LOS ANGELES » During its heyday in the 1940s, the Forbidden City in San Francisco billed itself as "the world’s most famous Chinese nightclub." A jacketed doorman greeted visitors outside, drawing them into the club’s grand interior, with its rich tapestries and Mandarin-collared bartenders. On the bandstand sat a large gold Buddha looking down on the audience, which often included celebrities like Bob Hope, Rita Hayworth and Lauren Bacall. Tourists from the Midwest were there, too, lured by articles in Life and Look magazines, and by promises of the club’s "exotic splendor" and "all-star Chinese floor show."
Once the show started, however, patrons looking for exotic entertainment found young, mostly Chinese-American performers dancing the Charleston and the shim sham. Larry Ching ("the Chinese Frank Sinatra") and Toy Yat Mar ("the Chinese Sophie Tucker") sang the latest pop tunes and Broadway standards, backed by a six-piece band. Other performers played up the disconnect between audience expectations and reality, beginning their acts dressed in Chinese robes before stripping down to showgirl outfits. For the three nightly floor shows, the music could run the gamut from "Begin the Beguine" to Bing Crosby, from sambas to polkas.
Growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the 1960s, filmmaker Arthur Dong recalled walking by the once-grand Forbidden City as a boy. The place, the brainchild of owner and entrepreneur Charlie Low, had turned into an adults-only joint by then, its original concept done in by a glut of copycats and by the rise of much racier topless entertainment in the nearby North Beach area. But the club, which would close in 1970, still had black-and-white photographs from those glory days posted outside. Dong had never seen anything like it before: dancers and singers and showgirls, dressed in taffeta gowns and smart suits, every one of them Asian-American.
Inspired by that childhood memory, Dong wrote "Forbidden City, USA: Chinese American Nightclubs, 1936-1970," newly published by DeepFocus Productions. Dong, whose award-winning trilogy of documentaries about discrimination against gays includes "Coming Out Under Fire," began researching the clubs while working on his 1989 documentary, "Forbidden City, U.S.A." "I love the big-band era, I love Busby Berkeley musicals," he said. "And the fact that these were Chinese-Americans doing this made it even that much more exciting."
As Dong met with the performers and pored through their scrapbooks, his collection of memorabilia began to grow. He found matchbooks emblazoned with dancing girls (the Wongettes) and dragons, and magazine articles describing the "alluring Asiatics" and "Oriental eyefuls" that worked the clubs.
In his home in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood, Dong, 60, spoke recently about his finds, which he keeps in plastic sleeves inside neatly marked binders. Over three decades, he has amassed what may be the world’s largest collection of Chinese nightclub memorabilia, more than 1,000 pieces in all. About 400 of them appear in the book; 225 are in an exhibition at the San Francisco Public Library’s Jewett Gallery, which opened Saturday and runs through July 6. "It’s become this obsession," he said.
Dong discovered seven nightclubs in San Francisco, as well as a lone outpost in New York, the China Doll, where patrons could indulge in pagoda punches and Tibet coolers "fit for a Buddha." Owned and operated by Tom Ball, a white stage producer, China Doll played up the Asian angle in ways unseen in the San Francisco clubs, which were all Chinese owned. "At the Forbidden City, you had the Gershwin revue and the Gold Rush show," Dong said. "At China Doll, you had shows like ‘Maid in China’ and ‘Slant-Eyed Scandals.’"
Dong also discovered that a lot of the performers at these "all-Chinese" cabarets were not really Chinese. Many were Japanese-American, including emcee Pat Morita ("The Karate Kid") and comedian Jack Soo, who would go on to star in "Flower Drum Song," the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical inspired by the Forbidden City nightclub.
One of those performers was Hawaii-born jazz singer Jimmy Borges, who was required to change his stage name to the more Chinese-sounding Jimmy Jay when he began working at the Forbidden City in 1958. Portuguese on his father’s side and Hawaiian and Chinese on his mother’s, Borges boasted a repertoire that included pop songs, Cole Porter hits and Broadway tunes. "Most of our tourists came in buses, and they would come and watch the Oriental people do something they’d never seen before," said the 78-year-old Borges, a longtime Waikiki headliner. "It was almost like a zoo."
One night, while singing Peggy Lee’s hit version of "Fever," Borges strolled past a woman in the audience. "She’s smiling, but she can’t believe what she’s seeing," he said. "So she nudges her husband and says, ‘Oh, Charlie, he sings just like a white man.’"
Coby Yee, a dancer, was a headliner at the Forbidden City when her family bought the place from Charlie Low in 1962. "I’d come out in an Oriental-type robe, then take that off, and I had a little samba costume under it," she said by phone. "So then I did a samba." Billed at the time as "the Chinese Gypsy Rose Lee," Yee would go through three or four costume removals, each layer artfully placed one on top of the other on her 98-pound frame, before the show’s end. "Louis Armstrong’s wife came in and wanted to meet me," she said. "I came out from backstage and she said, ‘Honey, you out-Gypsied Gypsy.’"
For decades, Yee, who would not give her age, kept her dancing a closely guarded secret from friends and acquaintances. "Back then, the Chinese thought that anybody that showed an ankle was bad," she said. When Dong approached her in the late 1980s to participate in his documentary, she declined. "I was worried that if people found out I took my clothes off onstage, they might think of me differently," she said. "But everybody said to me: ‘Are you kidding? What you did was so tame.’"
A chorus girl at the Forbidden City from 1959 to 1962, Ivy Tam said the place felt like a family, that dancers looked after one another’s kids backstage while their moms performed up front. "Our children all grew up together," she said. It was a glamorous time, she recalls, a chance to dance in a fancy nightclub, just like in the MGM musicals she watched in Hong Kong when she was young.
Tam, 79, was also the boss’s wife, the fourth Mrs. Charlie Low, which, she admits, might have colored her perceptions of the times. "The others might see things differently," she said. "I was in the show because I loved to dance, not because I wanted to make a living."
Tam, Yee and Borges performed at events surrounding the gallery exhibition opening last weekend. Borges, whose career has stretched long enough for him to appear in both versions of the TV series "Hawaii Five-0," sang; Yee and Tam, decked out in period costumes, performed a few dance numbers.
For SanSan Kwan, a professor of performance studies at the University of California, Berkeley, the clubs and their performers are a reminder of how much has changed — and in some ways, how little. "I think we still carry the legacy of that moment," she said. "The Asian bodies that are given access in popular culture today often reinforce these hierarchies of racial difference."
For Dong, these three are a connection to a time and place he would give just about anything to visit. "I want to hear it, to taste it, to feel it," he said. "Of course I can’t, so this is my way of traveling back to that time."
His love, however, isn’t blind. He understands full well that places like Forbidden City were a product of a more racist time: The clubs were packed because patrons often viewed the Chinese as some sort of exotic curiosity worth gawking at, and the talent was often first-rate because the Asian-American singers and dancers there struggled to find gigs anywhere else.
"But then there were these people who fought that," he said. "They were like: ‘I’m not all about Chinese opera, or kung fu. I’m about this, because this is the culture I was born into. This is the culture I love.’"
Robert Ito, New York Times