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San Francisco Club Boosted Asian American Entertainers from Hawai‘i

Collectors Weekly
Collectors Weekly

Collectors Weekly
Credit Collectors Weekly

More than sixty years ago, a San Francisco nightclub helped a number of entertainers from Hawai‘i make their mark in show business. 

The club is the topic of a re-mastered documentary and a new book by filmmaker Arthur Dong, who was recently here at the Hawaii International Film Festival. HPR contributing reporter Heidi Chang has the story.

In 1938, a different kind of nightclub opened in San Francisco…just outside of Chinatown. It was called “Forbidden City”—and it featured Asian American performers.  And many of them had conservative parents who did not want them to become entertainers.  Mai Tai Sing says “Because it's not a high-class job. It's low grade. Dancing. Showing your legs and everything. But then it got exciting”.

Mai Tai Sing was part of a new generation that took to the stage. She started dancing as a chorus girl at the club in the 1940s and became one of its stars.  Now in her 90’s and living in Hawai‘i, Sing recalls Forbidden City had it all. Dancers, comedians and singers like Larry Ching, from Hawaii, who was billed as the “Chinese Frank Sinatra”

(MUSIC: LARRY CHING sings “Somewhere there's music, how faint the tune. Somewhere there's heaven, how high the moon.”)

In its heyday, Forbidden City attracted celebrities, servicemen, locals and busloads of tourists.  Jazz singer Jimmy Borges, who was born in Hawaii to a Portuguese, Chinese and Hawaiian family, shared his favorite story about performing there before he died earlier this year.

Borges says "And I was singing “Fever” 'Never know how much I love you, never know how much I care. You give me fever...' And this lady, she was looking at me and there was this look in her eye of complete mystification. And she says to her husband, 'oh, Charlie, he sings just like a white man.' And that was so funny because she didn't mean it in a bad way. She meant it like she had never seen anybody like me sing a song that was made famous by a white person."

Borges said back then, there were few opportunities for Asian Pacific Americans in show business.  And they had to overcome racial and cultural barriers.  He says “Forbidden City allowed us to be pioneers, and we opened the doors for so many young Asians who wanted to get into the world of entertainment in any way, shape or form”.

Arthur Dong has captured that little-known era in his film and new book, Forbidden City, USA: Chinatown Nightclubs, 1936-1970.  Dong says “These people were rebels. And they weren't going to let larger societal bigotry get in their way. And they had fun doing it. These folks had a lot of fun struggling to achieve their dreams."

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