Forbidden City (nightclub)

Forbidden City (nightclub)

The Forbidden City was a Chinese-themed nightclub and cabaret in business from the late 1930s to the late 1950s at 363 Sutter Street (the former space is now renumbered 369 Sutter Street) in San Francisco's Chinatown.cite web|url=|accessdate=2007-10-12|publisher=the virtual museum of the City of San Francisco|title=Ronald Reagan at Charlie Low's Forbidden City] The Forbidden City featured Asian American singers, dancers, chorus lines, magicians, strippers, and musicians. It was popular with military personnel who were transiting through San Francisco during World War II. The novel, and in turn the musical and film "Flower Drum Song" were inspired by the Forbidden City, as was the 1989 documentary, "Forbidden City U.S.A".


Charlie Low opened the Forbidden City in 1938, naming it after the Forbidden City in Beijing. It was the first, and most famous, among approximately 12 Asian-themed cabaret clubs in Chinatown. [cite web|url=|accessdate=2007-10-12|publisher=San Francisco Performing Arts Library|title=The Jazz Age in Chinatown] . It thrived during World War II, and throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

In 1957 author C. Y. Yee wrote a best-selling novel, "Flower Drum Song", set at the Forbidden City. Rodgers and Hammerstein created a popular musical from the book in 1958, which has had several revivals, the most recent by David Henry Hwang in 2001-2002. In 1961 a Hollywood film was made from the musical. These portrayals did little to help the club, however. By the late 1950s it was facing increasing competition from more explicit shows, such as the Condor Club in North Beach. The club converted briefly to a Strip Club before closing in 1962. [cite news|publisher=San Francisco Chronicle|url=|author=Ben Fong-Torres|accessdate=2007-10-12|title=Forbidden Dreams:Paying tribute long after the fact|date=2003-06-29] The space was destroyed by a fire in the 1980s, but the building survived and was used as a computer instruction center as of 2000.

An hour-long documentary, "Forbidden City, U.S.A", was filmed in the mid 1980s and released in 1989, featuring most of the original cast. The documentary led indirectly to a second singing career for Larry Ching, the club's "Chinese Frank Sinatra."


The Forbidden City has been compared to an Asian-American version of the Cotton Club, in that it featured an all-ethnic cast of performers for a mostly white audience, performing to the popular tastes of the time rather than in stereotyped or authentic ethnic roles.cite book|title=A History of Asian American Theatre|author=Esther Kim Lee|accessdate=2007-10-12|publisher=Cambridge UniversityPress|date=2006|url=] However, some acts played up the supposed exoticism of ethnic Chinese, as well as sensuality of Chinese women. The owner, Charlie Low, generated publicity by nicknaming the performers after famous mainstream celebrities (the "Chinese Frank Sinatra", the "Chinese Fred Astaire", and so on). Part of the club's appeal to both audiences and performers was the "racial cross-dressing" of placing Asian Americans into traditionally white entertainer roles, and the racial dialog that came out of the varying level of success of the various performers had in fitting into these roles.

For many visitors from middle-America, Forbidden City was their first encounter with people of Asian ethnicity.. San Francisco's Asian population was approximately 4.2% of the population in 1940, versus 0.2% for all of the United States. [cite book|title=Historical Census Statistics on Population Data by Race|author=Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung|publisher=US Census Bureau|date=2005|accessdate=2007-10-12|url=] Although the cast included Filipino Americans, Japanese Americans (except during World War II, when the club's Japanese American performers were removed as part of the Japanese American internment), Korean Americans and other Asian Americans, they were presented to audiences as Chinese.

The club itself seated 300, and also contained elaborate dressing rooms and stage area. Typical of the clubs of the time, it contained pictures in front of Low greeting famous guests.

An evening's entertainment at Forbidden City included a full Chinese or American dinner followed by dancing, then a floor show.. Acts were a combination of vaudeville and burlesque-style performances, including singing, tap dancing, ballroom dancing, skits, slapstick, tumbling, and parodies of American cowboy scenes.cite book|title=Picturing Chinatown: Art and Orientalism in San Francisco|author=Anthony W. Lee|url=|publisher=University of California Press|date=2001]

The club also formed a touring company that played across the United States and Canada, as well as USO shows worldwide.

Notable performers

A number of Asian American musicians, actors, and other celebrities either started their professions at the Forbidden City, or are famous for performing there. During the early years of the club the performers' salaries, modest as they were, provided rare employment opportunities for Asian-Americans suffering under the discriminatory laws of the time.

* Jack Soo got his break in Flower Drum Song when he was discovered working there as MC, and was eventually cast as the MC and night club owner in the Broadway musical and film, and later became one of the most prominent Asian American actors.
* Larry Ching, the "Chinese Frank Sinatra" performed here, from slightly after the club opened until slightly before it closed.
* Noel Toy, the "Chinese Sally Rand", performed a burlesque fan dance and bubble dance.
* Katy de la Cruz, the "Queen of Filipino Jazz", was a top-billed performer during the late 1940s to early 1950s. [cite news | author= Ricky Lo |url= |title =Katy de la Cruz: Remembering Mommy Kate | publisher=Philippine Star/Philippine Headline News Online |date=2004-12-20 |accessdate=2008-03-14 ]
* Toy Yat Mar, the "Chinese Sophie Tucker".
* Stanley Toy, the "Chinese Fred Astaire".
* Dorothy Fong Toy, the "Chinese Ginger Rogers".
* Ah Hing, the "Chinese Harry Houdini".
* Charlie Low, owner, often served as MC, entertained celebrity guests, and took part in comedy skits.
* Li Tei Ming, singer (Charlie Low's wife).
* The Tai Sings, ballroom dancers.


External links

* [ Web page] from the [ Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco] .
*"Forbidden City U.S.A." (film, 1989). By Arthur Dong, produced by [ Deep Focus Productions] .

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