Webinar: “East Meets West: Chinatown Night Clubs”

Starts: July 15, 2020 at 1:15 pm
Ends: July 15, 2020 at 3:00 pm

Larry Ching, “the Chinese Frank Sinatra,” with fellow performers at the Forbidden City nightclub in the early 1940s (Courtesy DeepFocus Productions, Inc.)

1:15 – 1:30 pm:  Online Cocktail lounge: Big Band music and a Cavalcade of Stars!
1:30 – 2:30 pm:  Webinar
2:30 – 3:00 pm:  Panelists Q&A

The Chinese Historical & Cultural Project (CHCP) is excited and happy to collaborate on a Zoom Webinar on July 15, 2020 at 1:30 pm with the BACGG (Bay Area Chinese Genealogy Group). BACGG Executive Director Ron Chan, CHCP President David Yick, and Keynote Speaker Calvin Fong will be the presenters.  Preceding the webinar at 1:15, there will be a 15-minute online “Cocktail Lounge” featuring a video with music, dancing, and a cavalcade of stars and entertainers, for your pleasure. A “Blast in the Past”! After the webinar will be a Q&A panel webinar with Calvin Fong and “Empress” Cynthia Yee, a dancer from the golden age of Chinese Nightclubs.

Session Abstract

This webinar explores a little known, but exciting topic in Chinese-American history: Chinese-American nightclubs.  In particular, the presentation will focus on the nightclubs owned by a well-known herbalist, Fong Wan of Oakland, and how he eventually turned a bankrupt restaurant into a first-class nightclub.  Many of the performers (singers, dancers, magicians, acrobats, comedians, etc.) were Chinese with headliner names, like the “Chinese Frank Sinatra” or the “Chinese Ginger Rogers.”  Many performers were 2nd generation Asians coming out of the Great Depression and who loved entertaining but were shut out from performing live on American stage or in the movies.  The Chinese nightclubs offered a venue for them to show their many talents and opened opportunities that they could not realize otherwise.  The clubs became extremely popular during the 1940s-early 1960s and were places to see and be seen by the Hollywood elite.

About the Speaker

Calvin was born in Oakland near Chinatown.  In the 1940s, his mother worked as a part-time, evening hostess at the Oakland nightclub.  She didn’t want to leave the young children (including me) at home,  fending for themselves; so, she brought them to the club.  The kids were told to sit way in the back or sit upstairs in the balcony—quietly. We watched the shows, drinking cherry cokes,  and were fascinated by the variety and talent of the performers.  We were especially mesmerized by the magicians and acrobats.  In-between shows, a few of the performers would occasionally “babysit” us and chat.  One of the magicians even showed us a few, simple magic tricks (that I have now completely forgotten).  In the early 1950s, our parents would sometimes take us to the Club Shanghai in San Francisco Chinatown on Friday nights.  My father would be conducting business and my mother would chat with the employees/friends in the back room or kitchen.  The only time the kids were allowed in (i.e. forced into) the kitchen was when the “exotic” dancers came on the stage.  We met many of the performers but were too young to really appreciate most of them.


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