[THEATER] Forbidden City Night Club
- An Interview with
(Forbidden City, USA)
by Lia Chang
At a time when Asian directors are the flavor of the month on the
international and Hollywood film circuits, Arthur Dong can look back
over a career that spans more than three decades and over 100 film
awards and fellowships.
2002 has been a remarkable year for this prolific documentary
filmmaker. Dong was elected to the Board of Governors of the Academy
of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, representing the Documentary
branch this year. His critically acclaimed Family Fundamentals is in
selected theaters nationwide, and his Forbidden City U.S.A.
documentary, originally produced in 1989, has just been released as
a collector's edition DVD.
Both documentaries focus on very different topics, but share a
common theme. They are subjects that Dong is passionate about.
Dong's Family Fundamentals, examines America's cultural wars over
homosexuality as experienced by three fundamentalist families with
gay adult children.
In Forbidden City, U.S.A. Dong explores the history of the notorious
and groundbreaking Chinese-American San Francisco nightclub and its
performers, which had an international reputation in the 1930s-40s.
In his bittersweet valentine to a generation of Asian American
pioneers who fought cultural barriers to pursue their love for
American song and dance, Dong captures the glamour and significance
of the period. Dong has woven together interviews with Forbidden
City alumni, rare color footage of the club, archival film clips
from major Hollywood studios featuring Forbidden City stars, and
photographs from personal collections of the performers to shine the
spotlight on a rare page of American entertainment history.
The Forbidden City, U.S.A. Collector's Edition DVD is a superb treat
with additional interviews, a promotional film by nightclub owner
Charlie Low and exceptional performance footage of the dancers and
singers, including an "Oriental tribute to the gay '90s". Dong has
dipped into his vast collection of memorabilia: a souvenir program
booklet from the club, a gallery of promotional glamour portraits,
postcards, menus as well as a few surprise hidden Easter Eggs like
the "soundie" musical short "Wise Man Say" from this bygone era.
Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1958 Broadway musical Flower Drum Song,
and David Henry Hwang's new version currently at the Virginia
Theatre in New York, are loosely based upon the Forbidden City
nightclub and some of its performers, and its owner Charlie Low.
When Gene Kelly was casting the Broadway production of Flower Drum
Song, novelist C.Y. Lee suggested he check out the talent at the
Forbidden City. Kelly quickly cast Forbidden City comedian Jack
Suzuki aka Jack Soo, for the Broadway production. Flower Drum Song
would launch the first generation of Asian American actors in
Hollywood. Soo would go on to a career in Hollywood, and was a
regular on TV's Barney Miller show.
Charlie Low's Forbidden City Nightclub gained an international
reputation as the nation's premiere all-Chinese nightclub showcasing
Chinese American performers in All-American production numbers soon
after it opened in San Francisco on December 22nd in 1938. Forbidden
City was frequently compared to the Cotton Club of Harlem, which
featured America's finest black entertainers. Asian American singers
and dancers strutted their stuff at the San Francisco Chinatown
nightclub at 363 Sutter Street, and at similar "Chopsuey circuit"
nightclubs from the 1930's through the 1950's. Larry Ching,
the "Chinese Frank Sinatra", Toy Yat Mar, the "Chinese Sophie
Tucker", Bubble dancer Noel Toy, the "Chinese Sally Rand" and the
incomparable dance team of Toy and Wing, the "Chinese Fred Astaire
and Ginger Rogers" were just a few of the top notch performers
headlining at the club.
Scions of high society, politicians and celebrities, as well as
soldiers from across the country flocked to The Forbidden City
Nightclub to check out the all-Chinese revues. In reality many
performers were also Americans of Japanese, Korean and Filipino
ancestry. Japanese American dancers Helen and Dorothy Takahashi used
the stage name of Toy because It "fit better on the marquis" but
other artists like Jack Soo who changed his name from Suzuki, did so
because of the World War II internment of Japanese Americans on the
West Coast. Discrimination against Asian American performers was
rampant in the mainstream entertainment industry.
Discouraged by their own families, young Asian American singers and
dancers followed their passion and pursued their craft by working in
cities across the U.S. on the Chop Suey nightclub circuit and doing
U.S.O. shows around the globe for the troops from the late 30's
through the 40's. Some even found success in Hollywood. The
nightclub industry began to decline after the war ended and the
novelty of the all-Asian revues wore off.
