Webinar: “East Meets West: Chinatown Nightclubs”

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 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. After the webinar will be a Q&A panel webinar with Calvin Fong, “Empress” Cynthia Yee (dancer from the golden age of Chinese nightclubs and Miss Chinatown 1967), and Coby Yee (a dancer and owner of the Forbidden City nightclub in San Francisco).

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, 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 to early 1960s and were places to see and be seen by the Hollywood elite.

Keynote Speaker: Calvin Fong

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.”

Panelist: Cynthia Yee

In the mid-1960s, Dorothy Toy was producing an all-Asian floorshow at Andy Wong’s Chinese Skyroom, one of the most popular nightclubs in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Dorothy was in need of a substitute dancer and called Cynthia, who was only seventeen at the time. With her parents’ permission, Cynthia went on stage and began her professional career. She recalled later, “In the beginning, of course, everybody always said ‘Why do you let your daughter be in show business?’ and Dorothy told my mom that she would take care of me, and she did. Because I was in Dorothy Toy’s show and my mother knew Dorothy as a personal friend, it was fine.” In 1967, Cynthia won the prestigious Miss Chinatown crown, performing a dance choreographed by Dorothy Toy.

Cynthia stayed in touch with many of the nightclub dancers through the years and she continued to dance for her own health and enjoyment. In the 1990s, she was called upon to help support fundraising for the Chinese Hospital in San Francisco. She called her old friends from the nightclubs and founded the Grant Avenue Follies, a troupe that revives the golden age of Chinese nightclubs and supports charitable organizations throughout the city. In 2005, because of the community work done by the Grant Avenue Follies, Cynthia received the Jefferson Award, a prestigious national recognition system honoring community and public service in America. She also performs in a Chinese-themed magic act with the illusionist Tamaka and is the owner of San Francisco Chinatown Ghost tours, a historical walking tour through the alleyways of Chinatown.

Panelist: Coby Yee

Known as “China’s Most Daring Dancing Doll,” Coby Yee began dancing in the 1940’s and soon became a mainstay in Asian nightclubs, particularly Charlie Low’s Forbidden City in San Francisco. She performed all over the country through the 1950’s and 1960’s, eventually buying Forbidden City in 1962 and running it until it closed in 1970. Now 94 years old, she was just awarded the 2020 Living Legend Award.


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