The Chinese Historical Society of Southern California will host a discussion with Arthur Dong about his new book Forbidden City USA this coming Wednesday, June 4 at 7pm at Castelar Elementary School (photo from Chinese Sky Room).
Free parking is available in the school yard lot via College Street. Castelar is located at 840 Yale Street in Los Angeles.
Dong took time from his hectic schedule to answer a few questions from AsAmNews.
Where does the name Forbidden City, USA come from?
I was braining-storming with my sister and brother-in-law, Lorraine Dong and Marlon Hom (professors at the Asian American Studies department of San Francisco State University), on a title for my 1989 documentary on the Forbidden City nightclub. The initial idea was to title it simply “Forbidden City” but then Marlon suggested adding “USA” at the end to distinguish it from the palace compounds in Beijing. That idea also underscores the metaphor of the club as a bridge between different worlds. Since then, I’ve noticed other titles using the “USA” tag over the past 25 years, and I think we were one of the first to do so.
What period of time does the book cover and what was it about this period of time that made this all possible?
The book covers over a 100- year-span of time, starting from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire that destroyed Chinatown, up to David Henry Hwang’s 2002 Broadway re-visioning of “Flower Drum Song,” which is set in a fictitious Chinese American nightclub in San Franciso Chinatown.
But the main focus of the book is from 1936 to 1970. In 1936, Charlie Low, the future impresario of Forbidden City, opened the Chinese Village, the first bar to operate within San Francisco’s Chinatown, which led to more bars in the neighborhood and eventually nightclubs. In 1970, the last of the Chinese American nightclubs, Forbidden City, finally closed its doors.
What was the target audience for these nightclubs?
As Charlie Low says, “the white trade, the American trade: If you want to see something different, you’ve got to come.” But eventually, the clubs also became destinations for a new generation of American-born Asian Americans out for a night on the town.
Were these clubs run by Chinese Americans or by non-Asians?
The eight clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area were run by Chinese Americans. The only known club that advertised an all-Chinese show, but was not owned by an Asian, was the China Doll in New York City.
What other cities did you find the Chinatown Nightclub scene? If it was unique to San Francisco, why do you think that was so?
Outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, I only know of the China Doll in New York City. However, the entertainers traveled all across the country, indeed the world, either as solo acts, in USO tours, or as pre-packaged shows, such as the “Chinese Follies” (photo from Chinese Sky Room).
During World War II, which was the peak period for the clubs, San Francisco was the last port of call before service members were shipped off into the Pacific theater. The military brought in huge business for the area’s entertainment industry. New York city was already the epitome of night life and clubbing, so it made sense for the China Doll to open there. Also, the Bay Area clubs were run by Chinese American entrepreneurs and they could fall back on a network of support–and talent–from the large Chinese community that settled in the region, including family.
What role did racism play in the existence of these clubs?
That’s a complex question that would take another book to answer, but in a nutshell: Race had everything to do with the clubs. The owners had a definite marketing plan that capitalized on the notion of an “all-Chinese” show. Customers came specifically to see an “all-Chinese” show, which came with certain racially-based expectations for some patrons. And the entertainers knew why they were hired.
Why do you think the nightclubs in Chinatown faded away?
A convergence of cultural and social factors took place, starting from the late ‘40s until the final closure of Forbidden City in 1970: the end of World War II, shifting priorities from “a night on the town” to raising a family, television, and then came the cultural trends of the ‘60s: rock and roll, disco and topless dancers (Photo of Jessie Tai Sing)
You devoted 30 years of your life to this topic? Why were you so passionate about this subject.?
I was born too late to experience the clubs first-hand, so I’ve been trying to do all I can to be a part of the scene. The memories, postcards, menus, snapshots, programs, and meticulously crafted studio photos I’ve collected are a way to immerse myself into an era before my time–in all the senses: the looks, the sounds, the feels, the smells, the tastes. Also, the personal stories are inspirational and such a revelation: I’m the son of traditional working-class immigrants and the performers led lives so unlike the elders that I grew up around.
Can you tell the stories of any Chinatown nightclub entertainers who became famous outside of Chinatown?
Cast in film version of “Flower Drum Song” (1961), which was set in a ficticious San Francisco Chinese American nightclub, was Jack Soo, who was a former Chinese Sky Room and Forbidden City entertainer. Soo went on to a successful career in television like “Barney Miller.” Other entertainers who crossed over into the mainsteam include Sammee Tong (“Bachelor Father”), James Hong (“Blade Runner,” “Big Trouble in Little China”), Robert Ito (“Quincy”), and, most famously, Pat Morita (“Karate Kid”). And then there’s 1960s superstar Nancy Kwan, who, although not a veteran of the clubs, co-starred with Jack Soo to portray a nightclub dancer in the “Flower Drum Song” film.
What do you want people to take away from your book?
The materials I chose for the book aren’t meant to be purely nostalgic anecdotes and souvenirs (although that’s a critical and entertaining aspect of it). For me, they’re historical accounts and cultural art, where the storytellers and creators—the performers, photographers, and graphic designers—have passed on a wondrous legacy. The book reflects a group of people who knew how to have fun and be glamorous, despite and in response to the sometimes restrictive social and cultural conditions of the time–so I hope readers will feel that same complicated kind of joy (photo of Jackie Mei Ling)
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
There’s a specific image that embodies an underlying spirit in the book: It’s the cover of a Forbidden City program. Dancer Lily Pon is in a cheesecake pose, scantily dressed, and the text reads: “Your program for the evening: Come along with me please! I’ll show you how to have fun—in Chinese.” Thisjuxtapositioning of image and dialogue takes on a tongue-in-cheek attitude, co-opting racially motivated ideas and poking fun at them.