Entertainment Spotlight

  • Catching Up: Santana, Taj Mahal and a déjà vu ‘Blue Christmas’

    Posted by Ben Fong-Torres

    By Ben Fong-Torres It’s short shrift time. I have a life that’s ripe (and slightly wrinkled) for blogs and tweeting; for facebooking and updating. I’m just no good at it. My last column here on AsianConnections was about the memorial in late July for my sister Shirley. My last posting on the authors’ site, Redroom, was about a radio promo tour I did (20 stops, all on the phone...

Welcome to your Chinese American Bandstand

Ben Fong-Torres

Ben joins jazz singer Cookie Wong in a tribute to pioneer music makers. And then he takes off for Vegas!

October, for me, was chock-a-block with events: I officiated a wedding; MCd a set of readings at LitCrawl, an annual literary event in San Francisco.

Did an onstage interview with Albert Maysles, the legendary documentary filmmaker for the Mill Valley Film Festival; hosted a dinner celebrating the 30th anniversary of Asian Mental Health Services (with David Henry Hwang and Tamlyn Tomita as keynote speakers), and sat on a panel of music journalists at UC Berkeley, sponsored by the Asian American Journalists Association and the Journalists of Color at Cal.

Oh, and I began production on a radio show of my own. Must write about that someday.

But one of the most illuminating -- not to mention rockin' -- events was Dancing on the Roof, a dinner and show honoring San Francisco Chinatown dance bands from the 1930s to the 70s, which I co-MCd with Cookie Wong. (We did the 70s group, while Doris Him Grover and Gerrye Wong covered the pioneer bands that played from the 30s to the 60s, such as the Cathayans and the Chinatown Knights.) The dinner was presented by the Chinese Historical Society of America to raise funds to repair its museum roof. The banquet room at the Marriott was packed, and the roof has been patched up nicely.

Cookie and I brought on members of such bands as Jest Jammin, Majestic Sounds, the Intrigues, and one group that went through five names: Persuasions, Sand, City Lights, C.P. Salt, and Earwaves. The audience roared for such seminal groups as the Enchanters, the Illusions, and the Soundcasters, who date back to 1965.

Most of the bands covered Top 40 and R&B hits, but, as CHSA President Lorraine Dong noted, several of them began composing original songs. Fittingly, the evening closed with an ensemble playing a song that Jeff Chan, a member of several of the bands, composed for the occasion, called Dancing on the Roof and including the names of all the bands honored that evening.

CHSA produced an excellent program book detailing the history of these bands and their times, and may have a few left for purchase. Write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for information. Annie Nakao of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about the honored musicians in the October 24th edition. Check it out at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2004/10/24/LVG1J9BT361.DTL.

STRIP TEASE: What to say about Las Vegas? It is monstrous; expensive, and, to put it mildly, excessive. It is built to suck all the money out of your wallet and bank account, and to tempt you into debauchery of all sorts: drinking, gambling, and consorting with, as the flyers offered to you by kids on The Strip promise, Girls Delivered to Your Door. Not to mention entertainers ranging from Celine Dion and Elton John to a stream of Elvis Presley impersonators, in an Elvis museum, in lounges, and in quickie wedding chapels.

Dude, I cant wait to get back!

Dianne and I were there for a little break; we hadnt been to Sin City since the late-70s, when we saw Gladys Knight and the Pips at the Flamingo.

Vegas, as you may know, has grown a little. Hotels impersonate entire cities, like Rome, Venice, Paris and New York. The results are a mix of realistic and surrealistic. Youre inside the Paris Las Vegas, the hotel, but youre suddenly strolling a Parisian rue , with cloudy skies painted above you, as far as the eye can see. But what street in Paris leads into an expansive casino, with mini-skirted cocktail waitresses flitting around the roulette and blackjack tables? Then, youre on the third floor shopping mall at the Venetian, and, as you walk, you notice the gondolas being rowed along the Gulf of Veniceon the third floor!

Because of my affiliation with AsianConnections (and maybe with Parade and a few other magazines), Dianne and I got into three superb shows: Cirque du Soleils acquatic circus, O, at the Bellagio; Jay Leno at the Mirage (I may, just may write about him for Parade ), and, for a little time warp, Gladys Knight at the Flamingo. Shes Pipless now, except for a wacky (and, later, touching) cameo by brother Bubba, but she does a sensational show.

And Las Vegas as home to serious restaurateurs is no joke. We enjoyed great food (and art) at Julian Serranos Picasso at the Bellagio; Mon Abi Gabi, a bistro at Paris Las Vegas, and Postrio at Caesars Palace.

In three days and nights in or temptingly near the casino at the Mirage, where we stayed, I managed to stay even with the house. I played tiddly-wink games: the slots, the big wheel of dollar billspathethic. Or Id pop in on a roulette table, drop $10 or $20 on the red or black, and, more often than not, sweep my winnings off the table and move on. I sat in at a blackjack table a couple of times and won, once turning $100 to $260. Of course, I havent mentioned my losses, since Dianne reads this column on occasion

As for her and my other personal indulgences: She went shopping with Cynthia Robins, a writer friend from San Francisco who now lives in Vegas, while I found the Elvis-a-Rama Museum, out on Industrial Road, parallel to the Strip. I took in some pretty impressive memorabilia, including one of Elvis Cadillacs, several of his Vegas jumpsuits, and a hotel invoice showing that, one day in 56, his tips amounted to 15 cents.

I stuck around for a show by impersonator Sonny Boline, set in a garage-sized room that itself was impersonating a Vegas lounge, with mini-banquettes, a cramped stage with a runway the size of a thumb, and, of course, a disco ball. The settingand the singerwere cheesy, but Boline did sound like Elvis. And that was good enough for me to leave a 15 cent tip.

TOP 3 : Ray : the story of Ray Charles. He was one of my favorite interview subjects at Rolling Stone ; Jamie Foxx and a stellar cast, with a big boost from director Taylor Hackford, deliver the goods on a true genius of American popular music Sideways : a buddy movie like youve never seen, with a fine ensemble led by Paul Giamatti, and with wine and women as the enchanting focal points for Giamatti and his buddy, played by Thomas Haden Church. Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen are perfect in supporting roles

Images of America: Oaklands Chinatown by William Wong. Bills known as an essayist and reporter, but here, hes assembled a fascinating album of historical photographs of my hometown Chinatown. (In fact, Bill and my family had restaurants across the street from each other, on Webster Street.) Students of Chinese American culture and of Chinatowns, anywhere, will find this collection fascinating. It's a perfect stocking stuffer. Write Bill at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

SMALL WORLD: Joshua Raoul Brody, a musician friend, caught my recent guest stint on jazz station KCSM, when I played my desert island cuts. One of them was I Only Have Eyes For You, by the late Larry Ching, whose CD I produced last year. Brody, who was driving, pulled over to write down Chings name. What an original voice! he wrote in an e-mail. The next day I get a call from a singer whos looking for an emergency accompanist for a benefit partyI go over to his house to run some tunes, and he hasnt quite decided on his repertoire. Hes mulling over a tune his father did. Did I know his father? Whos that? I ask. Larry Ching. (The man whod called Brody was Michael Ching. Now, cue the theme from The Twilight Zone, please)

It's the Fong-Torres Zone when you visit Ben's home page, loaded with celeb photos, articles and goodies, all at www.benfongtorres.com.