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Forbidden City: The Golden Age of Chinese American Nightclubs
Main Library, Jewett Gallery, April 12 – July 6, 2014
It was the mid-1930s. Prohibition was repealed and the Great Depression was waning, creating new opportunities and setting the stage for the rise of Chinese American nightclubs and performers, which flourished from the 1930s–1960s. Cabarets with names like Forbidden City, Kublai Khan, Chinese Skyroom, China Doll, and the New Shanghai Terrace Bowl were venues where Chinese American singers and dancers could perform regularly, drawing non-Asian patrons, and creating dismay for the elders in Chinatowns across the country, who viewed such performances as immoral.
Forbidden City, U.S.A.: Chinese American Nightclubs, 1936-1970, curated by award-winning filmmaker Arthur Dong, is a ground-breaking exhibition that chronicles the history and legacy of this little known Chinese American story, including all of its magic and glamour. Mr. Dong, who spent over 30 years researching the clubs and their predecessors, located mainly in San Francisco, but also in New York and Oakland, collected original programs, photographs, print ads and feature stories, and menus and other dining room ephemera that are featured in the exhibition.
Chinatowns and their inhabitants in the 1930s were at the crossroads of social and political developments. Socially, second and third generations of Chinese Americans were coming of age and seeking a foothold in popular culture, and the clubs created this opportunity. Around the corner, World War II loomed and San Francisco and New York City were to become major ports of call for thousands of service men, creating a new clientele for the clubs.
Among the oldest material to be displayed at Forbidden City, U.S.A.: Chinese American Nightclubs, 1936-1970 is sheet music – dating from 1912 – that features vaudeville singers like Lady Sen Mei (star of pioneer filmmaker James B. Leong’s Lotus Blossom), Chee Toy, Lee Lung Foo (who later played Boris Karloff’s servant in the Mr. Wongfilm series), Jue Fong (the “Distinguished Chinese Tenor”) and the Chinese Syncopators. These examples depict the earliest evidence of Chinese American singers venturing onto the America stage; indeed some of America’s initial nightclub performers originated from vaudeville.
Arthur Dong is a two-time Rockefeller Media Arts Fellow as well as a Guggenheim Fellow in Film. He has served on the boards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Film Independent, OutFest, and the National Film Preservation Board at the Library of Congress. His honors include three Sundance Film Festival awards, an Oscar nomination, a Peabody Award, the Berlin Film Festival’s Teddy Award, Taipei’s Golden Horse Award, and five Emmy nominations.
These events are co-sponsored by the San Francisco History Center and the Chinese Center at the San Francisco Public Library, Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, the California Historical Society, The Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University, Chinese Historical Society of America, Museum of Performance + Design and City Guides and the Center for Asian American Media.
For more information about this exhibition and related programs, please call 415 557-4277.
Additional images available upon request.
Opening event: Curator Arthur Dong and the Grant Avenue Follies dancers – April 13, Main Library, Koret Auditorium, 1:00 p.m.
Author talk: Arthur Dong talks about his new book Forbidden City, U.S.A.: Chinese American Nightclubs 1936-1970. – May 6, Main Library, Koret Auditorium, 6:00 p.m. Book sales by Readers Books follows the event.
Chinatown Walking Tour with City Guides: Discover the history of America’s oldest Chinatown. – Saturday, May 10, 11:00 a.m. Reservations required. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Meet author Lisa See when she talks about her new book China Doll – June 12, Main Library, Koret Auditorium, 6:30 p.m. Book sales by Readers Books follows the event.