Over a late night supper, Dong talked about his life in film, the
little known history of Asian Americans on stage and on screen in
the 30's and 40's, the making of Forbidden City, U.S.A., the new DVD
release, and what motivated him to make his latest documentary,
Fresh from the West Coast screening by the Asian American Studies
Department and the Cinema Department at San Francisco State
University, Dong is in New York for the Museum of the Chinese in the
America's screening of Forbidden City, U.S.A. at Hunter College and
to see MoCA's new exhibit, "Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance! Chinese America
in the Nightclub Era, " which will feature a special viewing station
giving museum visitors a chance to preview the Collector's Edition
Dong's fascination with films started in high school. As a teenager,
he read books on the history of cinema with the idea of becoming a
film historian. At the same time, the politics of San Francisco
created unusual opportunities for this openly gay student amid the
gangs and drugs at Galileo High School.
In 1970 Dong made his first student film, based on a poem he had
written which explored sexual mores and violence. The five-minute
animated film, Public, ended up winning first prize at the
California High School Film Festival.
After graduating from Galileo, he headed off to San Francisco State
to study filmmaking, but once there he realized he was not quite
ready to take on the role of student. "Film could be a valuable
medium to discuss social issues, to make social change possible," he
"Films get shown to thousands and thousands of people if you are
lucky, if it captures the imagination of a viewing audience. I felt
that it was too much responsibility to handle this medium. I dropped
out of college and worked a number of different types of jobs."
In 1979 on a trip to China, Dong brought along a camera and began
shooting home movies of his travels. He started editing the film in
his head on his 18-hour flight back to the United States, picturing
the footage he had shot without having seen it. He knew it was time
to go back to film school, and returned to S.F. State, graduating
Summa Cum Laude in 1982. He later attended the American Film
Institute's Center for Advanced Film and Television Studies. The
rest is history.
The shortlist of his filmography includes Out Rage '69, an
exploration of the birth of the radical gay liberation movement
beginning with the Stonewall Riots in New York; the double Sundance
award-winning Licensed to Kill, a brutal look into the minds of
murders who killed gay men, the Peabody award-winning Coming Out
Under Fire, which chronicles the lives of nine gay and lesbian
soldiers during World War II when the military established its first
explicit anti-gay policies, the Oscar nominated Sewing Woman, about
his mother's immigration from China to America, and Lotus, a half-
hour drama on foot-binding.
Lia: What inspired you to make Forbidden City, U.S.A.?
Arthur: I'm a lover of Hollywood movie musicals from the Golden Era.
I've always been thrilled by that period of time when there was a
certain kind of movie magic, a certain kind of makeup, costuming,
and songs. But these movies were always cast with white folks, or
blacks, but not Asians. But then I discovered, "Wait a minute. We
were there!" It was two fold: my love for the movie musical genre
and my interest in Asian American history that really made me stick
with this project so long.
As a kid, I explored San Francisco on my own, and back then it was
safe, you could walk around town as a kid unescorted. I remember
discovering Forbidden City. In the early 60s it was a strip joint
but they still kept pictures of the old performers from the 40s in
the marquis and in the window cases. I would stop and stare. But I
grew up and had forgotten about these images until I read an article
about Jadin Wong, a manager of Asian American talent in New York. I
looked up my old pal Kevin Gee who I hadn't seen in a couple of
years because he had moved out to New York to pursue a career in the
theater. I called and asked if I could stay with him, and as luck
would have it, Kevin happened to be the stepson of Charlie Low, the
owner of Forbidden City. I never knew this, and if I did, I probably
just filed it away in a back compartment of my memory banks. So it
was as though this project was meant to be.
I ended up staying in New York probably a week or so in 1985 and not
only discovered this history and spent time with Jadin, but also
renewed my friendship with Kevin. He was excited about my doing a
film about Forbidden City because he grew up there. Kevin introduced
me to Charlie, which was important because that connection
established a level of trust instantly. And all the old entertainers
remembered Kevin as "Mo-Mo," they used that nickname at the club. So
when I called other performers, I would say, "I'm a friend of Mo-
Mo's." And they'd ask about him like a long-lost relative. It was
like planning a family reunion.
With Jadin, I didn't realize that she was a dancer at Forbidden City
until I came to New York and she started talking about the club. And
I thought, "Oh yes, I remember that club." And all the memories that
I had filed in the back of my mind when I was a kid and walking by
the club came right back. She was invaluable. What was really great
was that her family in Stockton kept scrapbooks on her. Jadin never
did because she was always traveling, but her family kept every
little bit. And she had so much material to draw upon. From her I
started to branch out to the other performers along with the
contacts that Kevin provided.
Lia: What are some of the special extras that you were able to
include on the DVD?
Arthur: I interviewed Kevin's mother Ivy Tam, Mrs. Charlie Low #4,
she's in the DVD. I interviewed two other people that I wasn't able
to include in the film because of structure and other story choices.
