The Story of a 99-Year Old Living and Dancing Chinatown Icon

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Dorothy Toy is seen here on the top in the kimono
Dorothy Toy is seen here on the top in the kimono

By Louis Chan
AsAmNews National Correspondent

Dorlie Fong was just 3-years old when she saw her mother Dorothy Toy perform.

Even at such an early age, Dorlie knew she was seeing something special. Toy, and her dance partner Paul Wing, are icons of not only Chinatown’s famed nightclub, The Forbidden City, but of Las Vegas and other nightclubs and theaters across the country from the 30s through the 60s. Their act became known as Toy and Wing, “The Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers”

Dorothy Toy and Paul Wing
Toy and Wing.

Dorlie’s memory of that time remains very vivid.

 

Dorothy Toy
Dorothy Toy on point

“I’ll always remember my mother setting up her toe shoes on a chair in the wings where she would change from the soft shoe number into the toe number. She always kept her lambswool perfectly placed in her toe shoes and had hooks and eyes on the ribbons so she could just slip into them for the quick change.

Dorothy’s life has been documented in a new film by Rick Quan, The Dorothy Toy Story. The film will make its debut this coming Sunday, December 11, at the Great Star Theater in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

“What I want people to take away from this documentary is an appreciation of what Dorothy accomplished in her life. How she broke stereotypes and how she devoted her life to dance by performing and for some thirty years taught others how to dance.” said Quan, a longtime TV sports anchor and reporter in San Francisco who has dedicated much of his spare time documenting stories of Chinatown’s past.

At age 99, Dorothy’s memory is beginning to fade, said Quan. Much of the documentary is based on interviews with those who both worked with Toy or saw her perform. The Dorothy Toy Story also makes liberal use of an interview Quan did with Dorothy at her home in 2009.

Rick Quan with Dorothy Toy
Rick Quan with Dorothy Toy

“Ohh, I loved it,” said Dorothy during that interview. “When you’re dancing, its like you’re in another world. Starving is very hard, but when you’re young, you can go do it. Dancing is something that will keep you very happy.”

Video footage of Toy’s dance numbers and historic photographs bring life to Quan’s film. Much of it comes from Dorothy’s personal collection who apparently was very good at keeping old newspaper clips, photos and dancing footage.


When Dorlie was backstage watching Toy and Wing perform, Dorothy  often brought her daughter Dorlie on stage with them for the final bows. After Dorlie learned the cha cha, she would dance with the pair for their encore. That was only the beginning.

“One summer when I was 13 my mother took her show to Montreal. One of the new girls she’d hired got homesick and just left the company,” recalls Dorlie. “My mother was in a bind and needed to find another dancer. As a joke, a couple of her dancers put makeup on me, fixed up my hair and put me in a cheong sam and heels and presented me to my mother as a replacement dancer. My mother did not recognize me at first, but when she did she thought it a great idea to put me in the show.”

Dorlie Fong with her mother Dorothy Toy
Dorlie Fong with her mother Dorothy Toy
Dorlie Fong
Dorlie Fong is on the right

It was the start of Dorlie’s career in showbiz. She went on in 1971 to be named Miss Chinatown San Francisco. She also appeared as a featured dancer in a cabaret revue at Bally’s Park Place Casino in Atlantic and went on national tour as a dancer in the hit Broadway musical, The King & I. She would later appear in the TV show, Mike Hammer.

Her acting career followed that of her father as well as her older brother Brian. The long family lineage in entertainment began with the encouragement of Dorthy’s mother.

“My grandmother (Kiyo Takahashi) allowed her (Dorothy) to take dancing lessons despite criticism from her peers who looked down on dancing and theater in general. My grandmother, however, was a woman of strong character, proud and determined to do things her way. Even if in her heart she did not want my mother to pursue a dancing career, she didn’t discourage her. Because of the hard times they all faced in trying to support the family and keeping the restaurant afloat, my grandmother saw no point in holding my mother back from pursuing her own dreams of a dancing career.”

Dorothy’s real name is Dorothy Takahashi and is Japanese American. Fong says her mother took on a Chinese name because it was shorter and fit better on the marquee.  The name also went well with Wing, thus Toy & Wing.  The stage name may have also been a reaction to the racism Japanese Americans faced up to and during World War II.

“The only time my mother truly remembers being affected by racism was when she and Paul were performing on Broadway (after Pearl Harbor), and it was revealed that she was Japanese and not Chinese,” said Fong. “Walter Winchell, a news columnist for a New York newspaper, came out with an insulting piece about my mother being Japanese. That revelation led to the lost of their film contract in Hollywood with Kay Kayser.

“My mother and her sister, Helen, were living in New York during the war, and although they themselves were not interned, their parents and extended family were all interned at Topaz, Utah.”

The vast majority of the documentary focuses on Toy’s happier times. Her love for dancing clearly comes through in the film. Quan says that was the common thread of all the interviews he conducted.

Dorothy broke her hip last February. While she is still able to walk, her dancing days are over.

“She misses dance terribly, said Fong. “It was her whole life and her “raison d’être”.

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