[R.I.P.] Noel Toy - Dancer at the Famed "Forbidden City Night Club"
- Noel Toy -- famed exotic dancer of '40s
Chuck Squatriglia, Chronicle Staff Writer Friday, January 23, 2004
Noel Toy Young, a Bay Area native who dazzled audiences and raised
eyebrows on both coasts with her seductive nude fan dances in the
1940s, has died at the age of 84.
In this day and age, when Victoria's Secret models prance around on
prime- time television, it's hard to think of a stripper as
scandalous. But 60 years ago, Mrs. Young was just that, appearing on
stage wearing nothing more than ostrich plumes.
She was known as Noel Toy, and she was the nation's first Chinese
American fan dancer -- she'd be called an exotic dancer nowadays --
and among the most famous women to practice the art.
But Mrs. Young was more than a stripper, according to those who knew
her. She was, they said, a pioneering performer who shattered the
day's stereotypes about women in general and Chinese women in
particular. She was sensual, outspoken and rebellious in an era when
women were expected to be prim, reticent and submissive.
"She was an outrageous rebel," said Arthur Dong, a documentarian
whose film "Forbidden City" chronicled the nightclub of that name
and Mrs. Young's role in its success. "You never thought of a
Chinese woman being like Noel, and that's what made her so special."
Mrs. Young was born Ngun Yee in San Francisco, the first of eight
children born to parents who came to California from Canton. Soon
after her birth, the family opened a laundry in Inverness, where,
the story goes, they were the only Chinese residents.
Mrs. Young was just months away from a journalism degree at UC
Berkeley when she was offered a role in the Chinese village show at
the World's Fair on Treasure Island in 1939, a job that required
little more than standing around in a Chinese gown. It led to other,
"Well, school was dull," Mrs. Young told the New York Post in
1941, "and I couldn't see anything wrong about appearing there. I
went home and told my mother what I was planning to do, and she
raised the roof."
Mrs. Young was known to offer different accounts of the same event,
and said a few years ago that her mother hadn't learned of her
career choice until a photograph of Mrs. Young appeared in the
newspaper. However it happened, though, the mother soon embraced the
daughter's line of work.
"I guess it's true that you can get used to anything," Mrs. Young
told a reporter in 1941, "because now (my mother) sees me in the
nude in nightclubs and thinks nothing of it."
Mrs. Young's big break came in 1939 when businessman Charlie Low
offered her a job at Forbidden City, which was the nation's first
and only Chinese nightclub when it opened at 363 Sutter St. Low
thought Mrs. Young was just the thing to bring in the crowds.
Mrs. Young changed her name to Noel Toy, which she chose because she
loved Christmas, and hit the stage. Business tripled within three
months, making Forbidden City one of the nation's hottest nightclubs
and earning Mrs. Young a national reputation as the "Chinese Sally
Rand" -- a reference to the popular fan dancer.
She began performing at other clubs around the city and appeared in
newspapers and in Life magazine. Before long, a promoter by the name
of Lee Mortimer came from New York and brought Mrs. Young back to
the Big Apple, where she packed them in at the Stork Club, Maxie's,
the 18th Club, Lou Walter's Latin Quarter and Leon & Eddies -- where
her show ran for 26 weeks.
"If I'd stayed there any longer, they would have had to reverse the
name 'Leon' and made it 'Noel and Eddie's,' " she told a reporter
upon her return to San Francisco in 1943.
She was dancing at the Latin Quarter one night in 1945 when a
soldier in the audience named Carleton S. Young found himself
"I'm going to marry you," he told her right then and there.
She only laughed. She had a strict rule against dating soldiers or
actors, and Young was both. But he proved a persistent man, and they
married that year. Their marriage lasted until Carleton Young's
death in 1994.
Mrs. Young gave up dancing at her husband's request and began a
career in acting. She appeared alongside the biggest stars of the
era, including Clark Gable and Susan Hayward (in "Soldier of
Fortune") and Humphrey Bogart and Gene Tierney (in "The Left Hand of
But Mrs. Young soon grew tired of being typecast as what she
called "the ornamental Oriental," said her nephew Michael Now, and
gave up acting for real estate in 1954.
She continued to act from time to time, however, making appearances
on "M*A*S*H," "Family Affair" and other programs. She also appeared
in John Carpenter's 1986 film "Big Trouble in Little China,"
starring Kurt Russell.
Mrs. Young remained a trim and curvaceous woman of 94 pounds until
her death. She often went out on the town in Los Angeles, where she
lived until moving to Antioch late last year, wearing a revealing
dress or short skirt and high-heeled shoes, Now said.
"Until the end, she was quite scandalous," he said with a laugh.
Mrs. Young died Dec. 24 in a Vallejo hospital after suffering a
stroke five days before. She lived in a retirement home in Antioch.
In addition to Now, Mrs. Young is survived by two sisters, Lotus Now
of Rio Vista and Alyce Wu of Walnut Creek; and three brothers, Ken
Hom of Hercules, Joe Hom of El Cerrito and Henry Hom of Oakland.
A memorial service will be held 1 p.m. Jan. 31 at Hollywood Forever
Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., in Hollywood.