But I was able to put them in the DVD and its great. I have pictures
of Kevin as a child with Charlie and his mom back in Forbidden City.
The interviews of Ivy, dancer Jade Ling and Walton Biggerstaff (an
early producer and choreographer), just excerpts, they're all on the
DVD and it's really gratifying to be able to show them after all
There's also a section on some of the stars who went on to
Hollywood: James Hong, Sammy Tong, Jack Soo and Robert Ito, they
performed at Forbidden City too. I wasn't able to cover that legacy
in the film -- it didn't quite fit in, but on the DVD in a section
called "Potpourri," I include their pictures to show their
contributions as part of the history of Forbidden City. What I
wanted to do was say that it just didn't stop at the club -- that
for some entertainers this was a jumping board.
Lia: How did you finally get the DVD of Forbidden City, U.S.A. made?
Arthur: I've been trying to renew the music rights for Forbidden
City, U.S.A since 1997. It's crazy but I signed my last music
license contract just two months ago with EMI. It took that long.
It's not unusual really for an independent documentary to go through
these hoops -- I had to make sure I could afford it. What a relief.
But I am really happy with the DVD -- now we can get it out there.
When I finished Forbidden City, U.S.A. in 1989, I wanted to produce
a book because I had so much material, not only the pictures and
visuals but also the oral histories that I taped both on audiotape
and on film. And they were all transcribed and tell some really
wonderful stories from a particular time in history. I'm not a book
writer; I don't know the world of publishing so I wasn't able to get
the project off the ground. So my entire collection was put into
boxes. I think the wait was worth it because Forbidden City, U.S.A.
has always been a multi-media project--a visual and audio experience-
- a journey down memory lane by looking at pictures, hearing the
sounds, and watching motion picture clips, and the DVD format is
perfect for that type of interactive presentation.
In some ways it's probably better that I waited this long to
continue what I started 13 years ago. The technology for DVDs has
exploded since then and really allowed me to expand on the project
even further than I ever thought possible. I've collected a treasure
trove of archival material -- I spent some 5 years researching this
topic and that research never stopped just because the film got
completed. People still came up to me and showed me their
collections, offered me memorabilia. I just wanted to be able to
bring it all out to the public. It's stuff that you just don't see
Lia: Let's switch gears. What compelled you to make Family
Arthur: Family Fundamentals was motivated by a desire to address the
deep divide between the gay community and conservative religious
rights groups by focusing on the universal theme of family. I
studied religion and gained more knowledge and respect about a topic
I knew very little about. I needed that understanding in order for
me to critique it. I needed to understand it so that I can explore
the minds and forces that I feel are oppressing my people.
I didn't purposely structure it so but Family Fundamentals is the
third of a trilogy of films that deal with anti-gay-oppression,
Coming Out Under Fire and Licensed to Kill, and now this. They're
not celebratory films. They're hard hitting and they challenge and
they don't offer easy answers and solutions to highly complex
problems. They're not necessarily inspirational either -- although I
believe they are on a certain level because they inspire audiences
to fight harder for social justice. And they are very emotionally
draining. And to be with them, it continues that emotional drain
because I deal with these issues with audiences.
Lia: Since you are also an independent producer, what has your
schedule been like in terms of marketing the film and the DVD?
Arthur: Since Family Fundamentals premiered at Sundance in January,
I've been traveling around the country with it -- I'm still
traveling with it and I have engagements up until next spring. Then
there'll be yet another round of promotions when it's broadcast on
PBS. We just had a big push in October when we opened in 4 cities
and that was physically draining as well. And all the while I've
also been simultaneously working on the Forbidden City, U.S.A. DVD,
which is way over on the other end of the emotional spectrum. It
would keep me happy. I'd call up performers to ask for more photos
(For example, Larry Long, Jodi Long's father, I didn't have a
picture of him and Frances Chun had one of him with Paul Wing --
they were the Wing Brothers.) I started talking with these folks
again and it is so much fun as opposed to talking to a Pentecostal
Church leader (profiled in Family Fundamentals) who thinks that I'm
an immoral sexual deviant.
I'm now traveling with Forbidden City, U.S.A. on a limited basis and
these trips are easier because I know I'm going to have a rollicking
good time and not entrenched in a serious discussion about
homophobia. I think it's critical though that I continue to work in
that area: Family Fundamentals addresses the ongoing debates over
the separation of church and state; Licensed to Kill examined anti-
gay violence right before Matthew Shepard's murder; and Coming Out
Under Fire provided historical context to the 'Don't Ask, Don't
Tell' controversy. These are all stories that I'm passionate about.
