While young aspiring white performers left small towns all over America to go to Hollywood to follow their dreams, young aspiring Asian performers headed to San Francisco’s Chinatown, which had a huge number of successful Chinese-owned nightclubs between 1937 and 1964. These clubs had names like The Forbidden City, Club Shanghai, and Club Mandalay, and showcased singers, dancers, musicians, burlesque performers, magicians, and comedians for an audience of mainly white patrons, including the Hollywood elite. These Chinatown nightclubs are the subject of the book Forbidden City: The Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs by Trina Robbins. Robbins found there were quite a few of those performers still left in San Francisco, and she wanted to document their stories before it was too late.
Collectors Weekly: When did these clubs take off?
Robbins: World War II was the boom time for the Chinatown nightclubs. GIs would be stationed in San Francisco before getting sent to the Pacific Theater, or they would come back to San Francisco for R&R. When the GIs were here, they went to the clubs. Some of these were GIs from little towns in the Midwest or the South, and they had actually never seen a Chinese woman before. They would go out of curiosity, and they would discover that Chinese women were great singers and dancers and not the tiny, little singsong dolls as they had been brought up to think. Also, Hollywood movie stars would come here on bond drives to sell war bonds, and they would all go to the Chinatown clubs—Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello, Jane Wyman, and Ronald Reagan.
Collectors Weekly: What were the performances like?
Robbins: They mostly did American-style music and dance. The women would do this thing where they would come out in a long Chinese robe, looking very gorgeous and traditional, looking like the stereotypical image of a beautiful Chinese woman. Then, they would throw the robe off, and underneath it would be a cute, little dancing outfit. Jadin Wong, who I mentioned before, used to do this one number called the moon goddess dance. They would be like almost stereotypes of what white people thought Chinese dancers were like, the kind of stuff you might see in a movie of the period. But then they would do something to challenge the stereotype or break it open.
In addition to the interview with Robbins, a post at Collectors Weekly also has excerpts from the book, with remembrances and stories from the performers who worked in the Chinatown nightclubs during the 1940s, '50s, and '60s.