- Forbidden City, USA: Chinese American Nightclubs, 1936–1970 by Arthur Dong
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San Francisco’s Chinatown unexpectedly became a locus of immensely successful nightclubs in the 1940s. In their prime, these nightclubs with all-Chinese entertainment received attention from major media and patronage by movie stars, public figures, and even heads of state. Documentary director Arthur Dong has brought this significant history to life: first through his 1989 film and then, twenty-five years later, in this lavishly illustrated book that draws on a treasure trove of materials, including over one hundred interviews conducted for the film. In the intervening years since 1989, most of the interviewees passed away, and cultural tastes and norms have also undergone significant changes. Yet as cultural hierarchies shifted, studies of popular culture in many academic disciplines gained momentum. Dong’s success with this project owes much to the social context and cultural milieu of the mid-2010s, which was ready or even pining for the rediscovery of this music history. Within a year after its first publication, Forbidden City, USA reappeared in a hardcover edition, coupled with the release of the re-mastered film as an educational DVD/Bluray. Through both Dong’s book and DVD, readers will encounter those pioneering entertainers who defied racial prejudices and restrictions to realize their dreams. These pioneers speak with a degree of candidness that could come across as either audacious or electrifying depending on the reader’s perspective. The book contains many interview transcripts of colorful personalities, but just as important are the many visual images of meticulously crafted studio pictures and historical artifacts. Together, these resources effectively document the magical world of glamorous stage performances and reveal a little-known side of Chinese America.
Dong organized the book into four sections, with a brief foreword by the Chinese American novelist Lisa See. The first section introduces the history of Chinese American nightclubs. Fifteen interviews comprise the second and main section, while the third section is a scrapbook-style presentation of ten nightclubs. In the fourth section—on memorabilia—Dong displays collections of four types of objects: matchbook covers, menus, cocktail napkins, and program folder covers.
Dong’s introductory essay navigates deftly from the early twentieth century to 1970, delineating historically significant events, most of which are aptly visualized in beautifully reproduced key images. These rare historical images are worthy of the reader’s close attention because they reveal fascinating details on their own. Beginning with Tin Pan Alley song covers featuring Chinese performers, the book moves to famous Chinese American vaudeville performers and jazz bands of the 1920s and the early dinner and dance clubs. Pictures of the bands Chinatown Knights and Musical Mandarins show performers in Chinese dress posing with their jazz drum sets and instruments, images that reflect an aesthetic kinship with vaudeville. In early 1920s, the ornately decorated Chinese dinner and dance clubs were apparently filled primarily with Caucasian costumers. Yet a photo from the 1930s shows that, by that time, Chinese couples in their fashionable Western attire attended regular YWCA events to dance to The Cathayans, a fifteen-piece big band orchestra (p. 21). Indeed, as the affluent class in the Chinese community rose in numbers, many Chinese Americans became attracted to ballroom dancing. These dashing Chinese Americans were partly responsible for creating demand for new spaces such as Chinese bars and nightclubs. By the end of the 1930s, one of these men, Charlie Low, achieved remarkable success with his pioneer nightclub, Forbidden City, while another, Andy Wong, a trumpet player in Chinese Knights, opened the Chinese Sky Room. In addition to The Cathayans, a group in high demand throughout California, popular dance orchestras such as Chinatown Knights became established in their own right. Starting in 1940, the rapid rise in San Francisco of new Chinese nightclubs—including Club Shanghai, Kubla Khan, Dragon’s Lair, Lion’s Den, etc.—made them the city...