Dear Constant Reader,
Today’s review was suggested by one of my Patrons, Sarah V. If you’d like to suggest items for me to review, you can join my Patreon at the “Advisory Committee” tier.
Forbidden City: The Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs by Trina Robbins (2010)
This was a particularly timely suggestion as Coby Yee, who is included in the book, was honored at this past BurlyCon.
Trina Robbins was taking tap dance lessons with some women who turned out to be former performers from the Asian nightclubs that proliferated in San Francisco from the 1930s to the 1960s. She wanted their stories to be more widely known, but hesitated to tell it as she’s not Asian. Instead, she let them speak for themselves. The book is a compilation of interviews with people involved with the nightclubs and photos from the heyday.
San Francisco had a number of Chinese nightclubs, mostly on Grant Avenue, with Asian owners and performers but mostly non-Asian audiences, including many celebrities.The best known club was the Forbidden City, originally owned by Charlie Low and later by Coby Yee. Other clubs included the Kubla Khan, the Lion’s Den, and the Chinese Palace.
The book is divided into the following chapters.
The Clubs introduces the nightclubs and those who ran them.
The Golden Age 1937-1950 tells stories from when the the Chinese nightclubs were at the height of their popularity.
In The Silver Age The 1950s-1970 the Chinese nightclubs, like other nightclubs, lost customers as culture shifted away from glamorous floorshows.
Grant Avenue Follies is about the non-profit dance troupe formed by veterans of the nightclubs.
Curtain Call lists the interview subjects and “where are they now”.
Addendum is a photo tour of the sites of the former nightclubs.
The first four chapters are filled with interviews from those connected to the clubs and plenty of photos. There are also a few newspaper articles. The author adds a tiny bit of commentary and context at the beginning of each one, but for the most part she just lets the history be told by those who lived it.
My only real disappointment was that there was no information about Noel Toy, The Chinese Sally Rand. I had been hoping to learn more about her, but instead there were plenty of other performers with fascinating stories. I was particularly struck by the one about Jadin Wong having to jump out of a military plane as she was headed to entertain the troops. She did the show despite her wardrobe and makeup having gone down with the plane.
Trina Robbins has done a great service by preserving the words and stories of the people who remember this bit of entertainment history.