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Forbidden City, USA Reviews

A fascinating documentary about San Francisco nightclub Forbidden City, which, starting in the late 1940s and continuing through the early '60s, featured an all-Asian cast of singers, showgirls and comedians and catered to a largely non-Asian clientele. The brainchild of Nevada-born Chinese-American entrepreneur Charlie Low, Forbidden City simultaneously defied and encouraged Asian-American stereotypes. Its floor shows offered popular songs; tap, ballroom and ballet-influenced dance numbers; and comedy acts firmly rooted in mainstream entertainment, like dancer Dottie Sun's parody of Little Egypt-esque exotic dancing, complete with camp snakey hand gestures. But the decor was a riot of kitsch orientalia and performers — particularly women — were promoted as exotic, mysterious and ineffably alien — the nadir was surely an ad promoting Sally Rand-style "bubble dancer" Noel Toy by asking, "Is it true what they say about Chinese girls?" Featured entertainers were regularly billed as the Chinese Fred Astaire (Paul Wing), the Chinese Sophie Tucker (Toy Yat Mar), the Chinese Frank Sinatra (Larry Ching) and the Chinese Ginger Rodgers (Dorothy Takahashi Toy). The irony amid the exotica: the overwhelming majority of dancers and singers were American through and through, born and raised in the US (many in small towns where they were the only Asians), weaned on Hollywood movies and thoroughly removed from traditional Chinese cultural forms. Filmmaker Arthur Dong's juxtaposition of vintage clips and photographs and contemporary interviews with Forbidden City dancers, singers, patrons and employees create a rich portrait of both the club itself and the larger cultural forces that shaped it. The interviewees share candid recollections of prejudice encountered in show business circles (Asian dance teams, for example, were offered bookings only for Chinese New Year festivals), Asian communities (older Chinese immigrants regularly told the female dancers they should be ashamed of themselves because no properly brought-up Chinese girl would show her legs in public) and in the streets, including bewildering encounters with segregation in the South — Toy Yat Mar recalls boarding a bus and briefly wondering whether to sit in the black or the white section before electing to settle squarely in the middle. But they persevered, and share their memories with a combination of pride, sadness, amusement and gentle nostalgia for the part they played in a nearly forgotten chapter in pop cultural history.