Best Documentary of the Decade
--Hawai'i International Film Festival, 1989
Decorous daughters of the East becoming streamlined glamour girls of the West who can step with the best of them. What would Confucius say?
--cringeworthy 1940s film short depicting Forbidden City dancers.
A lot of drinking. A lot of fooling around. In and out of beds.
Arthur Dong began working on this documentary in the mid-1980s. It made its debut to much acclaim in 1989 and found a wider audience through PBS's then-new, now venerable series, American Experience. Restored in 2015 and accompanied by a more detailed companion book of the same title, also by Dong, Forbidden City, USA examines a storied yet almost forgotten night club in San Francisco. The Forbidden City opened in 1938 and closed its doors in 1970. It became the most famous club of its kind: places owned, operated, and starring Asian-Americans, which catered to a mainly Caucasian audience. Jazz musicians, singers, dancers, and exotic showgirls blended American forms of entertainment and Orientalist fantasies. If not always enlightened by today's standards, these clubs created spaces where performers of Asian background could consistently work, perform, live, and profit from a version of the American Dream.
Charlie Low founded Forbidden City, which capitalized on the post-Depression night club boom, particularly significant in San Francisco, a port where sailors and others in service often took leave. Many of the patrons hailed from small towns and, in those years of restrictive, racist immigration laws, had never seen a person of Asian background. Of course, some of the employees grew up in similar places, and had experienced little prior contact with larger Asian-American communities. Several of the performers recall experiencing both racism from white people and intense disapproval from traditionalists in their own community, who considered clubs of this nature scandalous.
The documentary gathers a remarkable collection of footage, original interviews, rare archival material, and clips from film shorts that covered the club or featured some of its talent.
It's an interesting glimpse into the recent past.
Former performers laugh about some of the more unusual encounters and discussions regarding race, both in the club and during tours. We have that all-too-familiar, comic and tragic parade of North American history, though one removed from the usual depictions of Chinese-American history: railroads, laundries, and restaurants. The talent become stars, of a kind, while confronting (and, at times, reinforcing) "perpetual foreigner syndrome... the stereotyping of ethnic minorities as foreigners or 'the other' regardless of their actual citizenship or birthplace"1. And while one can learn to let discrimination, in the words of Toy Yat Mar, "roll over you" when it's "staring you in the face", it's difficult to miss the pain behind her voice as she relates the complications of navigating a show tour through the segregated American south of the period. Facilities for "Whites Only" and "Colored" (in the vernacular of the time) had not considered the presence of people who fit in neither category.
Many performers received billing that connected them to better-known mainstream entertainers so that, for example, advertising promoted Larry Ching as the "Chinese Sinatra," while Toy Yat Mar was referred to as the "Chinese Sophie Tucker." Dancers of the non-exotic sort acts became "the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers." The club became famous, attracting the celebrities of the day to its audience, and occasionally launching performers into a limited fame in Hollywood and other places where they would have been unlikely to get a foot in the door. The documentary includes shots of people like Bing Crosby, John Wayne, and Alfred Hitchcock hanging out with Charlie Low and his entertainers.
Promotion of exotic dancers perhaps represents a low point for playing to the dominant culture, including as it did coded, provocative references to that most idiotic of white racial myths, those pertaining to the genitalia of Pacific-Asian women.2 The most charitable spin must be considered: Low and company knew their audience, and found a way to profit from their curiosity and ignorance.
Apart from employment, the club may have helped people in other ways as well. During World War II, club performers of Japanese descent were shipped to internment camps or fled to safer areas. A few, however, may have hid in plain sight under assumed names.
Despite the strange refracting of identity through a pop culture that variously depicted Asians as sinister or mysterious, the City provided some kind of identity and community. Furthermore, it's clear from the interviews that most of these performers loved what they were doing.
The Forbidden City could not have existed as it did without the period's pervasive racism, but it may have helped build bridges between communities. Clubs like it are a fascinating, problematic piece of North American history, and tell us much about the past from which our present has descended.
1. I'm quoting an article by Derwin Mak, referenced below, because I like his phrasing. The term has been used widely for some time, of course.
2. How, by the way, did anyone, however ignorant, ever take this one seriously? How would a "sideways" vagina even function? "Sure," says a former Forbidden City fan dancer, facetiously. "It's just like eating corn on the cob."
Forbidden City, USA. Directed by Arthur Dong. Deep Focus Productions, 1989. Restored 2015.
Mak, Derwin. "The Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome in Chinese North American Science Fiction and Fantasy." The New York Review of Science Fiction #348. August 2018. 1, 10-14.