in any way, shape or form.

CHANG: That also made them rebels, says Arthur Dong, whose new book, co-written with his sister, is called "Forbidden City, USA: Chinese American Nightclubs, 1936-1970."

DONG: They knew what they wanted. They had dreams. They had goals. And they weren't going to let larger societal bigotry get in their way. And they had fun doing it. These folks had a lot of fun struggling to achieve their dreams.

CHANG: Dong says all they wanted to do was sing and dance and nothing, not even their parents, was going to stop them. For NPR News, I'm Heidi Chang.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M STEPPING OUT WITH A MEMORY TONIGHT")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) I'm stepping out with a memory tonight to paint the town the way we used to do. I'll dine at the old cafe where we had so much fun... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.