The Pioneer Performers of The Forbidden City

Posted by Ben Fong-Torres on Tuesday, 17 June 2003.

Ben Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man: author, broadcaster, and former senior editor and writer at Rolling Stone Magazine, reunited with the stars of the Forbidden City nightclub and vows to make a record with one of them.

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 and times.

I was co-MC, with Emerald Yeh, at the world premiere of the original film in 1989; I was MC again for the fundraising event at my alma mater. Thirteen years later, I feel the same about these pioneering troupers, 17 of whom made it to the event. I love them. Not only for what they were and what they meant. I remember thinking, when I saw them telling their stories in the documentary, how I wished I could've had parents like them. First generation Chinese; entertainment -- savvy; liberal, and English speaking. What could be better?

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 much more.

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 Forbidden City.

ROOM AT THE BOTTOM: Philip Kan Gotanda has done it again. His new play, The Wind Cries Mary, has concluded its run at the San Jose Repertory Theater, but not before gathering a short stack of rave reviews. I hope that means it'll be produced again, in other cities.

Mary is an ingenious and effective adaptation of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, which Gotanda has reset in 1968 in San Francisco, with a backdrop of campus anti-war protests and the first stirrings of Asian and other ethnic minority students, leading to such groups as the Third World Liberation Front. "Mary" is the lead character, a tough, sassy, but troubled spirit portrayed by the stunning Tess Lina [pictured with Philip]. Sab Shimono, a regular in Gotanda plays, along with Stan Egi, Allison Sie, Thomas Vincent Kelly and Joy Carlin round out a very strong cast. For more on the play, including an excellent series tracing Mary from initial casting to closing night, by Karen D'Souza of the San Jose Mercury News, go to