Mai Tai Sing, a mainstay of Waikiki night life who started her career at the famed Forbidden City nightclub in San Francisco before appearing in numerous films and TV shows, died July 11 at One Kalakaua’s Hale Ola Kino skilled-nursing facility, where she was receiving care for Parkinson’s and heart disease. She was 94.
Sing displayed impeccable management style and persistent grace while operating the Trappers jazz club at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki, where singer Jimmy Borges and pianist Betty Loo Taylor reigned from 1976 to 1986. In 1991, she took over Ciao Mein, a restaurant at the same hotel that combined Italian and Chinese cuisine.
“My memories of Mai Tai are of a truly elegant and graceful woman with nerves of steel,” said singer and actress Cathy Foy-Mahi, who frequented Waikiki then and now. “She managed Trappers with cool sophistication, and everyone was treated like a VIP.”
Sing, whose actual name was May Tsang, was born in Oakland, Calif., on Dec. 22, 1923. She spent most of her early years in Hong Kong, but at age 14 moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.
First starting as a waitress, Sing became a chorus line dancer at the Forbidden City in the 1940s. The wildly popular Chinese-American nightclub spotlighted entertainers of Asian descent who faced racial and cultural barriers in the entertainment industry.
Sing had been training in dance only a few weeks when she met the brother-sister dance duo of Wilbur and Jessie Tai Sing. When Jessie Tai Sing got married, Wilbur needed a new partner and invited Sing to join the act.
Emulating the Hollywood glamour and swirl of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they often were called the “Chinese Fred and Ginger,” and performed in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Palm Springs, Calif.
The pair married but divorced in 1954. They had two daughters, Pat Harvey, of Wailuku, Maui, and Elcina Rouillard of Los Angeles.
Rouillard said she was too young to remember much of her mother’s life in the Bay Area.
“I have a few memories, however, mostly about the Forbidden City and the Ricksha Bistro in San Francisco,” she said. Sing famously ran the Ricksha on Chinatown’s Grant Avenue when Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr dropped in with Billy Preston one evening.
Rouillard has far more memories of working along with her mother at the Hyatt Waikiki while Sing presided over Trappers.
“Trappers was just rocking; that place was amazing. She worked the room, she made it happen,” Rouillard said. “A lot of (Hollywood) people she had encountered before would visit her at Trappers.”
Among the celebrities hosted by Sing were Tony Bennett, Tom Selleck of “Magnum, P.I.” and Jerry Lee Lewis, who stayed late into the evening to pound out “Great Balls of Fire” on the piano.
Sing’s Hollywood exploits included a role in the 1953 film noir “Forbidden,” starring Tony Curtis, Joanne Dru and Victor Sen Young, and a real-life romance with Jeffrey Hunter, who co-starred with her in the bizarre 1966 thriller “Strange Portrait,” in which Sing played a wealthy, mad recluse obsessed with a portrait of the husband who abandoned her.
On TV, she had a recurring role as Ching Mei, owner of the Golden Dragon supper club, in the ’60s television series “Hong Kong,” starring Rod Taylor and Lloyd Bochner.
While her Hawaii acting credits included bit parts in the isle-filmed series “Hawaii Five-0” and “Jake and the Fatman,” Sing became best known here as the Trappers impresario.
Carolyn Taum served cocktails at the club from the late 1970s to the late ’80s, when the waitresses, called Trapperettes, were chicly groomed in the Playboy Bunny mode.
“Going to work every night was like going to a party,” Taum said. “It was always fun.”
Sheryl Lopes was a struggling single parent when she worked at Trappers, where she met her future husband, former Chaminade University basketball coach Merv Lopes.
“We attracted a really wonderful clientele, and I’m sure our bodysuits and fishnet stockings were part of the reason,” said Sheryl Lopes, who lives on the Big Island. “Though Mai was my boss and also a mentor, she kind of was like a second mom to me, often offering advice.”
Sing did all the hiring and Taum said she had to wait six months before she landed a job “because the wait help stayed on,” she said.
“She created that place. There was so much magic, it was awesome,” Taum said. “Mai had her own way of doing things that were successful. When I applied, she had me sit down with customers and talk story, and she observed. She ended up calling me six months later, and I was hired.”
Sing set high standards for her staff but did so without a gruff demeanor, according to the former employees.
“She was demanding because she expected us to wear a flower in our hair and have our makeup right to achieve a certain look, all to suit that certain ambience of Trappers.”
Christie Burton, who was a Trapperette for a brief time in the early ’80s, said Sing “was smart, savvy and she had a vision.”
“Trappers would not have happened without Mai. She was the force behind it, a star. She took her successes from San Francisco and put it to work at Trappers.”
Sing also set an example with her flawless grooming and fashion sense.
“I always felt I needed to look good in her presence,” said Robbyn Shim, a friend who often went out with Sing and last saw her the day before she died. “I really admired her. She enjoyed being out and socializing.”
Vicki Borges was a Trappers regular and later married the club’s resident singer, Jimmy Borges, who performed at the Forbidden City early in his career.
“Mai was really nice to me and very gracious, and Jimmy and I would include her in outings after he left the club,” she said. “She always looked great.”
Vicki Borges said she last saw Sing in November 2016, when a digitally remastered version of Arthur Dong’s documentary “Forbidden City, U.S.A.,” was screened at the Honolulu Museum of the Art. Both Sing and Jimmy Borges, who died in May 2016, are featured in the film.
Funeral arrangements for Sing are pending. Rouillard said her mother requested her remains be buried alongside her mother and sister in San Francisco. A Honolulu celebration of life is planned, with details to be announced.
Lee Cataluna is on vacation. Her column returns Aug. 8.