What I love about film is that there's no limit. There's an infinite
amount of stories out there to tell and to explore. I don't make a
film every year and I'm very careful about what I choose because I
know once I choose a topic, I'm going to stick with it a long time
and live with it beyond the making of the actual film. Just like
with Forbidden City, U.S.A. I finished that film in 1989 and now 13
years later, it's even more exciting than it was then to work on it.
I've been able to take it up a notch.
Arthur Dong is a true visionary. Committed to addressing social
issues through his work, filmmaker Dong's storytelling is rich,
insightful and always thought provoking. Dong has another hit on his
hands with the compelling Family Fundamentals, the third in his
trilogy of films dealing with anti-gay oppression. And with the
release of the delightful Forbidden City, U.S.A., as a collector's
edition DVD, new audiences can own this jewel of a documentary and
discover the rich legacy of Asian Americans who broke the mold and
against all odds embraced their passion for singing and dancing in
the 30's and 40's paving the way for the Asian American artists of
today. For more information on the DVD Collector's Edition
of "Forbidden City, U.S.A.," visit the DVD information page at
The Pioneer Performers Of The Forbidden City
by Ben Fong-Torres
In the black and white photographs, they are impossibly dashing,
daring, devil may care. There's Larry Ching, "The Chinese Sinatra,"
surrounded by four babes. There are the five leggy Devilettes in
sheer, short outfits, but still showing far less than Noel Toy,
the "Bubble Dancer" who performed in the nude. And there are the
graceful looking Toy & Wing, "The Chinese Fred and Ginger," as in
Astaire and Rogers.
I say "impossibly" dashing and daring because these were Asian
Americans working in nightclubs and lounges in the Forties and
Fifties, when Chinese, along with other ethnic minorities, weren't
seen (and, in many cases, accepted) as entertainers, except in roles
like Susie Wong and Fu Manchu.
In the late Thirties in San Francisco, a showbiz-loving visionary,
Charlie Low, opened the Forbidden City, a nightclub and restaurant
near Chinatown, San Francisco, featuring floor shows with singers,
dancers, chorus lines, acrobats and magicians. His was not the first
or only such club, but he made his the best known, and it became the
model for the nightclub in the C.Y. Lee book and Broadway musical,
The Flower Drum Song.
Larry Ching, at age 82, still sings, quite beautifully (and, by the
way, in no way resembling Sinatra; Larry's is a much sweeter, tenor
voice). So does Frances Chun. Mary Tom Mason, Ivy Tam, and Stanley
Toy still dance, Toy still twirling at age 88.
And so they did the other night, at a theater at San Francisco State
University, celebrating the DVD edition of Forbidden City, U.S.A.,
the award-winning documentary by Arthur Dong about their nightlife
I still feel the same way. Sure, our family did all right, despite
having tradition-bound parents who spoke only Cantonese. But man,
these folks are fun to be around, and, from my vantage point as MC,
I enjoyed numerous highlights:
Larry's singing was one of them, and I'm going to do all I can to
capture his voice in a recording studio and issue a CD. He's had
only a 78 rpm record, as far as his family knows, and he deserves
Ivy Tam, in the 1989 film, looked like Debbie Reynolds. Cute as a
bug. No wonder Charlie Low went after her (she became his fourth
wife). She shocked me by telling me she's 67. "I'm the baby of the
bunch," she said.
The Forbidden City alumni had a blast, seeing each other for the
first time in years, swapping whatever memories they could remember,
and enjoying the crowds. S.F. State students had seen them in the
original film, and they asked for autographs and photos. The
performers soaked up the attention, the flashes from the cameras,
the lights of the video crews. The lights. Forever, the lights.
After the program, one audience member told me I'd missed my
calling. "You should be a stand-up comic," he said.
No, no. I can get people to laugh-but usually when there's nothing
(like, say, a career in comedy) at stake. But there were a lot of
laughs, I must admit. Let's go to the video:
I opened by thanking the audience for showing up, recognizing that
some of them had a choice between Forbidden City and the Rolling
Stones at Pac Bell Park. "I myself chose this event," I
said, "because I wanted to see younger performers."
The show began with a technical snafu. The film projector, loaded up
with Forbidden City, U.S.A., failed. Several times. A few flickering
images; then nothing. I had to go out to address the puzzled
audience, even though I had no idea what was wrong. The first time,
I think I waved and said, "That's it. Good night, everybody!"
After another torturous minute of those same scattered images, I
made some lame crack about Arthur's abstract art. Another false
start, another shot: "This may not be the best time to say this, but
Arthur just told me that this is a brand-new print. It's never been
seen before. And it may never be seen."
Well, it did get seen, and, afterwards, all the performers strode
onto the stage, one by one. The first were the Changs, Bobby and
Jeannie, an acrobatic team. Bobby Chang, I said, "began performing
at Forbidden City in the late Forties with his partner, Wong Chun.
Some of you may recall the hit record of that time, 'Everybody Wong
Chun Tonight.'" People laughed. I swear.
But one of the biggest laughs came when an audience member asked
whether the performers' parents disapproved of their being in show
business. Noel Toy, who danced in the nude, said, "I had no problem
with my folks." A beat. "Of course, they didn't KNOW."
So hats - and everything else - off to Noel and the Changs; to Ivy
and Larry; to Stanley, Frances and Mary. And to all of these
troupers: Dorothy Toy Fong, Marian Fong Got, Bertha Lew Hing, Jade
Ling, Dorothy Sun Murray, Connie Park Nakashima, Paula Ming Norris,
Lily Pon, and Gladys Wong. And to the memory of Charlie Low and all
the performers who broke down barriers by hitting the stage at the
Ronald Reagan at Charlie Low's Forbidden City
"WHEN DOES CHARLIE FIND TIME TO LOOK AT HIS FLOOR SHOWS?Every time
you see Charlie Low he's in the company of such interesting people
you wonder how he finds time to stop looking into faces and
concentrate on his glamorous Forbidden City revues. The celebrities
posed with him this time are Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan of the
movies. The show that's entertaining the visitors is one of the
celebrated all-Chinese revues with Dorothy Sun and Mary Mammon as
San Francisco Life, December 1942.
Forbidden City, on the second floor of 363 Sutter street, below
Stockton, was one of several "Chinese nightclubs" in San Francisco
at the beginning of World War II, and certainly one of the most
Low's competition included such places as Club Shanghai and other
Chinese nightclubs, owned by famed herbalist Fong Wan. In 1949,
writer Dick Hemp of the Chronicle wrote of a feud between Charlie
Low and Fong Wan:
"Fong presently has on file in Superior Court a $50,000 suit against
Charlie Low, another astute Chinese night club entrepreneur, for
allegedly 'stealing' an acrobat away from Fong's Club Shanghai. "
"One Fong coup against Low is already legendary in Chinatown and was
struck when the herbalist bought a six-story building at 334 Sutter
streetacross from Low's Forbidden City night cluband erected a
huge neon sign directing passersby to Fong's club around the corner
on Grant avenue.
"Fong denies there was malice in this action, however, and credits
it to his acute business sense. 'I know valuable building,' he
declared. 'Never think of Charlie Low at all, I bought building for
$90,000 and next day am offered $110,000, to get it back. Ha, ha.'"
Actor Ronald Wilson Reagan (1911- ) had been called to active duty
April 19, 1942, after a string of successful Warner Bros. movies,
including King's Row (1941) and Desperate Journey (1942). He may
have been waiting to begin work on the Irving Berlin wartime musical
This is the Army when this photograph was taken in October or early
November 1942. He is pictured with Jane Wyman, whom he married
January 24, 1940.
Lieutenant Reagan was assigned to the Army Air Corps' motion picture
unit because he was too nearsighted for regular military duty. He
worked on training and combat films until his discharge, as a
captain, December 9, 1945.
Reagan retired from acting in 1954, served six terms as president of
the Screen Actors Guild, and was elected governor of California
(1966-75). In 1980, Governor Reagan was elected the 40th president
of the United States.
The second-floor space that once housed Forbidden City on Sutter
Street suffered a major fire in the 1980s, though the building
remained intact. A renumbering of the block also changed the address
of the former Forbidden City to 369 Sutter Street. In 2000 it housed
a computer instruction company.
In 1939, Charlie Low opened the world-renowned Forbidden City
Nightclub. It provided an opportunity for many Asian American to
realize their dreams of performing. This nightclub's main marketing
focus was an all-American review and entertainment package.
Everything was done to lure and entice the curiosity of an audience.
Existing exotic stereotypes and image of the Chinese was exploited.
Embroidered silk robes, fans, gongs were used as props. Revues had
titles like "Chinese Follies" and performers were not recognized
individually but billed as "Chinese Bing Crosby." Once inside, the
audience was surprised to be watching an All American package of
entertainment. Filmmaker Arthur Dong recovered this part of
Chinatown history by bringing international attention to some of
these pioneer Asian Americans in this documentary "Forbidden City-
USA." It showed contributions, courage and spirit of the hundreds of
Asian Americans in the early period of our entertainment history.